The End: When the family business dies

Last updated on July 3rd, 2019 at 01:30 pm

Okay, I admit it… I was a “Game of Thrones” junkie.

I came to the addiction later in life, around season 3 or 4, and then binge-watched to make sure we GOT the season all in during the one free week of HBO. Hey, we are Wisconsinites: It is either on sale all the time like Kohl’s or it is a buffet – all you can eat. Yes, I am cheap!

But let’s get to the end – the real end – because that is it. GOT is done! And now the arguments have started to fly. Would Dany have really ordered the burning of King’s Landing? Should all those families who named their daughters Khaleesi change their names now that she is emblematic of Holocaust-like death? And why did Jon Snow have to go and kill her? Even our very own golden boy Aaron Rodgers of house Green Bay Packers had a cameo and beef with the ending.

Aaron, stick to chugging beers at Bucks games and being cheap on paying for Danica’s drinks and let the expert take the analysis from here. That’s me…the expert…the GOT junkie.

Much like the House Lannister, family businesses don’t see it coming. They are so awash in their riches and plans for the future that they don’t even see the dragon in their midst. Speak to any family business about the end and they will banish you to the Watch. But the truth is, the end comes, or as Robert Bolt wrote in his play and then movie “A Man for All Seasons” about the life of Thomas More, “Death comes for us all.” But another truth is that many family businesses survive the death of the patriarch or matriarch. In fact, it is not this death of which I write. I write about the end of the business, the family legacy.

Let’s examine the end. The business can continue to another generation and then another, but at some point it will end. That end could come in being bought out, or run into the ground by the disappointing son – Sam Tarly – with the big heart and bigger girth. Or perhaps your fleet burns at the hands of a jilted lover with an angry hot-breathed dragon bent on bringing the Greyjoy family to the bottom of the sea. God forbid the family firm ends up in the hands of The Hand, who happens to be an imp…or the family cripple – Bran of House Stark. Explain to me how the lone female left with name and birthright gets her own kingdom if not for some nod to prevailing feminist winds of the day. Yes, the family business will end and it is unlikely to be a smooth landing. So, does that mean it should never have begun?

The vast majority of business owners I meet try to plan for every eventuality. They get prenups and postnups. They write wills and execute ethical wills all while still of this earth. They decide on passing the firm to the kids by interest, birthright, or who has the most cash at time of sale. But the truth of it is that most of the time the true end can’t be seen or planned for. So, like any good owner, you do your best. You get lawyers and financial planners on your team. You make sure your bankers know the passwords and the insurance agent has you covered. But did you plan on the blade to the gut by the one you love? Figuratively, for sure, but isn’t that the part of fate that just stinks? You never see your loved one as the one to bring you down…or the treason from those who surround you and call you friends, perhaps even business partners. Caesar took it in the back while at least Jon Snow stabbed Daenerys during a kiss. How biblical that kiss of betrayal.

So, should we never have a family business? In the immortal words of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, not of the House Targaryen, “’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” In other words, build that family business, but understand that in the end all good things must die. When they do, they will rarely die according to your plan.

For me, I would rather go out like The Hound, fighting my brother right into the flames, than fly off like the dragon never to be seen again. Besides, dragons eat too much at Thanksgiving dinner anyway.

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David Borst, Ed.D., is a former dean of the Concordia University Wisconsin School of Business. He currently sits on several boards, teaches at the doctoral level and runs the Milwaukee Lutheran High School honors academy. He can be reached at