The lake house: Like a business, it’s a legacy

Last updated on July 1st, 2019 at 01:57 pm

Ask any native Wisconsinite and they will tell you about their family lake home in Eagle River, Rhinelander, Lake Country… It is a part of our culture in this state – rich or poor – to have family with a lake home.

April 1 marked the 75th year my family has owned a lake home on Silver Lake. Portage, Wautoma, Salem and West Bend are all home to a Silver Lake in Wisconsin, but our home happens to be on the latter.

The home was purchased during the Second World War as an escape in the event of a Nazi attack. Yes, they really worried about things like that back then. My family was German, and even changed its name to Sommers from the more Teutonic equivalent back in World War I out of concerns for prejudice and conscription.

I am the fourth generation, followed by three children who are the fifth and one grandson who is the sixth, to reside at the lake. Each member of the fifth generation has been baptized in that lake. To say it means something to us as a family is an understatement.

So why do I write about this in a business magazine? What is the lesson for the family business owner?

The lake home, much like the family business, is the legacy. Long after my great-grandmother Barbara passed, her descendants are talking about her contribution to the family. The lake home, affectionately known as Sommer Schloss, has been the gathering place for all these years for our family. We have recreated there, celebrated birthdays and holidays, and even shed a tear or two, along with an occasional fight. The fights usually happened around the time when the piers and the boatlifts went in, which are particularly high-tension days around the house. These are what we call “all-hands on deck” days, even for the in-laws (or outlaws, if you prefer).

Up to the fourth generation, we have been lucky there are not fights about who gets the lake home, as the previous three generations were only children. My wife and I had to go and break the string and now three children, all adults, are in the picture. Much like the family business, a tough decision is ahead. Somebody is going to get the lake home and two are going to be unhappy, unless they don’t want it, which isn’t the case. Or unless they all get the house and share it, which doesn’t work – trust me.

I am aware of a family business with multiple children and the father just walked away. They decided to rotate the management of the company – two years on and four years off. Then there was the family that decided to give the company to one child and exclude the other two, despite their interest.

Lake homes and family businesses share a common challenge…who gets them when we are gone?

The common best practice of the day says family businesses should not be given, but earned and paid for. Perhaps lake homes should follow the same fate? None of the kids get the home, and the first one to buy it who pays the most gets it.

But is this fair? If you have read my articles before, you know that I do not equate fair with equal. Being equal does not create fairness, either in business or life. Another common wisdom of the day is to make them earn it, be it the family business or the firm. Who helps with the maintenance? Who spends the most time there? Who cares the most?

A lake home is a legacy to be left for generations to come. As a business owner, it is the type of thing we talk about when discussing your legacy. The legacy doesn’t always have to be something tangible or of worth. Time spent is often considered of more value than money, which is again why a lake home makes sense as it offers a place to recreate and share stories of the family while making memories. Providing a place where generations can gather and recreate is priceless and a legacy that will pay dividends long after someone is gone. The financial dividends are not too bad, either. Great-grandma bought the home for $4,000 and today the home is more than 100 times that value. Perhaps when adjusted for inflation the stock market would return more, but when adjusted for emotions, the lake home keeps giving for eternity.

So to 75 years at the lake – Prost!

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David Borst
Dr. Borst is the retired Dean of Business at Concordia University. He started up five businesses under borstthebrand.com and is COO of the Family Business Legacy Institute. He can be heard every Saturday morning as Dr. Dave at 6:20am on WTMJ radio with the FBLI show- "All Business". Dr. Borst is an entrepreneur, author, speaker, and blogger of a variety of topics from religion to politics or any of the topics you are not supposed to discuss.