David C. Bentall’s new book is titled Dear Younger Me: Wisdom for Family Enterprise Successors. If the title isn’t indicative of what the book’s topics are, I don’t know what is. In bell-clear, concise prose, Bentall makes meat out of something that is as much leadership and business advice guide as it is memoir, as much self-help as it is a rumination on family values, lack of communication, and the simultaneous pains that can rise from said lack of communication on a professional and personal set of levels. Sometimes, Bentall is willing to just spell it out like it is. To reinforce how painfully timeless some of the frustrations, jealousies, and competitions between family members – especially over inherited enterprises – really can be. “It was all so simple when Granddad (Charles) handed the leadership over to Dad (Clark),” Bentall writes summarily in this vein. “There had been no formal discussions—from the beginning Granddad had assumed that it would be his decision when he would relinquish his title.
It should be noted that at that time, 1955, primogeniture (the practice of passing the family wealth or business to the eldest son) was the typical approach for determining the next generation leader for the family business. In those days, the primary qualifications for leadership were birth order and gender. Yet, despite its simplicity, primogeniture is no guarantee that there will be no hard feelings…My granddad was generally a collaborative and inclusive leader. But as the sole owner and president of the business, he was also free to make the final call on almost every corporate decision. My dad, Clark, observed (and learned) this leadership approach as he worked alongside Charles for 17 years. When Clark was appointed president, he very naturally assumed a similar kind of authority.
Neither Charles nor Clark governed autocratically, as both men invited others to contribute their thoughts regarding all important matters. However, both believed that, in the end, the ultimately decision-making authority should belong with the president. There were no formal board meetings or shareholder discussions when Charles led the company, and this pattern continued into the next generation. This informal approach to governance meant that Bob and Howard were equal owners with Clark, but they lacked equal decision-making authority. In a sense, Clark outranked them because of his senior role in management. That was the reality.”
“Differences of opinion often spark an emotional response, but these reactions are typically much stronger in the context of a family business. In retrospect, it is clear that emotions added significantly to the problems our family experienced,” Bentall subsequently adds. “…On their best days, Howard had a pastor’s heart, Bob was a planner, and Clark was a consummate dealmaker. However, on their worst days, Howard could be dogmatic, Bob, defensive, and Clark, stubborn. Unfortunately, once feelings began to dominate, we saw the worst and not the best in each man.
Rather than drawing on their strengths, they each relied on their less helpful tendencies. As a result, differences were unresolved, and as events spiralled out of control, fraternal relationships were shattered, and our family business was lost. Sadly, our emotions had gotten the better of all of us.”