retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Not every discussion on business challenges today needs to focus on emerging technologies, social media or new demographics. Sometimes the biggest challenges come from the world’s oldest issues: family dynamics and mortality.

The reality is that no titan of business, no matter how creative, successful or wealthy gets to run his or her company forever. The follow-up reality is that somehow many of those same businesses go on and sometimes do even better. As Charles de Gaulle, the legendary French leader, said long ago, “The graveyards are full of indispensable men.”

Yet for some companies, that legacy never occurs and frequently it’s because no one thought the unthinkable: what happens when I'm gone.

This is hardly an issue for family businesses alone. Even publicly traded companies have struggled with succession issues ranging from chaos to palace coups to destructive infighting. But the story somehow takes on a sadder tone when the battle is within a family and the casualties run much deeper.

The Washington Post magazine ran a fascinating story about one such intra-family squabble this weekend, with an interesting twist. The family business being threatened in this case is an incredible natural wonder, Luray Caverns. Located about two hours from Washington, DC, the caverns are an awesome place to visit. I hardly know a thing about stalagmites or spelunking and I rarely opt for any activity that leaves me deep under the ground, but Luray is a joy.

However, there isn’t so much joy for the family that owns and operates the cavern. The Post story detailed the long and tortured path of disharmony and litigation tearing apart the aptly named Graves family. The dispute sullied the final years of their parents’ lives and now tears the couple’s six children into two distinct camps.

Needless to say, the business is threatened too. Thanks to the nature of this particular family business - the third most visited caverns in the US and the most visited in the east - the casualties of the battle include the surrounding town that feeds off the tourist traffic.

The Luray story reads as a cautionary tale of business transition because the Graves family actually started by doing things right. The family succession seemed to be proceeding well until the decisions of the new generation became more questionable, more divisive and eventually toxic. For that reason, it’s the type of story that many business leaders need read and discuss with key staff to determine how their own plans are structured. Perhaps the Luray story can help countless other businesses have what might be the single most difficult conversation they might ever have.

We’re fond here at of using stories from movies. (You might have noticed this.) When it comes to succession planning, my favorite story comes from the movie many consider the apex of all business lessons, The Godfather.

A few years ago, I was speaking to a group of independent operators about succession planning, which many in the group had managed to ignore. So I mentioned The Godfather. The famously insightful Vito Corleone sees what happened when he was seriously wounded and his hot-tempered eldest son takes over the “family business.” Many people die, including the son.

Corleone learns his lesson and taps Michael, his youngest son, to take over. In the process he skips the obviously less skilled and intelligent, yet older son, Fredo. (Okay, many people still die, but it’s a book and movie about gangsters.)

After the speech, one very concerned retailer grabbed me for a private discussion. The metaphor, he said, made him think about his business and his two sons. The older, he said, was his Fredo; nice and committed, but simply not cut out to lead. The younger was his Michael.

Suddenly he realized the future of his family business required an extremely uncomfortable discussion. The same is likely true for you.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
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