Share |

Rebuilding more than the WTC

Mike O'Malley is a consultant, lecturer and executive coach. He specialises in developing solutions for the relationship problems among business members, outside stakeholders and management.

September 11 caught the world by surprise. One year on, the World Trade Center isn't the only thing being rebuilt – many family businesses have to face tough decisions on succession, sales, hiring and development

The attacks of September 11 in the US caught the world by surprise, thowing a major monkey wrench into carefully laid plans – for succession, sales, hiring and development – that now have to be rethought and rebuilt. 

September 2002: out of control
Steve called his first meeting this month, at a diner down the street from his office, to try and regain control of the family business from his father. All of his allies from the advisory board were there, except Ted. "I've heard enough," Ted said at the last meeting, "I don't know how to help you and I don't know how to help your dad either."

At least this time, before Steve started his usual rant about his father, he asked everyone in the room how their day was (usually he just started right in). "My dad can't keep doing it this way. It might have bailed him out in the past, but it won't work this time. He's got to listen to me and you've got to find a way to get him to sit down and make him do it. I need your support on hiring Larry – we need him. If my dad doesn't listen to me, I'm through and so is the business." 

Mike tried to calm him down. "Listen, Steve, your dad's doing the best he can. I've known Robert my whole life and when he's under pressure he won't listen to anyone, including me. He believes he's the only who knows how to fix this and no one is going to convince him otherwise. Take the advice that I gave you last time – do it his way, play by the rules – be a good son." 

Mike's words had no effect on Steve. "I'm sick of waiting it out; I've been doing that for the last five years. We had deal and September 11 should not have changed that deal. He should still be down in North Carolina fishing and golfing, not up here running the business. This is my business now, not his. He gave me the responsibility and authority to do what I saw fit; he has no right to take that away. I swear if I could go to Afghanistan and help hunt down bin Laden, I'd leave this minute. He did more than just terrorise our country and kill 3,000 people; he killed my dream."

June 2001: the calm before the storm
"Steve," said Robert, "I'm going to leave earlier than I planned. Your mother wants to have a leisurely drive and make a few stops on the way down. And anyway, there's not much for me to do and not much that I want to do; I'm ready for my retirement to begin right now. I like your idea of hiring Larry for international, but be careful, nothing burns up cash quicker than sending someone overseas.

"And like I told you, I think $100,000 sounds like too much for the computer upgrade – but if you think it's good value, I won't stop you. Just don't be afraid to put off some of that work until next year if the economy stays soft. I've been through these down cycles before and you really need to watch the cash."

"I got it, Dad," assured Steve. "Don't worry, just enjoy your retirement in North Carolina. Like we agreed, I'll keep you posted with weekly updates and if I run into any big problems, I'll give you a call." 

11 September 2001: disaster strikes
8.45am: Tower One hit
9.32am: Tower Two hit
10.35am: Tower One collapses
11.15am: Tower Two collapses

November 2002: abandoned plans
"Steve, I don't care what you promised Larry, tell him we're sorry but we're pulling our offer," dictated Robert, back at the helm after a short-lived retirement. "We're not going to spend money on any new hires and we're especially not going to spend money on international – my God, look at we just went through. The last thing we need to do is to do anything different. We need to tighten up and stick to what got us here. I'm not interested in anything, any idea, or any effort that's outside of what's worked for me in the past. It's back to basics; we need to find another major client to replace Jet Red, and the only way to do that is to start knocking on doors.

Steve tried to make his father understand his view. "Dad, that's not going to work, it's going to take too much time and there isn't another customer like Jet Red; the airline companies are dead. I've been begging you for years to diversify, to not keep us so dependent on them. But you kept on saying, 'They're too big for anything to happen to them'. It's like doing business with the government; the government can't go out of business. Well, the government just did.

"You gave me the authority to make my own decisions, to run this business as I saw fit – September 11, as devastating as it was, shouldn't change that. It's a different type of crisis than we've ever faced, but it's still a crisis, and I can handle it. I appreciate that you want to come back, take charge and do things you're way, but you're wrong. Yes, I need to adjust my plan but it shouldn't be scrapped, nor should I."

"Steve, here me loud and clear," rebutted Robert. "This is not just another economic crisis, a cyclical downturn in the market. We're in unknown territory, the unthinkable has happened and no one knows what tomorrow will bring. We as Americans are vulnerable, and I as a business owner am vulnerable; my existence is at stake. The best thing for me to do in this crisis is what I've done in every other crisis, but I just have to do more of it.

"I don't have a lot of time to think about your feelings or the deal we made," continued Robert. "Someday when this is all over we can go back and take another look, but for now I've got a business to save and I need you to do it my way or stay out of the way."

The response
Robert's response of 'taking charge and resuming command' was typical of many family business owners after September 11. It didn't mater if they had been out of their business for three years or three months. If there was a way for them to get back in, they went back in. They were not going to leave the fate of their business in anyone's hands other than their own. And they didn't care whose feelings were going to be hurt or whose ego was going to take a blow. As Robert said: "I'll worry about the consequences of my relationship with Steve later, but at the moment, it's not even on my radar."

Our most basic of instincts is to protect ourselves when we're threatened. And since the family business is, for most owners, just an extension of themselves, Robert and others did what happens automatically: take and revert to the practices and behaviours that worked for them during the other times when they've been threatened.    

And what about Steve? What about his reaction? All children in family businesses, but especially designated heirs, have to deal with the stereotypes that come with the label of, "he's the bosses son." The label, especially for those with lower self-esteem, usually results in them behaving in ways to show: a) they're as good as or better than the 'old man'; b) they don't need to work here; and c) they don't seek dad's approval or permission for how they run their life. Consequently, you often see things like the child forming a power base outside to compete with dad's; being an active conspirator to undermine one of his initiatives; marrying the 'wrong person' and behaving badly to subordinates.

When Robert returned from retirement and relieved Steve from his duties, Steve went from behaving like a boss to behaving like the boss's son. In other words, as his dad turned on him, Steve turned on his dad. If Robert was going to humiliate Steve, delivering the message for all to see of, "my son isn't qualified to get us through this", then Steve was going to revert back to behaviour he had left behind years ago; namely, making his dad look dated, his ideas stale and his presences in the business a nuisance and liability.  

Currently, Robert and Steve are still working together; it is an uneasy and strained partnership. Robert is doing things his way and having, as Steve predicted, limited success. Steve doesn't believe that his father will ever leave the business again; all the work they put towards succession planning is down the tubes. Steve wants out but at the moment there are not too many places for him to go. So they live side by side, both despising the spot therein and in many ways despising one another.

It will take years for the WTC to be rebuilt. But it will be rebuilt, with something as magnificent as what once stood there. In fact, it will be easier and take less time to rebuild the WTC than it will for Robert to rebuild his business and, more importantly, his relationship with Steve.

Click here >>