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Portrait of a family business

family farm business

“I would sincerely like to thank you for showing me what it means to hold onto something too long,” writes John R. Brandt in a satirical piece by a fictional CEO who is departing from a mismanaged family company, Bilgewater Inc.

I suspect that a good number of people who have worked for family-owned businesses will recognize the cast of characters:

To Old Man Bilgewater, 102 years old: Our CEO writes, “I will always remember these board meetings fondly, if only for how you demonstrated how important it was to remain awake, pay attention, and to not be sexist, racist, homophobic or a thousand other horrible attributes. I realize those are low bars, but you sailed beneath each of them with flags flying high every time.”

To CFO Mike “The Mercury Flash” Bilgewater: “Thanks for once again waiting—despite having a month to prepare—until 11:30 the night before the meeting to email 187 pages of financials, along with a note imploring us to read everything before our 7:30 a.m.”

To Stan “The Dumbest Man” Bilgewater: “I’m grateful you’ve been here, not only for your advice—always as comical as it is useless—but also for the fact that you somehow maintained your role after being nearly sanctioned or disbarred in every single state in which we operate.”

Responses to Brandt’s piece were not entirely sympathetic: “I’d rather work with a family-owned company than a generic corporate entity. Why? Because family owners have significant ‘skin in the game’ while too many managers at corporations are there just for a paycheck.”

From someone in a family-run company: “This is bizarre (and not all that funny). I guess the target audience is the huge population of those working at small family run corporations that have either (1) outlived their own success (note Old Man @ 102 years couldn’t have been that ‘stupid’ for his company to presumably last several generations), or perhaps (2) have not sold out their employees to the multinational holding company that offered to move the operation overseas.”

There are many family-owned businesses in the produce industry. My personal impression is that they are mostly well-run, with highly dedicated and competent employees, family members or not. (After all, these businesses are still around.)

Yet family-run businesses have their own peculiar problems. Yes, there are family members who are incompetent and are there only because they can’t get a job anywhere else. No matter how bad they may be, they are usually not fired.

Because the business does involve family, tensions and animosities are likely to be much more deeply ingrained than in the typical operation, where people have usually worked for only a few years and don’t have any history further back.

And when family members are on staff, what should be purely business decisions become matters of family dynamics. What may be good for the company may not sell to some or all parties, whose intelligence and competence do not always accord with their degree of ownership.

For several years, I worked for a family business myself. It was successful for many generations (although I can recognize some of the characters above). But in the end, family disputes and tensions had their final say, and the business was sold out to a large corporation.

At least it wasn’t overseas.


Richard Smoley, contributing editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published 12 books.