Business-Owning Parents Struggle to Recruit the Kids

Business-Owning Parents Struggle to Recruit the Kids

by Robert Johnson
Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal

This article is reprinted by permission from

Justin Wyner would love to woo his youngest son, James, into the family’s successful fabric business. Trouble is, he can’t find his adventurous offspring, who’s out exploring remote parts of East Asia on a six-month vacation.

James Wyner, a 38-year-old Harvard-educated business consultant for McKinsey & Co. in New York, already has a good job, concedes his father, 74. “He’s working with the top executives of some pretty big companies about their directions; it’s heady stuff.” Besides, says the elder Mr. Wyner, “It must be a good job to get six months off on a leave of absence.”

Six months of leisure is unheard of at Mr. Wyner’s very on-the-beaten-path company, Shawmut Mills, a fourth-generation maker of materials for automobile seats, based in West Bridgewater, Mass. Still, the senior Mr. Wyner is searching for the right recruiting pitch and to “create a great situation” for James at the company.

Like many family business patriarchs, Mr. Wyner is passionate about what he thinks he can offer his children: “The family business is much more than a money tree,” he says. “It’s a symbol of integrity and quality. Through the business, they can carry on those things. Those were my motivations.”

But what motivates the parent may be monotony for the child — as many parents learn early on. If the child thinks your favorite sport is dull, that’s one thing. Often, though, it’s much harder to accept a child’s rejections to take over the business you have spent a lifetime building.

Some parents who have built family businesses struggle to recruit their kids, and the effort can drive deep wedges between the generations. “If you have to pressure them, it’s just like pleading with your child: ‘Baseball is so fun,'” says Jay F. Mattie, a partner at Pricewaterhouse Coopers in Boston, who consults with family businesses.

“Just because you fell in love with a business doesn’t mean they will,” says Margo Varta, president of Family Business Advisory International in Santa Monica, Calif. “And a shotgun wedding isn’t the way to build a relationship between the offspring and your company that will last.” If the recruitment is really a conscription, adds Ms. Varta, “the parents should just take themselves and the children out of their misery and get someone else to run the business or just sell the thing.”

In fact, only about one-third of family businesses in the U.S. are carried forward by the second generation. Getting your children to enthusiastically take the baton means persuading them early on that it’s an opportunity worth grabbing.

“You need to start before they get to the rebellious teenage years — at a time in their lives when they want to be like mom and dad and be where you are,” says Sidney Barton, a professor of management who specializes in family business issues at the University of Cincinnati. “The first thing you have to do is show them the right attitude when you come home from work. It’s natural to grouse about customers or suppliers, but if the kids hear a lot of complaining about the business and you’re not in the mood for leisure activities, that can make a lasting impression on them.”

Timing is Everything

What usually won’t last is the commitment to family businesses that offspring make reluctantly. Says Dr. Barton, “If they feel trapped, they may live lives of quiet desperation until the parents die. Then they sell quick and pursue other interests.”

Sometimes the best thing is to let the next generation pursue other interests first, and then recruit them if the timing seems right later. That’s Mr. Wyner’s strategy at Shawmut Mills. Sure, his son James has a great career at McKinsey & Co., but after all, he is taking six months off the job. Now might be the time for a talk, reasons Mr. Wyner. “He has invited me to meet him somewhere in Asia, maybe when he travels through India, later this year.”

Waiting for the right moment worked for John Bowman, 61, owner of Bowman Chevrolet Inc., in Clarkston, Mich. Mr. Bowman had been trying off-and-on to recruit his oldest daughter, Katie Bowman Coleman, now 35, since she graduated from college in 1986.

But Ms. Cole says she “wanted to be a ski bum for a while, and I planned a career in clothing retail — which I really love.”

So instead of accepting Mr. Bowman’s offer of a $35,000 job as manager of the Chevy dealership’s financing and insurance, his daughter abruptly moved to Jackson, Wyo., where she took a $9,000 job in a Polo Ralph Lauren Inc. discount store that allowed plenty of time off to focus on her skiing.

“I knew the kind of commitment I would have to make to dad at the dealership: long hours and a lot of responsibility,” she says. “I just wasn’t ready.”

Mr. Bowman was disappointed, and though he tried to avoid criticism, he admits he just couldn’t. “I said Wyoming sounds like an extension of college or something. It doesn’t sound like there’s a future in this.”

When that didn’t work, Mr. Bowman tried a mild punishment: Ending the custom he had of providing Katie with new Chevy “demo cars,” a benefit she had enjoyed throughout high school and college. “I said the demo cars would start again if she came to work at the dealership,” he says.

That didn’t work, either, says Ms. Coleman, who wasn’t surprised. “I knew I couldn’t leave home and have free cars forever,” she says. “But I couldn’t let that stop me.”

Out of Aces

For Mr. Bowman, the ineffectiveness of his demo-car card was stark reality: “After that and the nice salary, I didn’t have anything left to entice her with,” he says.

The retailing job in Wyoming was something of a compromise with adulthood, she says. “I had a ball skiing for a year and learning the first rung of the retail business. Most of my skiing friends were just slinging pizza — not thinking about careers at all.”

In 1987, after a year in Wyoming, Ms. Coleman informed her father she was headed back east, and for a moment he thought she would join him. Instead, she says, “Polo had offered me a transfer to New York to learn the buyers’ side of the retailing, and the city and job sounded very glamorous.”

After stints for Polo in New York and Sydney, Australia, Ms. Coleman moved closer to home in 1991 — opening a factory outlet store for the company in West Branch, Mich. But by then she felt a bit stalled in her retailing career. “I had done skiing, done New York and done the international career move,” she recalls. “And here I was back in Michigan.”

That’s when Mr. Bowman began recruiting her again. “I told her that she had all the experience to become one of the very few women in America to run a new-car dealership.”

His daughter tentatively agreed, but said she needed more education to eventually take over. She quit Polo in 1993 to work part time at the business while obtaining a master’s degree in finance from Walsh College in Troy, Mich. Next, she spent a year at the National Automobile Dealer Association’s Dealer Candidate Academy in Washington. She graduated in July 1998 with her father in attendance.

“At the academy she finally saw the true value of the dealership, and how interesting it can be,” says Mr. Bowman. “I’m involved in everything from personnel to landscaping and architecture to legal issues.”

Ms. Coleman — now married with one young daughter and another child due soon — says she loves the variety of her position as general manager, and enjoys trying to improve on the business her father built. She recently instituted a bonus for service-department workers of up to $10 per hour when they “up-sell,” or persuade customers to have additional maintenance work done. She also reorganized the Chevy body shop so it fixes about 30 cars a month, a 50% increase.

Both father and daughter describe her recruitment to the car business as a story with a happy ending, although both concede that Mr. Bowman never quite found the magic words. “But he never quit trying,” Ms. Coleman says. “And I’m glad he didn’t.”

One lesson of the Bowmans story is that unless you’re in a hurry to retire, it isn’t essential to enlist your child right after high school or college. “Let them sow their wild oats on someone else’s time,” says Azriela Jaffe, a family business consultant in Lancaster, Pa. “And let them get some valuable work experience on someone else’s time, too.”

Try It and See

Another strategy that works for some family-business owners is offering a no-strings tryout. That worked on Richard Babson, now 41, in 1991, when his father, Donald Babson, sought to lure him into Babson-United Cos., an investment advisory and publishing company in Wellesley, Mass.

“Up until then,” says the younger Mr. Babson, “I had no intention of entering the family enterprise.”

In fact, he had moved to Hawaii in the 1980s and started his own venture-capital firm specializing in film production. Although he concedes “it wasn’t going well,” and he was about to close his business, working for his father “wasn’t on my mind at all.”

That’s partly because Mr. Babson’s personality seemed at odds with that of his father, who died in 1997 at age 73. “He had been an Army drill sergeant as a young man, and when I was a kid, he told me, ‘When I say jump. You ask, How high?’ And he meant it.”

Richard Babson, by comparison, is a free spirit. “Hawaii was about the most laid-back place I could find to start a business,” he says. His hobbies, singing in a choral group and playing bridge, contrasted sharply with Donald Babson’s idea of a good time. “Work was his greatest recreation.”

When the senior Mr. Babson did take time off, he was most likely to perform volunteer work that his son remembers as right in character. “He liked to manage fund raising for universities and charities, and he was the one they would send out to twist your arm.”

Still, when his father called to make his pitch, he modified his usual forceful tone. “He just said, ‘Look, I don’t have anyone else to hand it over to. I’ll probably sell if you don’t want the business. Why don’t you come home and take a look at it. Work here for a year and see.'”

The understanding that it would be temporary unless he wanted it otherwise appealed to the younger Mr. Babson. But when his father started him off in the investment department, he resumed his imperious manner. “He said, ‘Just shut up, listen and soak it all up.'”

No Shackles

The two formed a sometimes uneasy union in which Richard Babson remained essentially a temporary worker and executive for six years until his father’s death. “He constantly evaluated me, and I did the same to him,” says the younger Mr. Babson. “There were times when I almost walked away, and one reason I didn’t is that I knew I wasn’t stuck there — I hadn’t signed on permanently.”

And in his mind, he still hasn’t, even though his father left him in charge as chief executive officer upon his death. “I think any good executive should frequently re-evaluate the best use of his human resources, including his own,” he says. “I think you should never stop asking yourself, ‘What else would I rather be doing?’ If there isn’t anything within reason, fine.”

As for his career there, he says he’s “very blessed in finding challenges and fulfillment.”

Ironically, Mr. Babson, who doesn’t have children, is nonetheless brainstorming ways to keep the company in the family when he retires. “I do have some nieces and nephews, and I’ll probably try to get them in here as interns when they’re old enough.”

And if any of them are brilliant enough to have career options that beckon more strongly than running Babson-United? “I’ll say you could just try it,” he says.

This article is reprinted by permission from, © 2002 Dow Jones & Co. Inc. All rights reserved.


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