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Family Business? The Next Generation?

Peter Willson - Willson International

President & CEO at Willson International Limited

I want to say right up front, emphatically, I believe in the Family Business and all it conveys.  The benefits to the economy, to society and to the family, with all its challenges, and all its glory.  

At the age of 46, I purchased my family business from my father.  I’m the youngest of 4 children, and for various reasons that I had nothing to do with, I was the only one afforded an opportunity to work in our business which ultimately put me in that position.  

The day I started work, on February 7, 1997, I became a 4th generation of our family to be involved in our business.  I came to this through no apparent (at least to me) genesis that identified my skill to do this.  I think I just happened to be the last man standing.  As children, my father had a successful career in Canada in publishing and then the oil industry and was able to retire in his mid 40’s.  During that time, our business was managed professionally with oversight from my  father.  As a way to ensure this didn’t become a multi-family business, my father chose to lead by example and exclude my siblings and me from the business, as he did his partners children.  He didn’t want anyone to feel entitled. 

But after a handful of years in retirement, he decided to become active in the management and growth of our business, and as he began that path, I remember a conversation around if I was interested in continuing the business.  If not, he’d eventually maximize his return and sell to a strategic competitor.  But if I was interested then I could begin working at the company and see how things went.  I assumed that meant a combination of my interest, and capability; and that he’d be the judge of the latter.  

 So in 1986 I began working summers in our business.  But ingrained in me by that time was a desire to “make my own mark”, and I think an urging from my father to build the start of a career outside of the family business.  I needed to learn to stand on my own two feet.  And in any number of articles I’ve read on family business this is the basic view.  Let your children explore the world, and gain some competency and self worth outside of the business. 

In his Wall Street Journal piece,  Wayne Rivers discussed that today parents avoid any pressure or suggestion to their children on following them into the family business.  In many cases, by the time the parents would like to pass the business on, they’ve done everything they can to alienate the children from the business.

In my case, I went to engineering school (which I never intended to follow as a profession), then I moved onto an MBA, and became a professional accountant and practiced for five years with a big four accounting firm. All the way along, I had in my mind I wanted to join the business.

Now I look back and wonder, was all of that process, education, work (almost 11 years from my first summer of work) worth it?  Did my education and training make me a better employee when I joined the business?  Was I more capable? Did I learn and gain the experience that my father was hoping?  Many suggest that its good to make your mistakes on someone else’s dime/time.  Did five years at an accounting firm do that? 

Frankly, when I look back on my career the answer is a resounding MAYBE.   But I also think I could have shortened this process by half, joined our business earlier, and learned more if I just embraced the process I knew I wanted and coupled that with further management learning after I had some experience.  Maybe my father was trying to protect me.  What if he still decided to sell the business?  What if he decided I wasn’t capable?  At least I’d have a profession to fall back on.  All my eggs weren’t in one basket.  I also know that we didn’t have specific conversations about this.  Talking about these types of things isn’t a family trait. Will I do better with my children?

My daughters are 14 and 16 years old.  What does the future hold for them?  They are starting to choose courses for university entrance. Are they interested and if they are do I push them in the direction my father did me?  Do I encourage them to find a path other than the family business so they don’t feel compelled to follow me?   These are some of the questions that keep me awake at night.  I think its time to start the conversation.

Do you have any advice, insights or suggestions you would share with other family businesses at the same inflection point?  If so, please share them in the comments section below, “Like”, “Share” and/or “Tweet” this LinkedIn Publisher post.  You’re invited to follow me on LinkedIn and/or Twitter. 

Published on LinkedIn