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Missing Parents #1: “Mother, where are you? Your family’s coming apart.”

Q:  How can a family survive when Dad’s missing-in-action and Mum can’t, or won’t, step up?

A:  Call for Uncle Bob.

I was thinking about Mark (70) and Paula (68) and their family, just the other day. Let me tell you their story.

Mark and Paula started a terrific family business in 1985, after Mark suffered years of frustration at the short-sightedness of the large distribution business he’d been working in as general manager.  He hated the constant drive for short-term profits at the expense of customer service, and was sure he could do better.

With limited assets and no personal business record he couldn’t borrow money from anywhere at reasonable rates, other than from family and friends – which mortified him.  Nevertheless, through a combination of relentless hard work and more than a little luck, the business took off and he repaid all debts within three years.

The family lived frugally, and made a lot of sacrifices.  All available cash was reinvested in the business, to grow sales.

Two of Mark’s three sons (Donald [40] and David [38]), and one of his two daughters (Dorothy [36]), joined him in the business, all coming straight from school.  His oldest son (Darth [42]), and youngest daughter (Doris [35]), both went to university. Darth is now a partner in a major accounting firm and Doris is a prominent family lawyer.  Both are married, with children.

One Friday morning, around three years ago, Mark announced that he’d had enough of work and was going to reduce his 60 hour work week to around 5 hours, starting next Monday.  In fairness, Donald had been running the business very successfully, with David’s support, for at least five years.

Within a month of formally becoming the leader Donald picked several fights with Dorothy, who then left the business – bitterly resentful of his behaviour (they’d always fought) and angry with her parents for failing to protect her after giving nearly 20 years of her life to them and the business.

Despite not doing much work there anymore, Mark was the 100% owner of the business, drawing a substantial salary in return for being the front man with the bank, and being available to Donald as a sounding board.

Year on year the business increased sales and profits, but it was clear to almost everyone that it had completely outgrown the basic business systems that used to support it so well.  Having never worked outside the business, nor obtained any formal business education, neither Donald nor David had any idea of how a $30 million business should operate.  They knew this, and it scared them.

Through many difficult conversations I knew Mark was struggling to suppress his gut feel that the business needed to catch its breath, develop a coherent plan, and increase its overall professionalism to provide a sustainable foundation for future growth.  His fear was that it might otherwise become a victim of its own success.

But:  Paula was happy – she and Mark finally had enough money, and time, to enjoy life.  She dismissed Dorothy’s complaints about Donald, David and Mark as simple jealousy, thinking it was time she got her personal life in order anyway – her long hours in the business hadn’t helped her there.   So far as she was concerned, her family was all grown up, and off her hands.  She and Mark had done their job as parents and it was time to enjoy the grandchildren.

The shock arrived a few months ago:  Dorothy, supported by Doris and Darth, demanded, through an aggressive solicitor, that Mark honour a promise he’d made long ago, and had openly repeated before many witnesses:  that the business would be split equally between all of his children by the time he reached his 70th birthday.

Dorothy was driven by: necessity (her marriage was failing and she couldn’t find other work); anger against Mark, Donald and David for “ratting her out”, and fury against Paula for failing to make the family behave the way she felt a family should behave.

Doris and Darth were driven by fear (engendered by Dorothy), that Donald and David lacked the skills to run a large business.  If the business failed, Mark and Paula would lose their income and their family home.  If that happened they’d all lose their inheritances and, to make things worse, their parents would probably become dependent on them in their old age, as the only independently successful family members.

I recalled noticing that Mark became quite depressed soon after reducing his hours – when he realised that the business, and his boys, didn’t actually need or want him anymore, and he wasn’t getting many calls for help.  Meanwhile, life at home with Paula made him feel like an intruder; his golf handicap wasn’t improving, and he realised that he didn’t have enough close friends, or real passions, to fill his waking hours.  He got by, but his growing unease about the business, and the growing tension in his family, increased his feelings of failure and uselessness.

Paula got increasingly angry with her children for failing to sort things out.  After all, they were grown up and in control; it was their problem.  So felt, and stated loudly, that everybody else was behaving badly – which was how she’d always dealt with family stress.

The family was falling apart: Mark was incapacitated by depression; Paula refused to step up and was declared missing-in-action (again) by the children; Dorothy was a wrecking ball of resentment;  Doris and Darth were embarrassed by feelings of selfishness and insecurity. Meanwhile, Donald and David quarantined themselves from everyone to “protect the business”.

Mark broke down over a beer last week and poured his heart out to me.  Then he begged for help.

First, I listened to everyone privately to work out:  what they thought was happening; what they really wanted, and why.

I then met with each of them again, as the only emotionally independent person with a fairly complete picture of what was going on.

I got everyone to agree to appoint the company’s accountant to review business operations, and report on long term sustainability.  Donald and David had the right to review and respond to a draft, before finalisation and circulation to everyone.

Mark and Paula agreed to work with their solicitor and financial planner to review their affairs, assess their financial security, and develop estate plans to reflect their wishes for passing on family wealth, both in the short term and on their passing.

With this background work completed, we convened a family meeting to talk about: the family, and being a family member.  Then we talked about everybody’s issues:  what’s going on?  What’s going wrong?  How did we get here?  How do we fix things?

It was an emotional meeting.  There were tears and apologies for real and perceived injuries, some going back to childhood times.  There was healing, recognition, and some sharing of pain.

The meeting shifted the family’s focus – from self-focused grievance to family aspiration.  With renewed optimism about the future they were all willing to work on both the family and the business.

I like being Uncle Bob!


Written by Family Business Institute

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