Family Business
Advisor & Coach

Family Business: Need or Greed?

Decades ago, when my older brothers were 8 and 7 respectively, my father returned one day from a buying trip to “town” as Port-of -Spain was referred to in those days by us Arima-dwelling folks. He was carrying what my brothers describe as a” big, big bag of sweets”–likely a 1lb pre-packaged bag –and more than they had ever received at any one time.  My Dad gave it to my brothers to share between them. They proceeded to apply the King Solomon solution to divvying up the bag and counted out “one for you and one for me.”

My Dad was sorting out the day’s purchases in the store, and since at that time the family lived at the back of the store, he soon heard the raised voices of my brothers obviously arguing. He promptly arrived at the scene of this fight and could not believe his eyes and ears: they each had a big pile of sweets in front of them and yet they were fighting over the last single sweet left from the odd number in the big, big bag.  Our father promptly confiscated all the sweets while delivering some severe punishment (this was before corporal punishment to kids became controversial).

When things calmed down later that day, my father delivered a lecture to the boys on the joys of generosity and the snares of greed.  I was an infant when this incident occurred and only learnt about it from my brothers who repeat it to their younger siblings and their own children as their most memorable lesson of the evils of avarice.

I often think of this incident when I encounter the ugly grabs for power, business shares, money, and control in some of my family business clients. Often, thanks to the efforts of those before them and their own contribution, the siblings, or cousins all have a big pile in front of them –they have great lifestyles, drive the latest model luxury cars, travel first class all the time, wear designer labels and yet, want to haggle over one particular property in a portfolio of many or a couple % point shares in the business. They are not content with some of the trappings of wealth, they want more.

Frills and Thrills

And therein lies the rub. For my father’s generation who had founded businesses which exceeded their own expectations and were able to provide reasonably well for their families, it was enough that he could now afford to buy a full bag of sweets and not just a handful. That counted as having more than his needs met and a grab for anything more could lead down a path of excessive materialism.  This is especially so if the more is acquired at the expense of another family member.

It was this lesson that I suspect allowed my 3 sisters and their husbands to have retail shops all selling the same merchandise within yards of each other and still have wider family harmony.  They were content with supplying their family’s needs for a secure life. They were not seduced by the frills and thrills of the high flyers to the extent of taking competition into the abyss of selfishness and insatiability.

Alas, future generations do not internalize those lessons as they start from a higher base and always seem to want more, even while they leave others wanting.  So one brother is not content to fly first class while some of his siblings can only manage to fly coach, he wants to buy his own plane. And another serves the most expensive champagne at his daughter’s wedding while refusing to pay his nephew a decent salary. And everyone feels that he or she must have a bigger slice of the pie because “I helped to build this business” or “I have more children than she does” or “I cannot live poorer than my friends” or whatever their definition of need is.

I am not going to venture into the philosophical discussion of the differences between needs and wants but I do maintain that the line between need and greed is very easy to spot. It is often marked by family rifts and the cries of despairing parents who cannot believe what they are seeing and hearing.

Power and Control

Greed in family business is not just about money though. It often extends to the grab for power and control.  Whenever I talk about the virtues and benefits of shared leadership, I am inevitably challenged by some successor generation member wanting to establish that “there must be one boss and that needs to be me” because “I am smartest’ or “I am the oldest” or “I work the hardest.” That person wants to be “in charge” and secure the accolades of high position, whether their leadership is sanctioned by the others or even serves the business well. Is this just human nature or can business families forestall the destruction of infighting for the bigger mansion or corner office?

It all begins with the lessons of childhood. Those despairing parents may have unwittingly fuelled the greed by constantly pitting one child against another and encouraging extreme competition to a fault. They promote winning at all costs and are keen to establish destructive comparisons not only among siblings but with others in their circle. They may have devised some mechanism for deciding who gets the last sweet instead of saying no-one gets any if you do not know how to be grateful for what you have and extend generosity to the other.

Spiritual Succour

While I do not at all mean to sermonize on this page, I have also noticed that those families with a religious base have fewer worries about greed in the family business.  Those who adhere to Christian beliefs heed the biblical admonition to “watch, and be on your guard against avarice of any kind, for a man’s life is not made secure by what he owns, even when he has more than he needs.” The Qur’an teaches that he who “devours inheritance with greed” and “love wealth with inordinate love” will find “nor will his wealth profit him when he falls headlong (into the Pit).”  The Bhagavad-Gita notes that “hell has three gates: lust, anger, and greed.”

The Buddhist saying teaches that “there is no fire like passion, there is no shark like hatred, there is no snare like folly, there is no torrent like greed.” Those families who may not embrace a particular religion but live by the Golden Rule of doing onto others as you would like be done onto you, are also more likely to escape the noose of greed which strangles not only the wearer but those around him as well. It is a life lesson that could be taught over a fight for one sweet.