Small businesses, individually owned or family-owned, are really the backbone of this country’s economy, employing more people nationwide than the big-name giant corporations, and serving most of our daily living needs.

For many of these businesses, family continuity, the transition/succession of ownership/management from one generation to the next, is a huge issue. I’ve worked for four different family businesses in four very different industries, and have seen four different approaches to generation transition.

The most interesting I think was a local grocery store chain. The company was owned by several brothers, was a couple of decades old and had been holding its own, and expanding, in the face of pressure from the big national chains.

As a family business, it was not surprising that many of the brothers’ family (wives, kids, and siblings) worked there. What was surprising was the family employment structure. Each of the brothers managed different stores. When a family member wanted to work in the company they got jobs with their in-laws, as it were.

The short story is that the kids my age all worked for their uncles, not their dads. The process was interesting to watch as a young employee, and over the years I’ve become impressed by the brothers’ wisdom. These guys were shrewd businessmen and canny managers.

When their kids began working, they started at the bottom of the heap, waiting the bakery counter, stocking shelves, bagging groceries, etc. In working at their uncles’ stores, each of the next generation got to choose whether they would apply themselves, simply work for some cash, or screw off.

The uncles were able to objectively supervise their young kin, while listening to and supporting their department managers (who could give honest feedback without falling afoul of the “nobody-can-criticize-the-boss’-kid-trap”), and showed very little favoritism or preferential treatment that I could see. I don’t recall any of the kids who were my peers being jumped up to better jobs or inflated pay rates. If they worked hard, they were trained and tutored. When they slacked off they got chewed out, just like me, or they got canned.

A couple of the kids who were a few years older than me seemed to be genuinely interested in the business. After working in several departments at one store, one of the boys had been moved to the store where I worked to start his training as assistant manager, again, with his uncle. Having worked up from the inside and the bottom, this scion, as near as I could tell, encountered minimal resistance or resentment from other current employees and department managers, when he eventually became general manager. He was not there simply because he was the boss’ kid. He’d worked and earned his way there.

For this company, the conscious, planned, process of testing and training (and weeding out) of their children as participants in the family business paid off as the brothers, in their turn, handed off management of this successful grocery business to the next generation.

Steve Lange
Palo Alto Software