More Than Money
Issue #30

When Differences Divide

Table of Contents

“Succession Gone Awry: A Conversation with Joan”

For 36 years, my father ran our family’s manufacturing company, which he and my grandfather had started more than 50 years ago. The problem came in 1988, three years after my dad passed the business on to my husband, Ken, who had been groomed for the top job for 17 years. Ken and I were much loved—I was the oldest daughter and a favorite of my father’s; Ken was his hand-picked successor.

At first, Ken had difficulty making money in the business. Then he took a leadership management course and figured out that he had been trying to run the business the way my father would; he hadn’t adopted his own style. Once he realized that, it led to differences. He began making changes, doing things the way it felt natural for him. It wasn’t that his way was right and my father’s was wrong or vice versa. They were just different ways of doing things. It had to do with values. My father was someone who spent money on himself. When he needed extra cash, he took it out of the business. (It was a small plant of about 20 people and my father didn’t answer to anyone about the finances.) When he brought my husband into the business and they had two people writing checks, they found out very quickly where the differences were .

Ken wanted to grow the size of the company (which would necessitate a move) and accommodate employee requests to provide better equipment. All of that was going to cost money. Conflict came when Dad wanted the money that was in the company savings account —the first $30,000 profit Ken had put in the bank—to use as a down payment on a condominium, and Ken wouldn’t let him have it. (My parents had gone on vacation and decided, on a whim, that they would move. They already had two cottages and had recently moved twice.)

Things got very ugly after that. My father took Ken’s refusal to let him have the money as a judgment about his lifestyle and communicated this to my mother. In a sense, it was. But it was far more than that. Ken’s own morale was being affected by what was happening in the company. He had talked to my dad about moving, paying the employees more, and creating a pension plan for them. All that was fine with Dad until it actually affected the bottom line for him.

When my dad didn’t get the money, he got very angry. He had loud, verbal confrontations within the family. He stopped working at the company. When he couldn’t resolve the issue within a few months, he went to every one of my siblings and tried to convince them to pressure us to change the way things were. When we didn’t do that, he decided to pursue legal means, and within two years he tried to take back the company.

We would have let him have it back, but by then Ken had a hundred employees, all of whom were very committed to the way the company had grown. Ken was well-versed in computerized machinery, which my dad didn’t know anything about. We knew that if we gave the company back, it was at great risk of failing.

We had made an arrangement with my dad where we would pay him for life. When it went to mediation, he lost, big time. He got a lump sum payment, which was less than he would have otherwise had. Had we been able to even talk to him, we could have worked something else out.

I’ve always known that my father dominates conversations, but until this happened, I hadn’t understood the degree to which it has always occurred. He can’t listen to anyone. He is very self-centered. That characteristic (which had always been apparent with employees, but not at home) showed up in a verbally abusive way. It came out in any family meetings we tried to have. We tried a family intervention meeting, but he was uncontrollable. It ended with him screaming and yelling. None of us could have even a phone conversation with him without him yelling and going berserk. It set all of us on edge.

We didn’t know what was going to happen. At one point, Dad walked back into the plant and threatened Ken’s life to several of the employees. He said he would rather see Ken dead than ever see him again. That was a total shock, and it frightened me, too. We ended up moving an hour away from where we had been living. That put some distance between us. Dad had always been emotionally close to me and he didn’t understand why I wouldn’t divorce Ken over this. He told me, “Choose your parents or your husband. You won’t have both.”

Dad and Mom told my siblings that they would not go to family parties if we were present. We went from a family of 34 people (counting all of our grandchildren) celebrating birthdays and holidays together, to none of that, for about seven years. It took my siblings a long time to figure out what was going on. It was very difficult for any of them to intervene and it took years for them to garner their own strength in this situation.

In the beginning, I kept trying to re-establish some kind of relationship with my parents, but without success. It affected my health and my kids. My three children never understood why their grandparents suddenly dropped out of their life. They experienced my father coming into our house screaming and yelling. They were afraid and would run to their rooms. Every time the behavior happened, I tried to yell back. You think you can argue with someone who is irrational; you don’t know they’re not rational. In the end, all I felt I could do was set limits on that behavior; when out-of-control behavior happened, I would leave or break off contact with my parents for months.

I went through a grieving period for losing parents I thought I knew. They had chosen to be offended and to hold a grudge. There was nothing I could do about it. It wasn’t until my dad’s health deteriorated that the situation improved. When he got colon cancer, he was very sorry about the whole thing for the two weeks he thought he was going to die.

As soon as he figured out he was not going to die, he went back to all his old behaviors. Three years ago, though, he had open-heart surgery, and that was when he let go of his anger. He just decided it wasn’t worth it anymore. When he came home from the hospital, he said, “I’m sorry about everything that’s happened. I don’t want this to go on.” He stood there and cried like a baby. He used to tell me he thought that Ken was more of a son to him than he had ever had in the business, because his other sons were so much younger. Ken was old enough that he could take over the company. Dad lost his best friend, for his own reasons of control and pride. Life had to wear him out before he could look at things differently. Now we can finally be in the same room together and actually talk to each other. But he has never recovered from it; he has lost his zest for life. He stopped playing golf and other things he could be doing now in retirement. He watches TV and the stock market. It’s very sad.

Ken and I have since come to understand that people can be addicted to money and we believe that was the case with my father and mother. When all this happened, I was in nursing school learning about addictive characteristics; I had also studied Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief and I put two and two together: My father had a need to have money and then there was this loss of the business. He experienced a lot of anger and grief and didn’t know how to handle it. In all of this, it has been helpful for me to have organizations like More Than Money, through which I have been able to hear other people’s stories and be exposed to various theoretical frameworks. It has been helpful for me to understand that there are larger issues here, which undergird our whole society. It’s not just a little thing I did wrong, not just the way my parents are. It’s much bigger than any of us. Money is dictating our lives and controlling our relationships. Our attitudes toward money affect so many aspects of our lives.

Neither Ken nor I feel guilty, because of the way Dad acted toward us. But had we known what was going to happen, on Day One we would have handed the keys to him and walked out. It wasn’t worth what it put our whole family through. Had we done it that way, it might have caused him to think. But we didn’t understand that at the time. My dad had in fact done the right thing by planning ahead and making sure he had leadership for the company. He had always believed he was going to die in his sixties, the way his parents had; what he didn’t count on was he didn’t die. And he didn’t have a clue about how hard it would be emotionally for him to give up the company. He couldn’t do it, but he didn’t know that about himself ahead of time. He had thought he would have things the way he wanted: He would have someone else taking daily responsibility and he would be free to do whatever he wanted.

It’s curious, but one story I grew up with was the way my dad had taken over the company from his own father. He one day walked in and took over the reins, telling his dad that he was in charge and if his dad didn’t like it, he could get out. He used to tell us that a person in the next generation who was worth his salt to take on the company would have to kick him out. We didn’t think that made any sense. We weren’t going to kick him out! Legally, everything was done to take care of him. But it was as if he had to play out the scenario the way he thought it had to happen.

Having gone through all this, our commitment is that we will pass this company on without this kind of upheaval in the family. Tom, a much younger brother of mine, had come to work for Ken just before this happened. Our kids didn’t seem interested in the business and we wanted to plan the succession early. Ken felt he owed it to the employees to have a good succession plan in place. We said to our kids, “We’re going to sign an agreement with your uncle and he’s getting the company. If you want a part of it, we need to know that now. And you need to understand that if you ever change your mind, you will work for your uncle. You can’t come back and say, ‘I wish you had given it to me.’” To us, the important thing is continuity, for our employees and for the next generation. The paper work has been done. The way we believe we can redeem the whole situation is to do it right the second time.

Ken and I are now getting a divorce. The two of us carried the burden of the company for years and we didn’t do what we needed to for our own relationship.We could have become very angry with each other and split the company, but we’re committed to preserving it. We’re dividing things three ways, not two, so the company will stay intact for the employees. My brother has been touched by that. Ken and I are both pleased as we go through this divorce that we have not had to touch any of the stock in the company. We’re finally passing this baby on.

—Based on an interview with Pamela Gerloff


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