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.
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 .
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.)
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
on an interview with Pamela Gerloff
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