More Than Money
Issue #30

When Differences Divide

Table of Contents

“The Glue That Holds Us Together A Conversation with Van Woods”

Visitors to New York City go to Harlem to see the Apollo Theatre and to eat at Sylvia’s (www.sylviassoulfood.com), a renowned restaurant named after Sylvia Woods. Van Woods is the oldest of Sylvia and her husband Herbert’s four children.

My family has been able to do a lot with our family business—a successful restaurant in Harlem— because of two things: We are hard workers, and we stick together when difficulties arise. We are close-knit mainly because of my mother, who is the nucleus of everything. I believe that closeness in a family develops because there is a central person whom others rally around. That person is able to transform negativity into something positive.

I was the first-born and the others thought I was shown favoritism. That was true emotionally, but not materially. Being older than my siblings, I did not grow up in the family business as they did. Not wanting to be on the family’s payroll, I created other businesses. When our generation took over the restaurant, the family asked me to come back into it. Since I didn’t know how to cook or serve customers, I took on buying the real estate and handling the expansion of the business. I got credit for being the brains behind things while my sisters and brother were doing the physical work. (I have always thought my brother and sisters should get more credit for their work, but the media often focus on the individual rather than the group.) This is where some tension started.

We have always divided everything six ways, among our two parents and the four children. We now have 17 grandchildren in the family—so the number of people living off the business has grown. The rest of my siblings think we should continue to divide everything equally, but I don’t. For things that I created, I feel I should have a larger share—to make up for the sacrifices that I made in the past; I invested my money in expanding the business and creating new businesses, rather than investing in a beautiful home.

The original business was the restaurant. Then I arranged for us to create a restaurant franchise. We took on a large investor—a big, blue-blooded, financial institution, J.P. Morgan. It was very unusual for them to invest in a small black business. I also created a packaged food product that we sell around the country. Because it is food-related under the Sylvia’s name, even though I did all the creative work, I’m obliged to share the ownership equally with my siblings. I believe that as the owner-representative I have the right to pull more cash from it than they do. What I have is my creativity, and I feel it’s only fair for me to be compensated for it.

Our parents we re unhappy with our disagreements. Since we didn’t want to see our mother unhappy, we always resolved our differences. All she had to do was say, “Why are you all doing this? What’s wrong with you ? ” We were driven more to please her than to please each other. My father recently died, but my mother still sometimes steps in as a mediator. She focuses us on the question, “What is right?” She plays it not just from a business or factual point of view, but also from an emotional point of view. She just wants us to work it out so there is harmony. She is 76 now and won’t take a side anymore. She’ll say, “I don’t want to leave this world with you all like this.” So we work it out. We have always been able to come up with some framework within which disagreements can be resolved.

I went to Harvard University’s executive business program, which is for owners, presidents, and managers of businesses worth more than three million dollars. We did a lot of case studies on family businesses, and I can tell you that family tension around money is a big issue—and not just for our family. I have an investor—he’s a philanthropic investor, a wealthy guy, who has been a mentor to me since I met him in 1995. He said, “Money can break up families. Your family is no different. You must decide how to divide the money while it is small, because the bigger it gets, the bigger problem it will be.” I would say that’s right, and when there are disagreements in a family, you may have to bring in an independent or neutral person to help you resolve issues. If you have a dysfunctional family, you will need therapeutic help to work it out. If your family is kind of functional, you may be able to work it out on your own or with the help of a consultant. We decided to try to work it out ourselves. We learned that it’s best to re move yourself from your customary environment. We didn’t meet in the home we grew up in, because that has an emotional history. It works better to get into another environment, so it’s like a retreat.

My brother and two sisters and I have our petty differences and some strong friction, but we always try to deal with each other out of love. If you don’t like each other, you’ll have more trouble resolving the issues. Our love has kept us from knocking each other in the head. We have been able to work out our differences because we care so much for each other.

— Based on an interview with Pamela Gerloff


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