More Than Money
Issue #32

Passing the Torch: The Great Wealth Transfer

Table of Contents

“Personal Stories”

Conversation to Make it Clear

A Conversation with Bart Wendell

One of the great things about a family business is you get to learn about the inside of things. My grandparents on both sides of the family were Jewish immigrants and they both owned stores. As a young child I spent a lot of time in them. I have incredibly pleasant memories of watching the switchboard operator, talking with the sales people, and riding in the elevator with Rosie, the elevator operator. When I was about five, I got to see Santa Claus take off his beard and I realized he was a neighbor of mine. I don't have words to talk about how special it was.
My father made his name by creating a small, successful clothing business and acquiring a reputation as a trendsetter. His was a men's and women's clothing store that catered to executives. He was a classic founder—totally committed and very hard working. He was very single minded, had high standards, and was well known in the industry as a maverick.
I grew up in my father's business. I swept floors, did accounting, worked in the shipping room, wrapped gifts at Christmas, and regularly picked out swatches of Harris Tweed. I enjoy stores a lot, but I can't say I loved working there. My father was a tough taskmaster; he was a great guy, but was not easy to get along with—and he had a love-hate relationship with the business. The business ceased to exist when my father and mother closed their last store.
My father had wanted me to be in the business, but he never point-blank said that. It was always implicit. My brother did eventually end up in a retail business with which my parents had a connection, and I became a teacher. My father thought that was neat—he had always valued education—but he thought it would be a temporary job for me. Intellectually, my father admired education, and he had friends who were in all kinds of professions and businesses, but he really was a Depression-era guy who couldn't understand turning down a business that could make money. After I had been teaching for four years, my father thought I was going to come into the business. But we never really talked about it.
About the time I decided to go to Duke for a doctorate in psychology and organizational development, my father went into a depression. It was also a recession and the toughest year since the war. I had been planning to pay for my degree with money from my grandparents, but then my father offered to pay for one semester. He never said why he was paying for it or why he was depressed, or whether he was happy or disappointed about what I was doing.
Later, I set up a therapy practice. When my father came to visit, he saw that I had piles of checks and had to do things like bookkeeping and go to the bank. He said, "This is a real business, isn't it?" I said, "Yeah, it is, Dad. Sometimes I make more than you, and sometimes I don't." That was the only talk we ever had about my profession.
I once gave a talk about growing up in a family business. I talked about turning binds into bonds. A lot of binds that you think are there are just in your imagination. Half the time, the binds you feel are the result of people not being clear about what they really mean and what they expect of you. Your whole life is the family business, but the important issues never get talked about. You talk about the daily headaches and joys of the business, but not the big picture.
So there is a legacy of unspoken expectation that raises lots of questions. Are you going to make a lot of money or a little? What are you going to do with your life? Are you betraying the legacy that the family has built? You're leaving and you're not going to be part of it? The thing my parents put their blood into was the family business. If I had stayed in it, I would have been building on an incredible gift they never got. My mother had grown up relatively wealthy, but my father hadn't. He had been admitted to Harvard, but there was no money to go. He and my mother were determined that neither my brother nor I would face that disappointment. No one ever said, "This is our hope, our wish for you"—I just knew those feelings were there.
In a family business, whether or not you go into the business yourself becomes a litmus test of loyalty. It's as if someone is saying to you, "You're going to let my baby sit there on the counter while you walk away?" Yet you don't really talk about it. When I got out of graduate school, I said to my therapist, "I feel like there are binds, obligations about having to work in the business." He said, "Are there?" I said, "Nobody's said anything."
When you've grown up in a business, you have a certain business sense; like an athlete, you just know certain things that others have to think long and hard about. It's hard to put all that into words. How do you put into words what's absolutely intuitive and innate and overlearned? For most people of action, it's excruciating to describe what you do. When I move furniture with my wife, for all the ways that we get along incredibly well, that will start a fight, because I have to put into words what I want and what I'm doing. Yet if I move furniture with my brother, I don't have to say anything. We just know. In family businesses, there is often that assumption. My parents just assumed I knew.
Now I'm a business consultant. I've never been to business school, yet I regularly consult to CEOs about their businesses. I learned it all growing up in my parents' store. So, in certain ways, the legacy continues. Running the store wasn't what I was meant to do, but I did learn from it that I wanted to work for myself. I wanted to directly feel the excitement of successes and the pain of defeats. My consulting practice is kind of like a store to me. I get to share it with the community. I like being with people and, to give back to the community, I regularly facilitate leadership meetings between the school and town boards in my town.
I think there are three ways to leave the legacy with a family business. You can sell the business and leave the money to your heirs. You can pass on the business to your children. Or you can create a legacy that exists past the physical business. That can be as simple as making a scrapbook, but you can also actually have a ceremony, a family ritual where you talk about what was valuable about the family business and how it contributed to the community.
My father died relatively suddenly. He didn't get to see me become a successful consultant with a national reputation, but my mother has, and she is terrifically pleased. In reality, my parents were supportive of anything I ever did. I couldn't have asked for more, except conversation to make it clear.

—Based on an interview with Pamela Gerloff

Bart Wendell, Ph.D., is a consultant to organizations, businesses, and founders.

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