by Shelly Branch
Your Company (Published by American Express)
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This cover story for American Express’s business magazine states, “Conflicts are a sure bet in any family firm. The trick is to confront problems before too much damage is done.” Veteran business writer Shelly Branch gives many examples of siblings in family businesses who battled each other for control, including the Berkowitz brothers at Legal Sea Foods, who could not work out their disagreements peacefully and ended up in a very public, knock-down, drag-out legal battle in which “the family’s laundry was spilled all over town, casting negative attention on the 14 location chains.” As so often happens in such cases, the judge’s verdict could not put the family back together again. Brothers don’t speak and grandparents don’t get to see their grandchildren — collateral damage that the adversarial system breeds and is helpless to repair.
How can such debacles be avoided? After a conflict develops, mediation is certainly a more preferable process than litigation or arbitration because it has the potential to heal strained relationships. Litigation and arbitration are known to work like acid on relationships.
Branch closes the article by asking a couple pointed questions: “In the end, is it possible that families in business simply expect too much? Can they really hope for the business success of a Legal Sea Foods without the rancor? ‘A family business doesn’t require really wonderful personal relationships,’ sums up David Gage, a consultant in Washington, D.C. ‘But you do have to have mutual respect and treat each other with dignity.'”