How do you keep a family firm going, from generation to generation?
How do you share out the money? How do you keep your children interested in taking over? What do you do about their competing ideas about the future? Are they all capable? Some too ambitious? Some too dim?!
Family firms are commonplace, but that might give us an illusion of stability.
In fact, according to the US Small Business Association (among many others) only fifteen percent of those companies remain in family hands by the third generation.
Sounds like the background to many novels, doesn’t it?
Grandad built it. Mum kept it going. Grandson let it all go.
Of course the reasons are more complicated that than. And also some of the most important businesses in the world remain happily in family control. Because so many of them aren’t listed on any stock exchange, we’re less likely to hear about them in the business news.
I’ve always been fascinated by family-run companies, so visiting Porto in Portugal recently, I asked to chat to someone in charge of a firm which has a history going as far back as 1652.
The photo contains a clue as to which company… Barges like those have bought port wine from vineyards in the hot Northern heart of Portugal, down to Porto for ageing and bottling - for centuries.
And it’s the Symington Family I’m talking about...
Their branch of the family took direct charge of a port house - Graham’s - in 1882.
And the current generation of leaders are Paul, Johnny, Rupert, Dominic and Charles.
They’ve split up the responsibilities without spoiling the strategic overview, they are passionate about the wine (and the many other products they make) and they have sound business heads on their shoulders.
The next generation is already involving itself in the firm. They start by helping with the harvest - but could end up by being the next set of directors. There’s leeway, though, for youngsters to pursue their own interests and careers. Even then, some of them may bring skills learned at other companies, back home.
So, how d’ye keep this a happy family and also a sound business?
It was joint managing director Rupert Symington who talked to me - at Graham’s venerable port lodge in Vila Novo De Gaia…
- and see how this autumn’s grape harvest is going, by looking at the Graham’s Port blog…