When Your Parents Want to Retire

When your parents are ready to leave the family business, be there to help them.

Roger Neveu, 57, founder of Notch Mechanical Constructors, an industrial contracting firm in Chicopee, Massachusetts, thought he had the best job in the world-until 1998, when he turned the presidency of the company over to his son Steven, 38, who'd been his right-hand man. Now Neveu is semi-retired and working three days per week on an as-needed basis, doing drafting work and operating the crane. "I love what I'm doing. I'm not really an office person," he says. "And these guys [five of his seven children are in the business] are the best at what they do. They seem to do a better job running the company than I did, and I like that."

If you're running the family business with a parent, you probably know the idea of retirement isn't always as cheery a proposition as it was for Neveu. "For people to retire comfortably, they have to feel they've reduced the risks involved," says Ivan Lansberg, senior partner at Lansberg, Gersick & Associates LLC, a family business consulting firm in New Haven, Connecticut, and author of Succeeding Generations: Realizing The Dream of Families in Business(Harvard Business School Press). One of those risks is how competent the successor is. In Neveu's case, he's certain the company is in good hands, so he's comfortable stepping down.

But not all successor generations have as easy a time taking the reins from their parents or relatives as Neveu's kids had. Even Neveu admits that before he actually retired, he had some fear of letting go. "It's understandable," says Laura Michaud, president of The Michaud Group, an Elmhurst, Illinois, consulting firm that helps family businesses improve transitions from one generation to another. "What the successor generation has to realize is that the relatives who came before them are people who loved their work and devoted time to building the company." That's hard to give up, especially if the retiring head doesn't know what he or she will do when not in the office all day.

Lower your parents' panic level by encouraging discussion of life after retirement-long before it becomes a reality. "Generally, people need some help when thinking seriously about their future," says Lansberg, adding that parents don't usually use their children as sounding boards for their fears because "they often talk to others who've made the transition successfully to find out what worked for them and what didn't."

You might encourage your parents to join a seminar group for retiring heads at one of the more than 100 family business centers affiliated with universities around the country, or to take advantage of the many weekend retreats that organizations hold to explore the movement from one's work life to one's life's work, such as those sponsored by the North Carolina Center for Creative Retirement in Asheville.

Patricia Schiff Estess writes family business histories and is the author of two books: Managing Alternative Work Arrangements (Crisp Publishing) and Money Advice for Your Successful Remarriage(Betterway Press).

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This article was originally published in the November 2000 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Swan Song.

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