Freedom Of Choice

Don't force your kids to join the family business -- let them decide.
Magazine Contributor
6 min read

This story appears in the June 1998 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Expectation is a powerful repellent . . . especially in a family business. "If kids grow up thinking everyone expects them to join the business, they'll wind up resenting it," says Sheila Strauss, whose two daughters have joined her husband's family business as the fourth generation involved in The Strauss Insurance Agency in New York City. Still, the Strausses admit it was a wonderful feeling when the kids came to the business of their own free will. "I didn't feel the need to pass the baton when they weren't in the business," says Sheila's husband, Marvin, "but now I'm happy they're here to accept it."

How can parents be assured their children don't feel pressured but, at the same time, present a choice that's appealing and might eventually lead to a career in the family business?

The Early Years

  • Don't talk about a child's involvement in the family business early in his or her life. What's important to both the children and the business is that children do what they enjoy and are good at when they grow up. "That's one reason I urge parents to hold family meetings when the children are young. It gives them a regular opportunity to talk about their children's interests," says David Niemeyer, a family therapist and director of Rutgers University Family Business Forum in Piscataway, New Jersey.

In addition to talking about the kids' strengths, talents and interests, family council meetings can also be an opportunity for children to complain about the family business and express resentment that the business drains their parents of time and energy. "When that happens, parents have an opportunity to explain why they are so involved in the business and frame the explanation in terms kids understand," Niemeyer says. "Suppose your son is into hockey. Ask why he's willing to get up early to go to practice. He'll probably answer `Because I love the sport.' At that point, you can explain that's how you feel about the family business."

  • Encourage your kids to drop in. Ivan Gural's grandchildren, Alex, 8, and Eve, 7, often stop in at Gural Associates' office in Haverford, Pennsylvania, after school. For Alex and Eve, the family's Thomas Register of American Manufacturers franchise, which sells the largest industrial buying guide in the United States, is a nice place to help out with chores for pocket money, do their homework, or be with their parents and grandparents. They feel welcome to take part in the business . . . without any pressure.

The Teen Years

  • Present the business in a fair light. If you spend 90 percent of your dinner conversations railing at your sister's incompetence, your brother's greediness or your frustration at your father's unwillingness to try new ideas, how can your children get the idea that the family business is a fun place to work? Instead, weave your stories with two threads: the challenges and the satisfactions of working with your family.
  • Focus on building value into the company. There's no way of knowing at this point whether your children will want to join the family business, nor should they be forced into making any decisions. By continuing to run a successful business, you take the pressure off them and assure yourself that you have a company you can pass on to future generations or sell profitably if your children back away.
  • Share your enthusiasm about the business. A boring company is unlikely to be a desirable career choice for a teen who's thinking about what he or she would like to do in life. "My negative feelings for the family's retail business were certainly fed by my parents' aphorism on it as a future career: `There's always the family business,' " says Ira Bryck, director of the University of Massachusetts Family Business Center in Amherst. "The message was powerful: This isn't anyone's first choice, but if you can't get anything else, it's here."
  • Let grandparents make the pitch. Whereas parental advice is viewed skeptically at best during adolescence, grandparents are often viewed as sages. So it's no surprise that when Robin Strauss Rashbaum and Debra Strauss heard their grandmother go on and on about how wonderful family businesses were, they were influenced. This may not have been the deciding factor in their decisions to join the business, but it was certainly part of it.

As Young Adults

  • Continue to share your enthusiasm. You never know when a child might decide the family business looks like a promising venture. Chris Carini, for example, broached the subject of joining the family business with his dad, Peter Carini, in October 1996, after a number of years in government and public administration. He knew it was risky, because his elder brothers had joined the Greenwich, Connecticut, energy services company and then left after a few years when they decided the fit was wrong. "But over the years, I had listened to my father talk about all the entrepreneurial things he was doing with Champion Energy Corp., and I got excited and energized by his talk. And then I thought I had something to give the company."
  • Give them time. Again, on the "you never know" principle, Debra Strauss says she never would have gone into the business immediately after college. "I wasn't sure this was what I wanted to do," she says, "and as the younger child in the family, I didn't want to be treated as the baby." So she went into financial planning and strategy and earned an MBA before approaching her parents about joining the firm. "I needed to see the contrast, and I did," she says. It was that contrast--a more sane and flexible lifestyle and the opportunity to work for herself and build on a family tradition--that finally brought her into the fold.

Gural, with three children in the business and a fourth contemplating joining it, sums up the reeling-in process this way. "If you allow them to see the satisfaction and pleasure you get from the business, let them put their toes in it gradually, and don't pressure them at any point along the way," he says, "you tend to eliminate the natural resistance they have to a parent who is trying to push them in a particular direction." And who knows? They may even take the baton and run with it.

Contact Sources

Champion Energy Corp., (203) 862-9595,

Gural Associates, 349 W. Lancaster Ave., Haverford, PA 19041, fax: (610) 642-8162

The Strauss Agency, (212) 564-5335, fax: (212) 465-8074

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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