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An insider reviews...

Christine Harland is Director of Camden Writers

Families, Money and Trouble,
by Gerald Le Van, Philadelphia: Xlibris, 2003

"The scene is a one-ring circus. In the centre of the ring is Jack, dressed as a strong man in animal skins and black boots laced nearly to his knees. A circus performance is in progress."

In his dream, Jack, the CEO of the hypothetical company, JacMar, is supporting a huge plank on which stand, in pyramid fashion, the company's key employees, his wife, their children and grandchildren. He is giving out.

Gerald Le Van, a lawyer and family business consultant based in North Carolina, introduced the JacMar family in his book The Survival Guide for Business Families published in 1999. Families, Money and Trouble, published in 2003, moves us through the ups and downs of successive generations.

In his composite family, Le Van brings in alcoholism, divorce, compulsive golf, gender issues ("For a woman, Karen's not a bad engineer"), personality differences and comm­un­ication meltdowns. The Ewings in Dallas have nothing on the JacMars.

Superficial? Lacking in gravitas? Maybe. But what Le Van understands is that we learn best through stories. Preach is followed by practice in a structure that looks like this: key questions are posed at the start of each chapter, there is discussion, then we are shown how the theory works in the JacMar family setting, with players we gradually come to know and like.

For example, a Critical Question: "What do we do if a family shareholder wants to sell out?" After a few comments by the author, we are made privy to what Karen JacMar is thinking. Why should her inheritance be tied up forever? Why should her brothers manage things? Why can't she sell some stock? We move with Karen through the pros and cons, options and possibilities. Le Van then shifts us out of his hypothetical family setting into our own sphere of reference.

At the end of each chapter is a summary and the technique Le Van uses epitomises his consulting style. He turns to face us, his audience, and with a series of pertinent questions that draw a strong dotted line, he asks us how the issues we have just considered play out "Inside Your Business Family…" Does any of this pertain to us and, if so, how?

Le Van has formulated 39 Critical Questions for the exploration of family business performance. They include the formation of a Board of Directors ("Do we want outside members on our Board of Directors?"), overall goals ("Are we committed to the future of our family business?", "Do we want to sell out?") and interpersonal issues ("What do we do if there is a divorce or if a family member breaks the law?" "What if the heir apparent isn't up to the job?").

The strength of these questions lies in the aggregate and the way they are presented and answered. Family business advisers, he says, are "process consultants," and the asking and answering of these questions by family members themselves is The Process. The consultant is a facilitator; the work must be done by the family members if they are going to internalise the solutions. In a version of the Socratic method, the family is stimulated through questions to explore its own issues, reach its own conclusions and define a problem-solving process that can be recycled regularly.

Given that business families grapple with a complex mix of business and personal needs, the first step is learning active listening skills – the "laying on of ears," as Le Van puts it. The ideal forum for speaking and hearing is the Family Council where all participants are able to express themselves safely, be part of constructive discussion and feel invested in the decisions that are made. Everyone has a vote.

A little humour never hurts. The reluctance of families to bring in outside help to tackle tough problems becomes "bird-cage management". Instead of introducing new blood, the owner shakes up the cage and everyone flies to a higher perch whether they can comfortably soar to those heights or not.

Jack JacMar's sons are frustrated. For Jack, work is life and retirement is death. Like so many of the younger generation, "JJ" JacMar is always "warming up in the bullpen" while his contemporaries are out there fighting life's battles. The sad fact is that tomorrow never seems to come.

Some of this we've heard before and many of Le Van's suggestions may already be part of our business structures. The JacMars aren't everyone's cup of tea and their personalities may not be recognisable in our own lives, but the fact is that every so often – often enough to be really worthwhile – there is an 'Aha' moment. There is a little of the JacMars in most of us, as it turns out.

If the JacMars can get their act together and tackle the Critical Questions as a family, JJ may not be doomed to "park his manhood" until his father dies. We're rooting for him and, in the process, there's a lot of good information that we can pick up, too.  

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