What is it about age and family businesses? For all the talk from consultants and experts about the necessity of passing on the running of a family business to next-gens early there are cases like Rupert Murdoch.
The chief executive and chairman of News Corporation proved that age needn't be any handicap when dealing with one of the finest legal minds in the UK, so why isn’t he capable of running his media empire?
The 81-year-old was being questioned at the Leveson inquiry into the UK's press standards. And boy, was he up to the challenge. Robert Jay QC grilled the octogenarian for more than four hours. And like any sharp-tongued barrister he tried to gain the upper hand and expose weaknesses in Murdoch’s account of his business interests in the UK and links or otherwise with top politicians for more than 30 years.
Encounters like this are always open to interpretation, depending on what side of the political fence you stand on, but as a well-respected Financial Times commentator, and that’s about as impartial as you can get when it comes to the Murdochs, said: “Ga-ga? Rupert? Eyes bright, sharp as a tack – and in control of the situation. ‘I hope I’m like that at 81,’ said a young man in the public gallery.”
Hours into the questioning Jay turned to Murdoch and said: “Mr Murdoch, I am beginning to flag.” Murdoch, seemingly unaffected by the period of time in the witness box, replied: “Whether you are or not, I don’t think matters.” Could you get more of a brilliant response from an 80-plus business leader?
It was an extraordinary performance by Murdoch and showed that his age hasn’t affected his mental agility in the least, despite what many of his enemies would like to think.
Fit and mentally agile septuagenarians, octogenarians, and even nonagenarians are likely to be at the forefront of businesses more and more in the future.
As Baron David de Rothschild, 69, recently told CampdenFB: “As a very smart financier said to me over lunch when he was 86, ‘as every year goes by, I feel that I’m further away from retirement,’ which is exactly what is happening to me.”
Arnold Maersk Mc-Kinney Moller, one of the senior family members behind the Danish shipping company AP Moller-Maersk, only stepped down as chairman of the board when he was 90. Four days before his death at the age of 98, Moller went to the firm’s annual general meeting – he was still making suggestions about running the business more effectively. The shipping company Moller helped to build to its size today is as healthy as ever.
Advances in medicine and a host of other factors will keep many people alive longer than past generations. It will mean that senior members of the Murdoch, Moller, Rothschild and a host of other families aren’t going anytime soon, and nor should they be forced to, given Murdoch’s recent performance. There are, of course, exceptions where senility has clearly been a hindrance to better corporate governance at a family business or otherwise.
But those that advocate that succession needs to be handled early – and 70 and 80-year-olds shouldn’t be running family businesses – should look at these examples and more before pushing the early succession argument so adamantly.