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Tending the vine: a look at family history

Christine Harland is Director of Camden Writers

Faith Baker, whose family owned a thriving frozen foods business along the New England coast, spent endless childhood hours at the formal dining table, quiet and observant while the adults talked around her. Over the fireplace hung the dark oil portrait of an American Indian, complete with head-dress. Now in her eighties, Faith remembers that for a good part of her young life she mentally incorporated that figure into the family history, believing him to be yet another of her revered ancestors.

Delving into history you may discover that your understanding of the past is just that – yours. George Macomber, third generation chairman of the George BH Macomber Construction Company, recalls showing the final draft of the firm's history to a retired Macomber executive. This gentleman wrote in the margin, "Your father expected you to fail."

"I sensed that my father might have felt unappreciated," Macomber wrote, "but it never occurred to me that seeing his sons do so well, seemingly without his help, was such a source of bitterness. In fact," he went on, "I believed my father and I had made about as good a transition as any parent and child I know. Now I look at my own transition in a very different way."

David Putnam, retired as third generation Chairman of The Markem Corporation, recalls that while reading to his wife one winter's evening he was struck by a comment attributed to Winston Churchill to the effect that it is only through reading history thoroughly that one develops sufficient background to face the future. Putnam has written a personal and down-to-earth history of his company in the belief there are constructive lessons to pass on. Clarifying the 'what' and the 'why' of his tenure, he has included thoughts on things he may have done differently and the management transition process involving his father and grandfather.

Similarly, Samuel Johnson of SC Johnson and Sons, on the occasion of his company's 100th anniversary, wrote a series of essays on the history and development of Johnson's Wax "drawing on the past but not dwelling on it." He speaks of honesty, integrity, decency and social conscience as the "philosophical rudder of the family enterprise." We go to the past to understand the essence of this foundation and then move ahead in our own distinct ways.

In 1953, HF Johnson wrote a letter to his son, Sam. "Remember to treat kindly the people who have been so faithful and loyal to us for years," HF began. "Others may tell you that you're not doing as well as your grandfather or I have done, but this is something you shouldn't give any worry to."

"Go ahead in the way you think best, honestly and justly building on the foundations which the members of the Johnson family have laid down for you and I'm confident in your future."

The columnist Walter Lippmann suggested that "The genius of a good leader is to leave behind him a situation which common sense, without the grace of genius, can deal with successfully."

Frank Perdue, head of the great poultry empire, would give a thumbs up to Lippmann. Frank's wife, Mitzi, tells us biographically that Frank would deny possessing any trace of genius. He would choose to read you his favourite quote from Statesman Alexander Hamilton: "Men give me credit for some genius. When I have a subject at hand, I study it profoundly. Day and night it is before me... The effort I have made is what people are pleased to call the fruit of genius. It is the fruit of labour and thought."

We have to agree with Mitzi that Frank sells himself short. Genius is about the only way to describe the marketing skills that changed the company from one that had 3000 laying hens in 1939 to a company that processed more than one million chickens a day in 1989. Among the examples that Mitzi includes in her history is this one: Frank Perdue gazes out at his TV audience and says, "I've got a problem here you can help me with. My breasts aren't moving as fast as my legs. We've got to get this breast problem straightened out or there'll be no end of grief." It's hard to forget that ad between your television and the grocery store.

Mitzi Perdue also writes about her father, founder of the Sheraton Corporation. She remembers him telling her there were six occasions when Sheraton was at a major crossroads. Tormented, as to how to proceed, he would go to bed and wake up the next morning with total certainty.

"I would hate to have the Wall Street analysts know about this," he confided to his daughter one day, "but in my sleep I talk to my ancestors and they tell me what to do."

David Mas Masumoto, in his family history Harvest Son, speaks eloquently of his grandfather's start as an immigrant labourer pruning vines. Today, David, third generation participant in their family business, works with his father on their organic peach and grape farm in California.

"Eventually, it dawned on me why my early years of pruning resulted in such poor craftsmanship. Some of it had to do with my poor skills, but a lot had to do with a father giving his young son a scraggly vine. Dad forced me to learn on the hardest vines."

"It takes years to learn how to prune a vine, to grow accustomed to the diverse patterns and changes manifested in a contorted trunk. I can respond to history by leaving healthy wood and strategic spurs – my best pruning works with the past in order to shape the future."

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