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Tetra Pak Tragedy

The Rausing story is a chilling one for family businesses. On one hand, it’s an inspiring tale – no invention has more of that simple-but-genius X-factor than the Tetra Pak. On the other hand, it’s also the classic cautionary tale that money can be a curse.

The most shocking thing about hearing the news of the arrest of Tetra Pak heir Hans Kristian Rausing, after the body of his wife, Eva, was found in their London home on Monday evening, was that it was hard to be too shocked.

This story was never likely to have a happy ending. The couple met in drug rehab, and it doesn’t take a psychiatrist to work out that the relationship was likely to have its problems. So it proved, culminating in the time four years ago that Eva was arrested trying to smuggle heroin and crack into the American Embassy in London.

Again, you don’t need to be a psychiatrist to see that attempting to get drugs into a building with the heaviest security in Europe is a cry for help. It’s all very sad. Tragic, even.

Even at the age of 49, Hans seems to have remained adrift. The couple were both involved in charities that tried to get people off drugs, and built drug rehab centres in the Caribbean. They sunk an awful lot of Tetra Pak money into good causes. But it looks like they were unable to conquer their own problems. According to the Metropolitan police, Hans Kristian was arrested for possession of drugs and is currently in hospital in London.

The Rausing story is a chilling one for family businesses. On one hand, it’s an inspiring tale – no invention has more of that simple-but-genius X-factor than the Tetra Pak. It’s the classic everyday product that has improved the lives of billions of people. The business was run brilliantly. It’s the stuff that entrepreneurs dream of.

On the other hand, it’s also the classic cautionary tale that money can be a curse. Despite the billions in the bank Hans failed to find his niche. His sisters managed it – one is an academic, the other a philanthropist and publisher who owns the British literary magazine Granta – but Hans’s story is the nightmare of every successful family business owner; that the children don’t find their way in the world and drift into dark places.

How do you stop your children squandering their opportunities and going off the rails? One next-gen, who has a young family herself, recently told me that she would rather sell the business and give away the money than have her children become “the idle rich”. She also said she didn’t want to have the sort of family where they live and breathe the business.

Rightly or wrongly, she considers that to be a sort of psychological bullying to force the kids into the business, to control them and take away their freedom.

Like all good parents, she wanted her children to make their own choices. Which means that they have to be free to make bad ones. “I consider myself to have taken a wrong turn in the course of my life,” Hans Kristian once said, a phrase filled with unhappy self-knowledge. Surely many of the people who were treated in the drug programmes, whether rich or poor, could have said the same thing.

No parent, no matter what opportunities or how much money they give their children, can guarantee that things will work out for them. This is a story about a rich family, and a famous family, but it is firstly a story about a family.  

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