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We Can't Talk Here!

Aug 17, 2007
After a presentation at a trade association people often come up, give me their card and ask me to call them.

This time it was different.

Bobby (a nickname from when he was a kid, before he grew to 6'3" and 245 pounds) had a look of desperation when he asked me to call him that afternoon - before I left town.

His office was at the end of the hallway. A pretty large room - with bookshelves along the walls that were full to the breaking point with manuals, parts catalogs, telephone and crisscross directories. This was the center of knowledge for the company.

The room was divided using those half-metal half-glass dividers like we used to see in banks, sales bullpens, etc. Bobby was sitting in the middle one. I found out later that his dad occupied the one on his left and his uncle Fred the one on the right.

As I walked in he stood up behind his desk. In his hand was a 3x5 card that he stuck in my face. On it he had written, "Can't talk here - I'll give you a tour - We can go out for coffee." (I still have the card) So I quickly suggested that while I had my coat on - would he give me the 50-cent tour of their place.

Once outside he told me his problem.

Their industry had been pounded by foreign competition for the last decade. His siblings and his cousins had been convinced ("heck, we were all convinced") that they were doomed - so all of them left but him. That was ten years ago and now the market for their products have changed.

Technologies, import tariffs, all sorts of things have changed. Some that they caused to happen, some they did not. A lot of their domestic competitors had gone out of business during the bad times. They had purchased a couple of them - those with valuable patents etc. Theirs was one of the top companies in the US left standing in their industry.

So - what's the problem? His dad had been talking with his older brother. Seems he has not exactly hit the jackpot in the hard cruel world - and wants to come back.

His uncle's son and daughter's husband have expressed an interest in the business as well. They are bringing their kids to town for the holidays and he plans to talk about the business with them.

You see - being in those prehistoric cubicles allows the successor to hear his dad and his uncle talk to the folks who deserted the ship when they thought it was sinking. But who now feel they are entitled to a seat at the table.

This is a scenario that has been playing itself out since Biblical times.

I wanted to illustrate the real-life situations I have encountered during a lifetime of working with family owned companies. So when Dan Elash Ph.D. and I collaborated to create an interactive consultant-in-print a couple of years ago, Bobby's story was told in detail.

The role of unstated expectations and entitlement cause more successful businesses to fail than almost anything else. What can and should Bobby, his dad, and Uncle Fred do? What about the others?

If you are a business owner how will you navigate these perilous waters. And if you are a professional solution provider how will you help your clients steer around these bolders just beneath the surface of an otherwise calm looking stream?

As the publisher of "Doing It Right" it occurred to me that we should open up the entire contents, put them on our web site where you can use then witout charge. And so we did.

I hope you'll go there and read the rest of Bobby's story!
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