What's your problem?

My father wants my brother and me to share the running of the family stationery business when he retires, but I think it will be a disaster.

by Jeremy Bullmore
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

We're completely different characters. My brother is popular with the staff, but doesn't understand the business. I have worked in the industry all my life, and know the company inside out. I worry that the two of us will never reach agreement and as a consequence the business will fail, but my father is adamant. Do you have any suggestions?

A: I've got to raise questions here that you'll probably find offensive and which may well be based on totally unjustified suspicions. But I don't think I can help much until I've done a little impertinent exploration.

If I were to compose a short story based on your question, this is the story I'd be tempted to write. A father devotes his life to running a successful stationery business. He has two sons. The first joins the business on leaving university and immediately immerses himself in every detail of the trade. The second leaves home, does another job, plays a lot of sport, returns home for high days and holidays, occasionally helping out in the office during the summer, and charming the staff with his happy-go-lucky approach to tedious duties like stock-taking.

The conscientious brother feels a twinge of envy, but consoles himself with the thought that when their father finally retires, the business will be his to run: a task for which he's spent a lifetime preparing himself.

Instead, the father declares his intention of handing over to both his sons, with equal authority and shared control. Bitterly disappointed, the conscientious brother convinces himself that such an arrangement is destined to fail and the business with it.

This could be you. And you may, of course, be right. But I ask you to question your motives as critically as I have. Such an arrangement is not inevitably unworkable - and it is, remember, your father's unshakeable wish that it should happen. So it seems to me that you've got to give this partnership a real chance to work. Nothing half-hearted, please: if you choose to prove your doubts well founded, you could easily wreck the thing within months.

So talk it all through very carefully with your brother. Identify as clearly as you can both your respective strengths and weaknesses and your specific areas of responsibility. Agree how you plan to deal with any fundamental differences of opinion before they arise (you might consider asking your father to be the occasional referee).

It could all still fall apart, of course: the record of joint chief executives is not an unblemished one. But, in theory at least, the two of you together should be able to make it work better than most - and both of you owe it to your father to give it your heroic best.


- Jeremy Bullmore has been creative director and chairman of J Walter Thompson London and a non-executive director of the Guardian Media Group; he is a non-executive director of WPP. Address your problems to Jeremy Bullmore at: editorial@mtmagazine.co.uk. Regrettably, no correspondence can be entered into.

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