You're at a business conference. It's the coffee break and you are wandering through the schmoozing throng when you are taken aback by a conversation going on nearby. It's a sharp, vituperative exchange between two business partners - and you are shocked. This is language that crosses the line of acceptable business practice. It sounds like an almighty row with no punches pulled, big enough to break up any partnership. But then, to your amazement, the tension in the air dissolves like stage mist. One of them makes a joke, and they end up laughing in an extraordinary show of friendly accord.
How can this happen? Someone passing by catches your elbow and introduces you to them. It turns out the couple are brother and sister, jointly running a medium-sized retail business.
There are few contexts outside a family firm where this can happen. Families are often emotional cauldrons, but the ties that bind them together are usually stronger than those that pull them asunder, and they are often able to contain and control feelings in ways that look improbable to the outsider. Family firms trade on this, building cultures of intimacy, dynamism, honesty and loyalty that give them a proven competitive advantage in the marketplace - moreover, one that is hard to imitate.