The resort in Pueblo Valley

Emotions tend to run high during business disputes at family-run companies. Executive Director of the Wendel International Centre for Family Enterprise, Christine Blondel, considers the case of the Bolles clan, owners of an Arizona holiday resort. After the founder's death, his widow's decision to sell brought succession issues to a boil. Two daughters decided to initiate "fair process" procedures, with the help of an outside mediator.

by Christine Blondel
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Blondel explores some of the areas where disputes in family firms can create very stressful conflicts, ones that often take years to resolve and that can leave all parties concerned bitter and irrevocably hostile.

The (A) case describes the scenario for the unfolding drama. Founded in a scenic and fertile corner of Arizona by Charles Bolles Sr. in 1918, the Pueblo Village holiday resort had been run by his only son and namesake until his unexpected death in 1992. Unfortunately, Charles Jr. had considered legally stipulating his choice of successor or successors distasteful, whether it be his son, with whom he'd worked closely for years, or any or all of his three daughters. Even though all family members held shares in the concern, neither they nor Charles Sr.'s wife had ever pressed him on the taboo subject of succession.

Things came to a head only when his widow, Anne, stunned and outraged her children by stating her intention to sell the resort, having managed it quite successfully for the four years since his death. One offer requested a very quick decision, and Pueblo's board of directors strongly favoured selling. The children were aghast, but had some hopes that one possible buyer in particular would both develop the property in an agreeable way and make a very appealing financial offer.

Case (B) details the eventual decision of two of Bolles's daughters, who had chosen to enter into a dialogue involving the whole family and a disinterested negotiator. In doing so, Laura and Kathy effectively initiated "Fair Process" procedures. They engaged the support of a family mediator, who acted as a conduit between them, the other two siblings and their mother.

The systematic construction of a decision-making matrix is a useful example of how complex and emotion-laden issues can be addressed -- and hopefully, with determination and mutual respect, resolved - in family-run companies. Blondel details the sophisticated matrix employed, and how the mediator took great pains to ensure that all concerned parties would be allowed to fully express their various concerns. Critically, a "value" was only assigned to each of the options determined by the matrix after complete consensus had been realised.

While not all family members were entirely happy with the consensual decision that resulted, all agreed to respect it. The Fair Process procedures they agreed to adhere to had done much to rectify the lack of communication and clarity of intentions from their father that had lead to so much acrimony. In the author's words, "family firms are at the same time the place where fairness is terribly needed, and yet where it is most difficult to access."


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