52_A07The company haunted by the spirit of the family ?

Bad luck does not exist

An old friend, recently retired, tells me with pique, his economic and family mishaps. Three years ago, he passed on his small buisness to his son, a leather goods shop and a very busy and popular store. His customers, certainly aged, were faithful and particularly enyoyed the personalized service. His son decided to transform everything. Suppliers, product lines, showcase, workshop: everything is questioned. Even the two employees, present for over ten years, are invited to change habits. Sometimes the winds of change can bring new energy and boost activities. Here, the shop allowed three people to live comfortably, and the clientele was not ready to leave. But in three years, the turnover was halved. Customers do not seem to find their way in the new ranges, and the customized service, previously provided by the workshop was abandoned.
The relationship between father and son are tense, they already were before the reprise. The father kept a 25% stake, his son owns the remaining, apart from 2% split between a few close friends of the father. What astonishes the father is not so much the somewhat aggressive attitude of his son, nor the ease with which he manages the money which the father does not need today. He is particularly concerned that, despite all the efforts of his son, and the fact that the shop has been tastefully modernized, customers leave. What’s wrong ?
Clearly, the son is in an attitude of ‘denial’ of his father, rejection of the past and the non-recognition of the work done. The father explains to me that his son has no gratitude. He considers that this shop to be “his due”, that he, at least, is able to give it its true extent. Despite the son’s skills, his arrogance and his lack of experience lead him to fail. Customers feel it and diverge gradually from this ambience. Among the principles at work in the systems, recognition of the place of each, especially the founders, is one of the keys to allow the positive energy to flow. In this situation, the son is stubborn, both in his commercial approach and in his attitude of rejection of his father. To date, the shop is in liquidation. Could it have been avoided ? Perhaps, by some work from the son, if he had agreed to recognize the father’s place in this adventure. The study of systems shows that it is not the knowlege nor the commercial expertise nor even the artisanal knowledge that is often lacking, it is rather a work of non-exclusion, of gratitude and recognition of the place of each or still a fair balance between the members. Bad luck does not exist in systems !


Family source of professional problems

How far can we ignore the family influences ? What influences us ? When considering the systemic dynamics of business and family systems, we find that the generational memories are surprisingly at work. For example, the systems can’t accept exclusion and remind it to the systems’ members. Excluding someone has always negative consequences for the system and its descendants. Not so long ago, banishment was the ultimate punishment.
Even today, instinctively,rejection remains unbearable, and probably all forms of exclusion resonates in our memories and cells as an extreme act. The rejection takes many forms such as theft, confinement, murder, non-recognition of a child and so on. Often when a problem persists despite repeated efforts to overcome it, a good line of inquiry is the systemic field. It is true that we are not customary in this theme, to the point that it seems very uncomfortable. Yet, how many professional problems are rooted in our family history ? The corridors are haunted by the grandfather “hallways are haunted by my grandfather !” exclaims Jacques forcefully, the young boss with whom I talk. This businessman, out of a high business school, took over the reins of the family business, specializing in the manufacture of hydraulic valves and closing systems, created by his grandfather sixty years earlier. Georges, the grandfather died of a heart attack shortly after his sixtieth birthday and his son died in a car accident at age 56, which propelled Jacques at the head of the company. The situation is delicate, the company is going through successive trials and has more and more difficulties in selling its product. The grandson has just teamed with a German partner, hoping to boost sales abroad.
This is his fourth attempt in four years. Last year, an Austrian partner who had a subsidiary in China and a great export potential, gave up the adventure following an obscure misunderstanding about margins, after six months of negotiations. The previous partner had to stop its activities for cooperation, as he was in great difficulty and the company had been placed under judicial supervision. The first attemps had proven a painful experience because the partner, a small company specializing in “business development”, had managed to sell for nearly a million euros as cost price. The case ended in the hands of a judge and is still ongoing.
In short, finding a serious and honest strategic alliance seems to be an impossible task. Jacques is puzzled by this finding. He is not a sentimental or superstitious person. He is rather pragmatic. What worries him is related to the discoveries he has made in recent months, when he sought to dust off the family history. So, he got hold of press clippings that left thinking that Georges had undermined a competitor, to redeem and dismantle its activity. Nothing is clear, but suspicion of deceit and corruption hanged over the case.
The grandfather had one word to mouth “The feelings is for the house, at best!” “Business is business” was his second motto.
Deepening his investigations, the grandson discovered that his grandfather had been involved in two other attemps of theft and most likely, the capital that was used in the creation of the company came partly from the old “shenanigans”. Never condemned, but his name was cited as a major player. When Jacques today evokes the fact that the hallways are haunted by Georges, that’s what he is talking about. He is convinced that the company pays for these past misdeeds. In systemic terms, capital from a spoliation is equivalent to base a project on an exclusion, which the system can’t accept and that turns out for the descendants, by an inability to grow, despite the repeated efforts of those involved. The story goes that the son of George also tried, in moments of crisis, to be closer to partners without ever achieving it.



The two brothers

Still another example will help us understand the range of relations between the family business and the family itself. A computer service and software development company led by four brothers started its activities in 1989. One of them, the second sibling, is the general manager. He brought ideas and a tidy sum for starting activities. The youngest, an accountant by training, is the CFO and the head of human resources. The elder is responsible for sales and the third is responsible for the development department. After two years, the business plan is respected and the activity took off: first ten employees and profit, modest but promising. Two years later, almost thirty employees. The adventure seems to be under favorable auspices. Then the elder brother, aged 38 at the time, was hospitalized for a major heart problem and had to be absent without any guarantee that he would ever return. Six month later, the third brother was hit by a car, several breakings kept him in bed for more than nine months. The company lost two major contracts at the same period and is forced to lay off eight employees, while three others leave the ship. The management team keeps its head above water, but the company suffers. Two years later, the brothers sold their shares to a British company that whished to settle in the region. The CEO keeps his office for one year and then leaves the company. Twist of fate ? Precautionary missing ? Nobody will ever know.
By cons, studying more closely the family history, it reveals that in the father siblings, also consisting of four brothers, two died, at the age of 29 and 32, in the same car accident. If one goes back in the family tree, one finds that two great-uncles (uncles of their father) fled to Brazil in the interwar period, after a stint in the US. These two men, probably under the influence of alcohol, had mortally wounded a neighbor, also known for his violence. Risking prison, they had chosen to disappear from the scene. By studying more closely the behavior of this family, we could see that since the murder, many events involved the descendants in pairs, as if “fault” must always be carried by two brothers.


A phenomenological angle

By analyzing such stories, it is difficult to stick to mere coincidences. Systemic reading of current events allows to take an unusual step back and wonder about these subtle weaving of life. The red thread is not always the one we think. Our left brain, which easily falls into the linear and simplistic logic is undermined. The causes are sometimes coming from another time, another space. Althought it is not possible to demonstrate scientifically, the number of coincidences will attract the attention of the casual observer and can allow us to consider the question from a phenomenological perspective.


Hidden dynamics

Many stories like these were discussed during the congress of systemic firms in the Netherlands, in Amsterdam in April 2013. Several hundred people from more than twenty countries around the world had gatherred around this theme to share experiences and solutions. The advantage of this type of conference, at the initiative of Jan Jacob Stam, one of the leading specialists of systemic representations of companies, is to confront ideas, visions and techniques. Among these, setting the representation of representatives, under the leadership of a systemic mediator, allows precisely to highlight the hidden dynamics and reintroduce, at least symbolically, excluded people or situations, or to call back the players to their genuine place from each other.


Systemic solution

In the misadventures of the four brothers, systemic work has helped to highlight the murder victim and see that he was in close contact with two brothers. The new balance was built by the brothers in the family memory. Although we can consider that it is only a symbolic work, the brothers found that since then, something changed. They have not (yet) established a new company, but they feel more at peace internally and they rediscover links, not two by two, but all together. And your company, how is it ? Is it also under influence ? Sometimes, to quote the Yellow Emperor in the Neijing, “to bring order in the family will bring order in the world”. The family, despite its fragmentation, its current redifinition, remains a foundational unit of our society, let’s not forget it.

Theismann Frederic

Coach and human relations facilitator