How to succeed with a family business succession

CFO Tyson Foods gave a confession to investors this week. After reviewing his returns, John Randall Tyson added a personal note: “I’m sure you’ve seen the news about the incident involving me. I’m embarrassed and want to tell you that I take full responsibility for my actions.”

The news was that the 32-year-old son of Cersei Tyson, and grandson of its founder, was Accused was charged with public intoxication and trespassing after a stranger found him sleeping in her bed in Arkansas. Rather than fire him – which would likely be the fate of any non-family member – the US company asked its managers to review his behaviour.

“Don’t forget he’s been in this business basically his whole life,” Tyson CEO Donnie King answered when analysts asked why Tyson Jr. was in a job usually held by seasoned executives in their 50s. True, but this is usually what qualifies for had become king or queen, rather than the chief financial officer of the 500 largest US public companies.

Red Bull handled its succession more wisely, naming three CEOs to succeed founder Dietrich Mateschitz after his death in October, rather than his son. “I don’t think one should be an employee and a shareholder in the same company,” wrote Marc Mateschitz, who inherited his father’s 49 percent stake in the Austrian energy drink maker.

This does not mean that the Scion will leave others alone to run operations including Red Bull’s Formula One team. “I will . Hiring and firing others is just as powerful as doing their jobs yourself.

Succession is the most emotionally taxing question facing entrepreneurs. As they grow older, will they sell their business to outsiders or will they appoint one of their sons or daughters as heir and boss? A challenge looms over many of the founders of the twentieth century: more than 1.5 million owners A small and medium-sized family business in Germany is about to retire.

The conflict is evident in the still under public companies Family Monitor, as well as Fox Corporation and News Corp, both of which are dominated by 91-year-old Rupert Murdoch. He has installed his son Lachlan as a potential successor after decades of family maneuvering, as faithfully portrayed in the HBO drama Succession.

Bernard Arnault He also seems to prefer family dueling. His five children now work for his luxury conglomerate LVMH and he has extended his mandatory retirement age to 80. This provides time for confrontation and invites some sort of speculation as to who will succeed him as Lachlan Murdoch once described For me as a “pain in the ass”.

I can see why this kind of contest would appeal to the Patriarchs: Like King Lear, they give their adult children an incentive to pledge loyalty and affection, and use them to cement their control. If you’ve embodied a company for many years, the idea of ​​it being mentored after your death by an employee with an MBA must be disturbing.

The benefits for the younger generation are less clear. If several compete for advancement, it seems like a surefire way to spoil family gatherings. Even if there is only one child, the awkward question remains: Would this person have a chance if not for his name? The answer is often no.

This is not to deny that taking control of the family has some advantages. Family businesses are often more profitable to have Focus on the long term From companies run by professional executives to many investors. Having a responsible person who loves work instinctively and has been brought up to appreciate their purpose can be a strength.

Nor is it ridiculous for family members who inherit stakes in companies to get to know them from the inside. Whatever happened, John Tyson learned a hard lesson about how executives should behave in public companies, and the discipline of investor scrutiny. It is healthier to be shamed in public than to remain a gilded youth idly waiting to inherit.

However, this does not necessarily mean that the successors should be managers in addition to the owners. One study of Danish companies found that family succession leads to worse outcomes than Red Bull’s approach of installing professionals to take over from the founder. As controlling investors, families retain a lot of power to influence companies anyway.

Some of the heirs have recognized this: John Elkann, scion of the Agnelli family who controls Ferrari and Juventus, does not run it himself but supervised them through their boards and his family holding. Marta Ortega Perez, daughter of the founder of Inditex, had become Chairman of Zara’s parent group last year, but the day-to-day responsibility rests with the CEO.

It’s just normal. After years of observing how companies operate, many of the younger generation must have noticed that being publicly responsible for everything has its drawbacks. Becoming a successor doesn’t require running the entire show.

john.gapper@ft.com

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