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Martin K. Green
Martin K. Green
Family business

Keeping relatives talking to each other is an often overlooked role for advisers.

December 20, 2012
by Martin K. Green Jr.

If you are a financial adviser, chances are the first thing you were taught is that you must have an elevator speech. This is a quick synopsis of what you do for people that will captivate listeners and trigger them to ask you for help.

My elevator speech is simply, “I help family business people continue to have Christmas dinner with their extended family members, the people they work with. ...” The fact is this was not always my elevator speech. But unless you have lived in a family business, you may have no idea of what I am talking about.

I did not know this bit of family information was important until I attended a continuing education class some years ago. The featured speaker was Steve Leimberg, at that time a faculty member of the American College of Financial Services. He spoke about the dynamics within a family business and why families typically stop enjoying holidays and other time together outside of the business.

I experienced the same growing up as a child. My father and his brother worked together in the family business my grandfather started, and one year we suddenly stopped going to my grandmother’s to celebrate Christmas. Even though this happened when I was a small child, I still wondered about it some 50 years later. It had made an impact in my life. Now years later, after graduating from college, serving in the military for five years, returning and working in this same family business, the question lingered: Why had we stopped going to my grandmother’s house for Christmas?

Steve Leimberg had the answer. He said it was very typical of the family business environment. Relatives who work together all week long rarely can stand to be in the same room together on the weekend. They are thrown together in business, develop conflicts, and, over time, have hidden animosity that cannot be exhibited during the week. In fact, these feelings of dislike are generally hidden from everyone except the spouse, who hears about them every evening. As a result, the family members do not want to see each other any more than necessary. Usually, one relative holds particularly deep feelings of resentment and another seems to be oblivious to them. This was my family’s experience.

After realizing I had experienced something some advisers in my profession had not, I concluded that I knew something valuable and my story could be helpful to many. Most people in business do not realize this conflict is the norm, not the exception. They are ashamed to reveal they have these feelings about a brother, a cousin or, as in my case, an uncle.

Well, guess what? Most people share the same passions, dislikes, feelings of guilt, greed, and other basic emotions. Personal business relationships are like all other relationships.

Ultimately, unspoken animosity creates its own set of problems, because one does not confront the source of conflict with the others. This often restricts discussion about issues going forward. The business family cannot discuss the family matters that affect the business. Planning is stilted or halted and, in the end, one person thinks he or she won while the other is embittered or the executive dies prematurely without having exercised even basic estate planning options for his or her family.

This was somewhat the issue in my family. My father died prematurely and I had to step into a situation for which I was ill prepared and was frankly too young and immature to realize it. The Army taught me to adapt to situations without giving up, so that is what I did. My uncle probably felt some of the same animosity toward me. Like most in this situation, we continued to duke it out the best we could. In the end, I was younger and hence can tell the story from my perspective. If he was younger and still alive, I am sure it would sound different.

That’s why my elevator speech changed. I am in the business of helping families continue to have Christmas dinner together many years into the future. Most business people will tell you that keeping the business afloat and making profit is the real goal of the family business. I disagree. What is the point if you do not continue going to Grandmother’s for Christmas?

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Martin K. Green Jr. CLU, ChFC, is a financial professional licensed to sell insurance through New York Life Insurance Co. and may be licensed with various other independent unaffiliated insurance companies in the states of California, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia.