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  Of Fathers, Sons and Business

#3 in a series


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After high school I was in business with my father and brother in Coatesville, PA. And then my brother and I started K&K Aircraft together in Harrisonburg, VA, while in college. Years later I started Preferred Airparts in Kidron, OH, with my sons. Family business relationships? I've "been there and done that." Probably nothing except being a pastor serves up such a range of human satisfaction and emotion!

The best father-son business relationship I ever saw was two men in New York who gave every impression of being anything but godly. It was about 30-years ago, and I was only with them for an hour or two but they had "it." Observing family businesses has been a hobby of sorts over the years and I've never forgotten that one.   
There's a lot of unspoken "stuff" in family business relationships. Assumptions. Presumptions. Expectations. Motivations. Insinuations.

For openers, fathers often expect respect because they're "Father." And sons may expect privilege. The two don't mix very well!  

And then there's the "stage of life" thing. Fathers may have started the business. They have invested years to build it and now want to protect it. Their "later years" are fast approaching. Meanwhile, along comes son – full of vim and vigor, with a whole life ahead of him. He can risk, blow it, and start over. These are usually unspoken factors but their voices scream in the darkness that follows.

Moving on, founders of businesses are often better at founding then at building them 20-years later. That's just a fact of life. People who start Christian Schools, businesses and churches are the sort who can see things before they exist. They are focused. They persevere. It takes that to "found," but it takes something different to build. Few of us have it all.

So here's Dad, maybe 10-25 years later. He struggled through "the hard years" and built him a credible business. It is very possible that his focus has kept him fairly narrow in perspective. There's a lot more they could do but he can't see it. Doesn't need it either. Likely too, that his being such a persevering person also implies a vulnerability to being a bit stubborn. And now there's son!

It can go several directions from here, depending on both generations. I have been privileged to be close to situations where the second generation was able to gradually pick up the reins and take the business to whole new levels. Far beyond what Dad could have. And for several reasons.

First, son benefited from Dad's hard knocks and from his wisdom of years. He didn't need to start from ground zero. Secondly, he may be a very good builder-type, but would not have started a business. Thirdly, he might have more education which, when wisely applied, can help a lot. It has been so rewarding to see these transitions take place!

I have also been painfully close to some where fathers wouldn't let go. "You're not turning me out to pasture, young man!" They held the reins tightly. Their control was paramount. It is sometimes hard for me to encourage a son to stay. But other times sons moved too fast in trying to influence the business without earning their father's confidence. Probably the term "gut wrenching" was created in such a setting.

I know of fathers who recognized that son was made of good stuff but that he had more zeal than wisdom. They could fight him, or extend grace. Because they were more mature as a person, and because they treasured the relationship, they were able to give son more room than he actually deserved. And it worked.

And then there was the father I talked with one time. He had started a construction related business and now had a son-in-law working with him. Father ordered supplies, related to customers and did invoicing in addition to some field work. Son-in-law did mostly field work. Problem was, each was better gifted in the other's role!

Father recognized this but struggled with it. After all, isn't the father supposed to run things? Isn't he to be the lead guy – even if he’s miserable? He followed my encouragement to let go of the reins and switch roles. Our paths crossed some months later and he was all excited about how well it was going.

But back to father and son in New York. What ingredient did they have? It's simple – they respected each other.

I could see it. Feel it. Almost touch it. We stood there and talked and they acted like friends. They were at ease with each other. They could stand close. They could look at each other as they talked. They did not compete, or correct each other. Neither tried to be more important than the other. Each allowed the other to be the person he was. I would have enjoyed the conversation more with a bit less cussin', but I enjoyed it a whole lot more than when I'm with super-saint and important-acting fathers and sons who don't respect each other.

Fathers and sons each have their place in a family business. Each has something to give, and each must receive from the other. It behooves sons to respect fathers because of their years, and for the investment they have already made. Fathers often know best. But it behooves fathers to respect sons for the fresh creativity and vision they bring. Fathers don't always know best.

Fathers were there first, and the wise son will take the time to prove himself before expecting too much power. After all, Dad needs the assurance that his future is safe in his son's hands. And there is something to the wisdom of years. It would amaze some sons, how much a little humility would impact Dad's willingness to let go! But it would amaze some fathers, how much stronger the business would be if son could influence it more!

I'm not suggesting that father and son are equals. They are unequals in many ways. But if they respect each other as individuals, and for the skills that each brings to the business, it can be one of the most rewarding experiences on earth.


This is #3 in Ken Stoltzfus' series "Business as Usual?" and is one of many short articles that can be found at © Ken Stoltzfus,, P.O. Box 228, Kidron, OH 44636 USA. May be printed for personal use and may be reproduced for non-commercial purposes without further permission if proper acknowledgment is given.



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