Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A Family Story

Once, on my travels, I was introduced to a successful businessman. This man was well known not only in the business circles of his city, but across the city itself. He had served terms as president of both the Chamber of Commerce and the Country Club, and each year he hosted a fundraiser dinner at which the wealthiest families in town donated literally millions of dollars to the several charities of which he was a patron. Of these, the one closest to his heart was a fund he himself had established, to support kids from disadvantaged neighbourhoods through college. Without ever demanding respect from anyone, he commanded respect from all who met him.

This man told me that he had two sons, both of whom had followed him into the family business he had built up over the years. The extent of the older son’s ambition stretched no further than one day to step into his father’s position within the business, and the wider community. His father loved him, and believed that while his son lacked the drive that had led him to build a successful business from nothing, he had the steady character to oversee the existing business, and hand it on in turn.

His younger son was cut from a very different cloth – the same cloth as his father. He was full of ambition. He loved his father, and respected him as both father and a businessman; but he had enough about him to realise that, in this town, he would never be anything other than his father’s son. And that was not enough for him: he needed the opportunity to make something of himself, or fail trying.

And so the younger son had gone to his father, and asked for the 50% share in the family business that would come to him anyway in the future, to have it now when he could make the most of it. And the father agreed. Indeed, he went further: he gave both his sons the 50% share that was coming to them, although the older son had not made any such request. And then he went further still. Because he knew that his son was not interested in running the business but was looking to liquidate his assets; and so, in order to keep the business within the family, he bought back off his son the shares he had just given him.

For this decision, he was for a time derided by the business community that had held him in such respect. To pay the market value for what was already yours was madness. And it certainly impacted his personal fortune. But he was wise enough to know that, in the long term, it was more important to keep the business. And anyway, he understood grace.

His son had gone up the coast, ending up in a city with a reputation that anyone with a little money and a lot of imagination could make a lot of money – enough to slake their imagination’s thirst. And for a while, things went well. Very well. But he had arrived just as the start-up opportunities had reached capacity. Those who had made their money were already relocating their businesses even further up the coast, and the local bubble was about to burst.

A risk-taker at heart – like his father – he’d made a bad call, then another, and then one thing led to another, and rapidly. He tried calling in favours; but ‘friends’ who’d been all too happy to be seen with him when he was on the up, made their excuses now he was on the way down. He went from sleeping in penthouse suites – if he came home at all – to progressively smaller apartments in progressively seedier neighbourhoods; to sleeping on friends’ floors; and then the floors of strangers; and, finally, in doorsteps and back alleys.

It was at that point that he admitted to himself that things had not worked out as he had hoped. But he was still a risk-taker, and there was still one last roll of the dice. He’d return home, and ask his father to hire him, right back at the bottom of the business he’d once – briefly – co-owned.

And in a way, this risk didn’t pay off either; because his father wasn’t having any of this business proposition. Didn’t even let him lay it out on the table. Not interested, no sir. All he was interested in was that his son was back home. First up, he got him sorted with a bath and a shave and a change of clothes. And while that was going on, he was on the phone, giving orders, organising a party, booking the caterers – the best.

The stage was set for a family reunion of – like everything else about the man – legendary proportions. But his older son poured cold water on the plan. He was seriously upset, to put it mildly. He hadn’t spoken to his brother since their father had divided the business between them. Instead, he’d set out to show his father that he was worth so much more, dutifully putting in long hours at work, stepping up to the increased responsibility of being a major player on the board. And now his father was throwing a party for his waster of a kid brother.

Why, he’d asked? Why him? Why not me? Why have you never set aside anything from the wealth of the business to celebrate me? After all I’ve so diligently done for you. He’s always been your favourite. He spat in your face; he pissed away half of what you’d built up; and you let him walk back in as if nothing had happened.

I believe that at the time his father was too gracious to point out the obvious. I suspect he might have got there for himself, in the end. Since his brother left town, he’d been so focused on proving himself to his father, he’d failed to realise that he was not working for his father but for himself. That half the business was his. That he had all the resources he needed to celebrate whatever and whoever he chose. But he hadn’t registered it. He had failed to receive what his father had given him; and so had been unable to give to anyone else.

But he wasn’t going to take that comment about letting his son walk back in to the family as if none of what had gone before had happened. No, sir. Because the truth of the matter was precisely the opposite. It was precisely because of all that had happened that he wanted to celebrate. Because his son had been lost – as good as dead – and now he was home.

Were the sons reconciled to each other; to their father? I never found out – we had to leave before he finished his tale. Or perhaps he chose not to; I no longer recall. But I suspect that, if they were all reconciled, it was the grace he held out so resolutely that won it.

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