Fact or Fiction?

By Margaret Steen

The lore of family business has influenced pop culture for centuries. What is it about family businesses that inspires such mystique?




The conclusion of HBO’s award-winning TV series Succession in May 2023 inspired memes, heated discussions and an array of merchandise including mugs, stickers and socks. But for those who, like the show’s fictional characters, are involved in a family business, it also brought up a wide range of emotions.

“When I first started watching Succession, I could hardly get through the first episode, because they had never developed any sound governance,” says Meghan Juday, chairman of the board of IDEAL Industries and founder of the Lodis Forum, a peer group for women in board leadership roles. “Pitting children against each other, the kids all trying to get the father’s approval — the whole thing is so tragic.”

The show offered an object lesson in how not to handle succession planning, with a father who was reluctant to give up control and his children jockeying for position.

“They don’t seem motivated by the role itself,” Juday says of the children depicted on Succession. “They’re drunk on power and want desperately to have their father appoint them because it’s the only way they think they could be worthy of their father’s love.”

Succession is just the latest in a long series of fictional depictions of family businesses. To name just a few examples: Shakespeare’s early 17th-century tragedy King Lear looks at succession in a royal family. Thomas Mann’s 1901 novel Buddenbrooks follows four generations of a German merchant family. In the 1970s and ’80s, the TV series Dynasty and Dallas both chronicled families in the oil business. Family enterprises are a common backdrop for films such as Lillian Hellman’s screenplay and film The Little Foxes and Disney’s Encanto. Real-life family businesses have been fictionalized for TV and film: The 2020 Netflix series Self Made is “inspired by the life of Madam C.J. Walker,” the first female self-made millionaire. The musical and movie Kinky Boots tell the story of a man trying to save the family shoe factory. And the Netflix series The Crown takes us inside a family business that has enchanted people around the world for decades: the British royal family.

Why are stories about family businesses so common, and why do they capture our imagination?

There are two key reasons, experts say. First, they are relatable. They also provide the essential elements of a good story: conflict and emotion.

Engaging the audience’s sympathy

Everyone has a family, even if that family doesn’t run a business. And the family dynamics on display in shows such as The Crown and Succession may be familiar even to people who are just trying to organize Thanksgiving dinner with their family, not oversee a multimillion-dollar business empire.

“While I think there is some comic or dramatic embellishment for entertainment value, probably these shows are popular because their tales, while dramatized, have a strong kernel of relatability,” says Jeremy Short, professor and G. Brint Ryan Chair in Entrepreneurship at the University of North Texas.

Families and business have long been intertwined: The earliest businesses were family affairs.

“Family businesses go all the way back to the beginning: In the early days, the father and/or mother started a craft or business and then taught the children that craft. Children of good shoemakers became good shoemakers, and maybe even better than their parents. That’s what I would call ‘good nepotism,’ and that can still exist today,” says Phillip Bellury, president of The Storyline Group in Atlanta, who has helped many family businesses create history books and videos.

It’s not a surprise, therefore, that they are at the root of so many stories.

“Family businesses are pervasive, in every economy around the world and in every political system,” says Alfredo De Massis, professor of entrepreneurship and family business at the Free University of Bolzano and IMD, who uses movies and TV shows to illustrate points about family businesses in his classes. “Regardless of whether you are in North America, Europe, Asia or Latin America, the vast majority of businesses are family firms.”

Creating an engaging narrative

What makes a good story? Conflict and emotions.

“Family business is rife with internal friction and drama,” Bellury says. “The potential for favoritism, jealousy or bad nepotism is ever present, especially if there are several children involved. The family dynamics affect the business dynamics and vice versa. It sets the stage for a lot of conflict.”

The conflicts that can arise at the intersection of business and family — leadership and succession struggles, decisions about whether to sell the business, conflict about how to divide the proceeds if the business is sold, disagreements between the family and the community — provide key ingredients for a compelling plot.

Because the owners of family businesses may be motivated not only by making money but also by the desire to leave a legacy, help the community or live out the family’s values, stories with these businesses as a backdrop can be rich and complex.

“In a family firm, you have a type of wealth that goes beyond financial wealth — what we call socioemotional wealth,” De Massis says. This can mean providing jobs for the next generation, maintaining family harmony, or building the family’s reputation in the community. “A family business is a place where decisions do not follow an economic calculation or logic — you have a lot of emotions going on. They can become a tragedy when they are poorly managed, or they can become amazing stories when these families have been able to put in place proper management.”

Promoting negative narratives

If people love stories about family businesses so much, why do the enterprises depicted in pop culture so often seem to be depicted as dysfunctional?

“I cannot think of any family business portrayed in the media that’s positive,” Juday says. “I think it’s fascinating that for all family businesses bring to the economy and to their communities, they don’t have a better reputation.”

The nature of narrative is largely to blame. An even-keeled family with good governance, mature conflict resolution and orderly succession planning would be well equipped to keep their business successful through generations — but their story would not hold an audience’s interest.

Creating riveting fiction, whether it’s a novel or a TV series, can require compressing the normal timeline so the plot moves quickly, thereby highlighting the characters’ challenges. Writers may also take problems that have befallen different businesses and consolidate them into one story, making for a gripping — but unrealistic — drama.

“When I watch Succession, it’s almost as if the father thrives on the drama,” says Karla Trotman, president and CEO of Electro Soft, Inc. “Most people who have children in a family business don’t need the drama — there’s enough in the business.”

While for most people, TV shows and movies about family businesses are just a diversion, the negative portrayals can have real-life consequences.

“We’ve found that it can be really difficult to recruit senior executives into a family business because of the media,” Juday says. “Unless people have had positive experiences with them, people think that family businesses are kind of crazy.”

Embracing diversity

There is another way in which portrayals of family businesses are not always positive or realistic: the portrayal of non-white families and of women.

“Coming from a Black family, I haven’t seen many shows that showed Black families owning businesses outside of a café or some type of storefront,” Trotman says. “When I watch these shows, obviously it’s for entertainment, but it makes me want to tell more stories about diverse family businesses. Our stories are different, because our access to capital is less and our networks are not as broad — yet we’re able to be successful.”

Trotman enjoyed Riches, a British TV series about a family whose business sold Black hair and makeup products.

“The drama reminded me of Dynasty,” Trotman says. “The show inspired me. I loved the story line of a Black family who amassed a great fortune from having a family business and the drama surrounding that transition of wealth.”

For Heather Falcone, CEO of Thermal-Vac Technology, the portrayal of women in Succession was too much.

“I had to break up with Succession — I stopped watching,” Falcone says. “The continual reinforcement of traditional women’s roles in that show disgusted me.”

Learning from fiction

In addition to being a fun form of escape, fiction allows us to understand other people’s lives on an emotional level.

“For us to be able to live inside another person’s experience, that’s what literature can really give you that’s often difficult to get any other way,” says William B. Gartner, Bertarelli Foundation Distinguished Professor of Family Entrepreneurship at Babson College. “It’s a different way of understanding, and that’s the goal.”

And when it comes to family businesses, engaging with fictional experiences can help readers and viewers sort through real-life scenarios.

“One of the most studied topics in family business research is that of succession planning, and I think this is one area where family businesses can learn from fiction,” Short says. He is co-author of Tales of Garcón: The Franchise Players, a graphic novel about a family business. “In our book, the heir apparent is the eldest son, Ramón, even though the patriarch of our story, Garcón, has a more capable and educated daughter, Isabel. So, practicing wisdom in succession planning over convention is one lesson.”

Works of fiction offer a number of perspectives on family relationships and succession:

• “The Godfather is an amazing opportunity to let the next-generation members of family firms understand the so-called Fredo effect — the toxic aspects and dysfunctional interactions between parents and their children,” De Massis says, referring to the movie’s portrayal of the incompetent son who is passed over for leadership in favor of his younger brother. “A Fredo can appear in a family business when a family member is given place in a family business for nepotistic reasons rather than because of her/his skills and the needs of the business.”

•  In Riches, the father dies suddenly, and there is no succession plan.

“Everyone is jockeying for position: You have new wives, multiple families involved and children not feeling like they were included or loved,” Trotman says. “One of the sisters had the ability to run the company and her siblings did not. Those are situations that do happen.”

 In-laws and stepchildren add to the show’s drama, if not to its plausibility.

“You would think that at that price point, someone would have suggested a prenuptial agreement or that some of these lawyers would have had the foresight to think about these protections,” Trotman says.

•  Shakespeare’s King Lear ends in tragedy after Lear tries to manipulate his daughters.

 “Lear goes to his daughters saying, ‘My decision criteria for who is going to get my kingdom is based on your expressing your love for me,’” Gartner says. “Cordelia says she is not going to play this game and leaves. Then you have all the repercussions.”

•  Lillian Hellman’s Little Foxes tells the story of a woman who defeats her conniving brothers in a struggle for control of the family business. “It’s one of the few gender-based stories of a woman really taking control of a situation between her brothers,” Gartner says.

•  The Crown starts off with what Juday describes as an “emergency succession,” when Queen Elizabeth ascends the throne at age 25, earlier than expected.

 As the show depicts in the decades that follow, for the royal family “it was really all about protecting the brand and sublimating the children and the self to protect it — which does really happen in family businesses,” Juday says.

•  Falcone’s favorite show about a family business is Encanto, the Disney animated film about a family that is blessed with magical powers that it uses to give back to the community. The source of those powers, Casita, where they live, starts to crack.

“That’s what creates the conflict: They’ve stopped moving forward,” Falcone says. “They’re stuck in legacy — they’re no longer open to innovations and new ideas, so Casita starts to crack. Because it’s not receiving any new energy or new life, it starts to die.”

The resolution: The family learns that everyone needs a voice.

 “That brings the magic of Casita back,” Falcone says. “Once they identified and reunited around purpose, they were able to reconcile, and Casita healed itself.”

The multigenerational bonds depicted in Encanto are one of the reasons people are attracted to family businesses and their stories.

“Family firms are very long-term-oriented — a family business exists to be handed over from generation to generation,” De Massis says. “In a very uncertain time like now, with political crises and where everything is unstable, I think having these kinds of organizations that at least in principle are going to be long-lasting — this is something that leads people to love them.” 

Margaret Steen is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Family Business.


Succession image: HBO/Kobal/Shutterstock



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