Good to be Home for the Holidays

By David Graulich

Ah, the holidays. Those joyous times when family members gather around the dinner table in Rockwellian tableau and share glad tidings.

But for members of family businesses, the holidays present a special set of perplexities. With relationships strained from longsimmering personal feuds and business rivalries, the forced frivolity can quickly go up in smoke. Many a hostess will shudder at the story of Willie Farah, embattled head of the Farah clothing firm: When his estranged son showed up at Christmas dinner last year, Willie abruptly rose from the table, stalked out of the house, and sat in a parked car for three hours.

The advice of the usual etiquette gurus isn't of much help in preventing similar disasters. Emily Post explains that: "It is safer to avoid inviting people who are deeply involved in, or rabidly opinionated about, a controversial issue." Following that advice would eliminate just about every family business member over the age of 12.

To cope with what really happens at these affairs, you must first understand the actors. First and foremost (and that's how he sees it), there's Aging Patriarch. His best years are past, but he still limits succession planning to the granting of important-sounding but meaningless titles to his children. He does so despite the urgings of Mediating Mom, who, in addition to being holiday hostess, fills the family's year-round needs for a diplomat, umpire, and court of final appeal.

Over there by the drinks, about to douse each other with egg nog, are Baleful Brother and Suspicious Sister, who are waging an open competition to take over the company. Hovering near the fireplace are Wayward Son, a prodigal third child who has returned from serving time for "possession" to stake his claim, and Idiot Nephew, dismissed by everyone as a schlemiel but who plots to win Aging Patriarch's favor.

They are joined by Confused In-Law, who owns no stock and has no grasp of the business whatsoever. A late arrival (from the office) is Distant Cousin, who has cooked the books longer than anyone remembers. Lingering by the door is Bored Teenager, who shows no interest in the family or the business, and would rather be at a Bon Jovi concert.

Given this combustible cast of characters, how can you avoid a culinary calamity? Here are a few tips:

  1. Serve cocktail weenies right away. That will at least keep Bored Teenager happy and will mercifully shift the small talk from company matters to concerns about gastrointestinal disorders.
  2. Call everyone to the table. Make sure the rival siblings aren't seated next to each other, or worse, across the table in a confrontational position. Instead, flank them on either side of Mediating Mom, who can modify whatever they say to each other before passing it on.
  3. Pair up Distant Cousin with Wayward Son. That way, old reliable can figure out just what corporate credit cards Wayward has access to and can cancel them the next business day.
  4. Spot Idiot Nephew next to Aging Patriarch, so that the former can make his case and the latter can realize what might befall the company if an orderly succession isn't planned.
  5. Dissuade Aging Patriarch from making a toast; he will inevitably speculate on the business's future, instantly igniting argument. Instead, ask Confused In-Law to read a prayer.

Once you've managed to seat everyone properly, skip dinner altogether. Pour the coffee, serve dessert, and send everyone home early. No need to prolong matters. Guests may stop at the door and say wistfully, "You know, this was so nice. The family really ought to get together like this more often." To which you should nod your head and respond as follows: "Happy Holidays to all, and to all a good night!"

David Graulich ponders business from San Francisco.


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December 1990

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