Hire Who? What? Pass the Spinach

By David Graulich

When business schools teach case studies about family business, a favorite technique is to create a scenario at the family dinner table. Unlike managers of other businesses, who have their big meetings over lunch, there seems to be something dramatic about a family discussing sensitive business matters at dinner.

Typical of this genre is a recent article in the Harvard Business Review that presents, for our edification, the fictional Ballisarian family. They own Ballisarian Beef, a wholesale meat business in Cbicago. Jeanette Ballisarian, matriarch, is seated at the dinner table with her two children, 40-year-old Katherine ("an independent, cheerful divorced) and mid-thirtyish Gregory, who is "slightly balding but athletic" (a mix of adjectives that will puzzle old YA Tittle fans). Having finished dinner, the three are ready to argue about whether the stalwart but aging father, Paul (who's off in Omaha on a mysterious mission), will be succeeded as CEO by Gregory, the slightly hairless heir, or by an ambitious nonfamily executive, Mike Post, who's been second-in-command for 20 years. Katherine puts down her coffee and the debate ensues.

No doubt a reader can draw profound insights from this case study. And the Review authors probably didn't intend their playlet to compete with A Long Day's Journey Into Night. Still, in the interests of authenticity and theatrical punch, there are certain subtle details of family life that should have been included.

For starters, the Ballisarians speak in complete sentences while sitting at the dinner table. There are no interruptions for telephone calls, vegetables boiling over on the stove, newspaper delivery boys, people going to the bathroom, or small children. For that matter, little kids are invisible, implying that they are either sequestered in a back room, or else off in Omaha with Grandpa Paul. If this were real life, of course, Gregory's intense analysis of profit-sharing plans would be halted in mid-sentence while he admonished his three-year-old not to drop peas into the root beer.

Secondly, all the Ballisarians seem to be discussing the same topic — namely, who will be the next CEO. This is too linear. In my experience, every person in a family dinner conversation is busily discussing a different topic, in the belief that this is the subject everyone else is talking about too. The effect is that of a dozen strands of subject matter flying around the table simultaneously, without even touching.

Finally, this drama needs a denouement. It ends with the Ballisarian family unable to resolve its differences, and five offstage, real-life advisors begin offering counsel and warning in the manner of a Greek chorus. One consultant tells Paul, "You must face the anguish you feel and talk it over with a psychologist who can help you explore your feelings about the company" (this person, not surprisingly, is a psychologist). Another advisor calls the situation "a tragic drama that has been reinacted thousands of times since before the Babylonian camel traders built their city into a commercial center."

Psychologists? Camels? Forget it. Here's a more satisfying conclusion: a surprise entrance by Paul, who announces that he's just closed a deal in Omaha with a huge new customer who will make Ballisarian Beef more successful than ever. Far from planning to retire, Paul says he feels rejuvenated and plans to stay on, and he advises his children to stop bickering and get to work. Then he and Jeanette break out the Dom Perignon and celebrate as the curtain falls. Now come on, Harvard — why didn't you guys think of that?

Article categories: 
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Issue: 
May 1990

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