Mom Is Still Mrs. Outside

By Marcy Syms

In a majority of 44 family firms, mothers play the traditional role of chief child raiser, mediator, and soother of troubled waters. But some moms are breaking the mold.

In startup companies of a generation ago, the husband would be in charge of making the product. He, or perhaps his brother, would go out and sell it. The wife would keep the books. She might continue in this occupation until the business expanded enough to hire a professional, or the kids started to be born, or both. The wife would then have a lifetime of child-raising and housekeeping to look forward to, while her husband tended the business.

The heir to a supermarket empire described to me his mother's resignation to such a role. “She had her turf,” this son said. “My father had the business and my mother had us, and she had to convince herself she got the better part of the deal. At the time, she really wanted to go into the business, but she had to settle for us.”

From talking with others in family businesses, this successor has concluded that founders are unlikely to share their innermost thoughts with anybody. However, if they do tell anyone, it's their wives. “Consequently, wives do have a quasi-power behind the throne, but it's not true power,” he said. “They have at least a moderating influence in some instances. They generally do present the human side of things, as women often do when they are married to entrepreneurs, who can be very tough characters.”

Of course, not every founder's wife accepted a passive role. Some had opinions and voiced them, and their opinions carried weight. Marla Schaefer of Claire's Stores Inc., an accessory chain founded by her father in New York, talked about her mother, who refused to mediate between the generations. “My mother always told me,” Marla recalled, “‘This is your father and you’ve got to get along with him, so do it.'”

“‘But Mom,' I would say, ‘you talk to him so well. Do it for me.' But she never did, and I'm glad. I had to get there myself.”

And yet Marla's mother spoke up when she considered it to be important. Marla told me: “My mother is a very level-headed woman, and I think my father respects her opinion. Because she's not involved in the day-to-day running of the company—although she sits on the board of directors—she gets the whole story in bits and pieces from other people and then she assesses it. I think she's able to give her assessment of a situation from an outsider's point of view, which can be very helpful. Sometimes she's able to speak to my father in terms that he understands when I just won't be able to talk to him.”

The wives of business founders have always found ways to exert their influence, whether they remain active in the company, become powers behind the throne, or are simply reliable sounding boards. But in the past they were rarely rewarded or even recognized. When year after year of behind-the-scenes help never showed up on the balance sheet, many began to doubt their self-worth.

In the course of writing a book about family companies, I found that some moms today have more prominent roles in family businesses. Indeed, a number have become the boss, either by inheriting their husband's company or starting businesses of their own. For the most part, however, the old pattern remains alive and well. Among the companies that I investigated, only two second-generation businesses could be called true husband-and-wife partnerships. In most of the others, mothers played the traditional role of mediator, child-raiser, and soother of troubled waters. Their lack of real power in the family firm compelled many of them into community and philanthropic activities, and in a few instances, into businesses of their own.

I didn't want to focus in my study on the families that have failed—the Binghams, the Johnsons, the Shoens, and all those other families whose court battles are well-known. I sought out successful families that appeared to be blessed with both riches and long-term family harmony. I wanted to know how the owners of these families had brought children into the business and made it work.

All told, I met with 44 family businesses that fit that description, interviewed 66 people, and had supplementary information on about 40 additional family members. The businesses ranged widely in size; two had gross revenues less than $500,000, many had between $1 million and $15 million, and four had more than $1 billion. Many of the people I talked to offered insights into the contribution of mothers, and the conflicts in the mother's role.


Mom Holds It All Together

With very few exceptions, while her husband is still alive, the wife usually doesn't fit in the family business—not in a salaried way, with a real title. Of the businesses in my sample that started out as partnerships, only two remained that way for more than one generation: the third-generation Woods family of Sylvia's Restaurant in New York City, and the fifth-generation Voses of Vose Galleries in Boston. The Vose family business, currently run by twin brothers Bill and Terry, was the only one in which two generations of wives worked together—indeed, it was one of the very few companies in which any of the wives were included. The wife of Earl Graves, publisher of Black Enterprise magazine in New York City, works on a daily basis and draws a salary, but she keeps a low profile and plays mostly a supportive role.

If wives and/or mothers do have titles, they are more or less meaningless. O.M. “Koke” Cummins, president of Mansfield Industries, an Ohio-based manufacturing corporation, was very forthright about the point. “My wife is the director or assistant secretary or secretary,” he told me. “The fact that I can't tell you for sure means she's not really involved at all. Basically, it's just a title. She has very little involvement other than what she hears from me when I come home at night.”

Curtiss L. Carlson, founder of the Carlson Companies—the travel, hotel, and marketing megacorp based in Minneapolis—understood all about the demands made by success:

“If you want to be an entrepreneur, that means you eat, drink, and sleep your business, and that the most important thing is business. The part of a wife is to take care of the children and not cause her husband to have to fight dragons all day long and then go home and fight dragons all over again.”

Considering that there is a 50 percent divorce rate in this country, I found that many of the family members worked very hard on their marriages. They really wanted them to last. They said good marriages make life in the company that much easier, and bad marriages can lead to ghastly and distracting complications. Publisher Earl Graves tells each of his sons: “Think carefully about how this person is your partner for life. If the marriage is good, it will keep your mind free for business; if it's bad, it will interfere with everything.”

In describing his wife's role, Herbert Russell, head of H.J. Russell and Co., an Atlanta-based construction firm, summed up the separation of labor that has prevailed for a generation: “She wouldn't work here if we paid her a billion dollars a day. She runs the house. I know who the chief is once I enter it.”

The family portrayed in the TV series “Father Knows Best”might have seemed ideal to some of our parents' generation, but often the reality of the husbandly breadwinner back then was actually less palatable. The founder-entrepreneur was probably not available to hear all about the school problems of his adorable tykes, but was on the road, or working late, or entertaining a client. Many wives found themselves completely responsible for all matters relating to home and family for two decades of their lives. They had total responsibility not only for child care, but for disciplining the kids as well.

While remaining outsiders, some wives nevertheless managed to make significant contributions to the business. Many, for example, showed talent in arranging the social life important to the family business, which is an area that doesn't generate bottom-line income directly but which family members agree can be invaluable. Renée Edelman, a vice-president of Edelman Public Relations in Chicago, described her mother's contribution:

“My mother played a big role in entertaining clients at a moment's notice, giving parties, really leading the way for my father in a social context in Chicago, getting him on a par with CEOs. Their names were in the society pages, and although my father says that referrals came through his business, I think my mother was a big help, too, and that they were a team that worked hard together. She was my father's right arm, although I don't know whether he'll admit it.”

Even more important was the mother's role as family mediator and nurturer. Koke Cummins' son Bruce, who heads Mansfield Assemblies, a separate business created by Koke's children, described the family's dependence upon his mother, a psychotherapist who specializes in family counseling:

“My father is a very analytical, left-brain person. My mother couldn't tell you what 12 times 11 is, but she can look at me and say, ‘You're sighing just like your dad. What does it mean?' Now, I wasn't sighing in order to generate an inquiry. I was sighing because that's how I relieve stress. But my mother can read people very well. She is kind of the center that holds things together. I don't mean things would fall apart without her, but I think her objectivity can mean a lot to a couple of analytical, number-crunching businessmen.”


Mom in Charge

Sometimes that mom who was the company's original bookkeeper-turned-homemaker is heard from again, and in a big way—upon the cataclysmic event of her husband's death. A spouse can inherit the business and not pay estate taxes (which can then become a problem for the next generation). So frequently, in the family's attempt to stave off the IRS, the wife will inherit the business. Mom, the one-time bookkeeper, becomes the Big Boss.

Of course, it happens that a totally untrained widow decides to run the business, and the results are disastrous. But there are plenty of success stories, too. One well-known example is Katherine Graham of The Washington Post Co.

The mother of Italian shoe manufacturer Massimo Ferragamo had to pitch in when her husband died in 1963. At the time, Massimo, the youngest child, was only 3 years old. Wanda Miletti guided the business while raising her six children, who entered the company as they reached maturity, bringing with them specialized experience and skills. In the process, the company became an international player, and expanded to fulfill the founder's dream of manufacturing not only shoes but all kinds of women's fashions and accessories.

Today, the mother is president of Salvatore Ferragamo SPA. Massimo Ferragamo credits the phenomenal growth of the company to his mother's strengths in the areas of both family and business. “After my father passed away,” Massimo told me, “she sat at his desk and took care of a lot of things she knew very little about, just by using good sense and getting the right kind of help, which is very important. She had an innate business sense, which, if you don't have it, you can't gain it, even if you’re a Harvard graduate. She guides herself by using this business sense, which I've always admired.”

Bernadette Castro, who heads the Castro Convertible sleeper-sofa company founded by her late father, Bernard, was a mom long before she was a boss. She has a clear grasp of what goes into both jobs. Bernadette, who is married to a doctor, was raising four children when her brother's tragic death forced her to become quickly educated in the business. She became president of the company in 1990. Today, Bernadette can laugh about the difficulties involved:

“I'm responsible for so many things now, I'm stressed out altogether, and, on top of it, I really am a family nut and a neurotic mother. When I talk to women's groups, I tell them that my children have found two words to sum me up: ‘not normal.' This is not a normal house, we do not have normal dinners, and I am not a normal mother. In reply, I tell them: ‘If you just do normal things, you can't expect to achieve great things.' But, in times of great frustration, I ask myself, ‘Are any of these things I'm doing good enough?'”


Mothers as Founders

At the end of an interview filled with enthusiasm and laughter, Dominique Richard hugged her mother, New York real estate broker Alice Mason, and nearly lifted her off the ground. “I think my mother's a star,” she said, “and I'm her biggest fan.”

Alice Mason created a unique agency that specializes in $2-million plus co-op apartments. Her customers are especially loyal. Dominique, who works with her mother at Alice Mason Ltd., said: “There's nobody in the business who did what she did. All those newcomers in the business—let's see them in 30 years, and I'll be more impressed. And, you know, she makes me think I do okay, and that's fine. She doesn't criticize.”

In general, I found the daughters of the mother-founders to be individualistic and confident—and they all seemed to have lots of affection for their mothers, which was reciprocated. Dominique, who until her recent marriage lived with her mother on New York's Upper East Side, described an enviable relationship with her mother: “lying about, relaxing, discussing deals, and gossiping—being really good pals.”

Alice Mason is equally enthusiastic about her daughter. “When I hear Dominique at meetings, I think, ‘God, she's fantastic.' I say to myself, ‘I did not know about that point she made,' or, ‘Is that the language you use today?' I don't even know the names of the people on the new listings. I don't want to know. But Dominique knows.”

Kathryn Klinger Belton, another only daughter, is president of her mother's successful skin-care business, Georgette Klinger Inc., in New York City. “My daughter is my eyes and ears,” said Georgette Klinger. “She is an extension of myself, and she does business in Los Angeles, where I do not care to be, in a culture that is alien to me. I am interested only in skin care, not in cosmetics. That is Kathryn's area.”

The mother-and-daughter team leads a bicoastal life, connected by phone, fax, and lots of transcontinental flights. But their closeness is obvious, and both agree that the separation may, in fact, enhance their relationship.

The female CEOs I interviewed epitomized many of the good things that make family businesses work. They communicated well with their children (in most cases with their daughters), they were flexible enough to allow the next generation to learn and to make their own mistakes, and they were at least willing to discuss their future plans for the company. What this added up to was that the kids had a real opportunity to succeed.


When the Kids Bring Mom Aboard

My study uncovered one unexpected pattern: mothers who are brought into the business by their sons and daughters, frequently after the death of the CEO.

The three Karol brothers of HMK Group Companies—a diversified business in Waltham, Massachusetts, with products ranging from steel to carpets and office furniture—hired their mother, Joan, after the death of their father. When the founder was alive, Joan played the traditional mother role. But during the period when she was trying to come to grips with widowhood, her sons persuaded her to come to work for them.

“We call her Joan, not Mom,” explained her son William. “She had played a somewhat submissive role with her husband and three sons, and was way down in the pecking order. When we were growing up, she would get stuck in the middle a lot, and was never very effective. But we loved her and wanted her to be happy. With the help of a counselor, we got her involved in the business, and she became the person who planned our meetings. Now she's the director of public affairs.”

Christie Hefner, chairman and CEO of Playboy Enterprises, brought her mother into the business under different circumstances. Christie's mom and dad were divorced when she was young. But the business adapted to the realities of a fractured family. Christie succeeded her father, founder Hugh Hefner, and hired her mother, Millie Gunn. She first put her mother into retail sales, then into running programs in human resources.

Christie spoke of her debt to her mother: “I really grew up with my mother, and in very fundamental ways she helped give me the confidence to be a success in whatever I chose to do. I came into the company at a young age, and became president at a young age, and one of the things people say when they meet me and hear me speak is, ‘You seem so comfortable and poised. Weren't you afraid?” I think the fact that I am those things has as much to do with my mother as anything else.

“She gave me absolute love and support in spite of her circumstances. Although she was divorced from my father, she raised me not to be bitter about him. She didn't create a rift between us in a way women often do who are left raising children and feeling abandoned.”

With her highly developed facilitation skills, Christie has learned to manage her complicated family situation. “This year I, my mother and her husband, my brother, my father and his new wife and baby, and his mother—who's my live-in grandparent—can all spend time together. It's very pleasant and comfortable. In fact, facilitation is no longer required.”

When I visited Edelman Public Relations in Chicago, vice-president Renée Edelman, daughter of founder Daniel Edelman, reported on a campaign in progress to bring her mother into the business. “In all the years we were growing up, my father had an office for my mother and wanted her to work in the business, but she resisted. She said she couldn't see working for her husband, even though he had a history of promoting women and providing them with a good workplace.

“But I think she sees that I'm productive and useful in the business, and wonders why she shouldn't be also. She’s always giving ideas and working for free! The company just got the Weight Watchers frozen food account, clinics and all, and my mother keeps telling my brother she wants to work on it. He bought her a briefcase for her birthday.7#148;

When two generations work together, an infinite variety of behavioral changes seem to occur naturally. In the case of the Edelmans, we see an interesting example of role reversal—with the younger generation serving as mentors to the older. This is a very positive trend. Family businesses have a better chance of surviving when the younger generation wants to help expand the horizons of the older, and the older is willing to risk learning something new.

In trying to isolate the most important characteristics of successful families, it seemed clear to me that almost every trait had to do with adaptability. Families that work have the ability to sit down together and discuss a problem dispassionately. And where true adaptability exists and change is possible, family members have a real chance to prove themselves in new roles, and to put to rest forever those awful childhood stereotypes that haunt most of us.


This article is from Marcy Syms's new book, Mind Your Own Business: A Handbook for Working With Your Family (MasterMedia Ltd., New York). Copyright �(c) Marcy Syms, 1992.

Neglected Wives, Angry MothersMany a neglected wife will see her husband's involvement in the company as destructive to the family, but will feel powerless to change her spouse's behavior. At a family business conference, Roy Menninger, the psychiatrist, described a typical case history:


“Often I see in families who come into therapy that the two children are fighting considerably, and the issue appears on the surface to be finding what is wrong with these two kids. What often emerges in the course of family therapy is that the kids are playing out an issue that is going on between the mother and the father.

“The fight is really between the parents, but the parents deny and suppress that. They do everything to hide that information, and keep talking instead about the kids. But it's their problem.

“This kind of pattern occurs very often in families where a wife marries a man who has really taken on the business as his mistress. As you might suspect, the wife has an intense array of feelings. On the one hand, she feels proud to be married to such a successful man. On the other hand, she may feel that she's living a lie, that the world thinks that she and her husband have an ideal marriage because he carries great prestige, and is charming and pleasant in public. But they may have had separate bedrooms for 20 years. The public may not know that there is virtually no intimacy between them.

“Sometimes in such a situation, when the father dies, the wife and mother may side with the younger children against the oldest son and heir-apparent. The implication is clear: The mother is still angry about what her husband did and did not provide. But her only way of retaliating is indirect. She can't reach her husband anymore because he's dead, so she sets up her son as the target. The heir-apparent of the business is going to be the heir-apparent psychologically, too, and the wife will team up with the younger children and make use of stock issues, equity interest, and so on. When the anger of being spurned for a mistress is never dealt with and never managed, it leaves a scar which may never heal.”— M.S.

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Winter 1993

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