September/October 2013 Toolbox

By Barbara Spector

Tackling the challenges of success.

A Wealth of Possibilities: Navigating Family, Money and Legacy
By Ellen Miley Perry
Egremont Press, Washington, D.C., 2012 • 149 pp. • $20

In A Wealth of Possibilities, Ellen Miley Perry addresses the relational challenges confronting highly successful wealth creators and their children. Perry, who co-founded a multi-family office that later became GenSpring and has been an adviser to wealthy families for 20 years, emphasizes parenting, which she contends is an essential foundation for the family’s future.

“The damage and heartbreak I often see in second and third generations is a result of a somewhat intangible sort of deprivation of parental attention and attachment,” Perry writes.

The author divides her book into five chapters, each of which contains a lesson to successful entrepreneurs: “Connect,” “Be Great Parents,” “Pitch a Big Tent,” “Become Emotionally Fluent” and “Cultivate Joy.”

“Few wealthy families devote the same intensity, energy, and commitment to their human assets—their family members—as they devote to their financial assets,” Perry asserts.

Perry studied family systems theory at Georgetown University, where pioneering researcher Murray Bowen began his landmark work. She explains Bowen’s theory of the family as a complex, interconnected system in which a change in one part prompts the other parts to change in order to adapt. Like Bowen, Perry believes that the nuclear family provides the most intense emotional relationships. An entrepreneur’s relationships with his or her spouse and children will be carried forward into future generations and will affect the sustainability of wealth and harmony, she writes.

Against this background, the author offers sound advice. Among her suggestions: Keeping secrets about the family wealth teaches children to distrust others; a parent’s expectations for a child hinder the child’s freedom to follow his or her own dreams; and while passing values to one’s children is beneficial, imposing one’s preferences on children is not.

Perry describes family values statements, family councils and other family communication mechanisms as family “risk management” strategies. But in discussing values, she ventures into territory that many advisers avoid. “At worst, depending on what the values are, and how they are communicated, a parent’s clarity about his or her values can strip others, most often children, of their identity and individuality,” she writes. “Strong feelings about values can even become a weapon of sorts, threatening superiority and judgment.”

Family business owners may balk at Perry’s description of a young person’s work in the family business as a “pseudo job.” She quickly qualifies that appellation, however, noting that the experience can be beneficial if several criteria are met. These criteria are often mentioned in the family business literature: The young person must be qualified for the position in the family firm, must be supervised by a non-family member with real authority, must adhere to the same personnel policies as other employees and must be willing to work as hard as, or harder than, everyone else.

Also addressed in Perry’s book are the family and business challenges that arise when the founder steps down and the emotional relationship between trustees and beneficiaries, which is often ignored by wealthy families.

The author makes an interesting observation: “In a number of families I’ve worked with in which the husband has created the fortune, the mothers of adult children have seemed most resistant to work that family members are undertaking on communication, trust, and family dynamics.” She explains that many of these women perceived the need to work on the family as implied criticism of their role as the children’s primary caregivers.

Perry also describes the anxieties of second- and third-generation members who are scared of letting their parents down or feel unworthy of the advantages they have.

“[M]any wealthy families are surprisingly fearful,” Perry notes. Her book offers wise advice on how to address those fears and set the family on the right course for the future.









Copyright 2013 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permssion from the publisher. For reprint information, contact

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September/October 2013