How Family Stories Shape the Business

Stories passed down through generations aren't just cute little tales. They're important vehicles for all sorts of family rules, instructions, and prohibitions.

By Elizabeth Stone

When i was growing up in Brooklyn, my father had a small business which consisted of anywhere from two to five stores—depending on the year—in downtown Manhattan. Though my father’s business was called House of Cutlery, his stores carried a remarkable range of items, usually closeout items at wholesale prices, from sauteed rooster combs imported from France to dishware and spices.

It was a family business in that various family members worked there over the years—his sister after her marriage broke up, a brother and two brothers-in-law during various bald patches in their work lives. I worked there also, as a teen ager and later a college student, in search of financially rewarding work with Dad.

Years later I wrote a book called Black Sheep and Kissing Cousins: How Our Family Stories Shape Us (Penguin Books, 1989). The book wasn’t about my father entirely or his business at all. It was about family stories—how they aren’t just cute little tales, but important vehicles for all sorts of family rules, instructions, and prohibitions. Just as the Bible relies on stories to convey messages, so too do family stories convey messages about family culture. What I saw and heard while working in my father’s stores taught me a lot about how family stories can shape businesses as well.

My father had certain personal traits which carried through to his work persona, traits that were the subject of family stories. Very early on, for instance, I heard stories of how he had run away from home at age 14; how he had been expelled from his prestigious science high school in New York for punching the principal in the nose; how he had appeared to join my mother’s acting troupe but refused to audition because he felt the director should just take his word for how good he was; how he had married my non-Jewish mother over his orthodox rabbi father’s vehement objections.

The stories were meant to show that he was independent, but also that his lack of respect for conventional behavior had a hint of recklessness to it; it was his way of thumbing his nose at authority—principal, director, and his father alike. As his own family saw him, he was the essential iconoclastic black sheep.

Some of what he had done at work could well have turned into stories about daredevil nose-thumbing at authority, too. He was always taking on police inspectors, objecting to their ticketing of his truck when he loaded and unloaded it, even though he had commercial plates. He had an ongoing war with city building inspectors whom he accused, all the way to the top, of graft. In one of his stores, he built a mezzanine overlooking the shopping floor and installed a loudspeaker system, all without recourse to the proper permits and payoffs; during lunch hours, he’d stand in the mezzanine, microphone in hand—once an actor, always an actor—and hawk wares, tell jokes, sing songs, and humorously pick on customers as if he were a standup comic.

Some more nose-thumbing, his family would have said. You couldn’t leave anything up to him, because he’d always be staging confrontations, going after someone, they would have said. But this is not what the people who worked with him or for him said about him. They said he was stubborn, that he had a mind of his own, and that he was the sort of guy who didn’t take garbage from anyone.

Which brings me to my first point. At work, my father got a whole new lease on life, a new freedom. At work, he was just the boss and not the rebel son, and so he was not categorized as he had always been since he was a child.

When family members go into businesses, the stories that categorize them at home follow them to work. They are often perceived as they have always been perceived, in a way that may make no sense to an outsider but which has an intractable consensus among family members.

This needn’t be negative; it can work in positive and advantageous ways as well. Not long ago I paid a visit to my dentist, who works in a family practice with his father and brother, both dentists, and his sister, who is the bookkeeper. I was having root canal, and Dentist Bob just could not seem to get my lower gum knocked out. I was feeling somewhat like a dart board when Bob’s dad came in to say hello. The father was almost certainly aware of how long I had been sitting in that chair, and it prompted him to recall a family story about Bob when he was kid.

“He’s always been incredibly dogged, with an amazing attention span,” said his father. “I remember one time when he was 7 or 8 and he stayed awake long after the family had gone to sleep because he just had to finish this thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle he was working on.”

Maybe Bob’s father was just putting the best face on things, but if Bob had been in another dental practice, his three-and-a-half hours of work on one molar would undoubtedly have been perceived differently—certainly not as cost-effective, and perhaps not as competent either. But his father’s well-entrenched view of him as persistent gave Bob room to make mistakes.

So family stories are used to clarify someone’s image in the family, the role they are seen as playing, whether it is the Nose-thumber, the Genius, the Sick One, the Baby, the Peacemaker, the Funny One, Dad’s Clone, and so on. In a business, the down side of such stereotypes is their rigidity—a black sheep role can’t just be shaken off. The up side may be clarity—everyone knows who everyone is and how they are supposed to behave. In cases such as Bob’s, being cut some extra slack can get a family member through some rough experiences.

There’s another good side. Every family needs to have some sense of its own identity, some sense of itself as a tribe. If I were to ask people what it means to be a Beckhard, or a Napoli, or a Goldberg, they would have an answer for me. They would tell me all Beckhards are brilliant, or all Napolis are generous, or all Goldbergs have the constitution of an ox. And probably they’d have some stories to prove it.

Often, the idea of what the family is comes from some trait once observed in a senior and powerful family member—a grandfather, perhaps. I talked with one woman whose grandfather had established a local gasoline and service station chain in Massachusetts. She knew many stories about his boyhood, and in all of them he emerged as a risk-taking, rags-to-riches Horatio Alger.

“After Grandpa Mike dropped out of school in the 8th grade,” reported the granddaughter, “he started selling sandwiches and newspapers on the Boston & Maine Railroad. I don’t know what Grandpa Mike’s first business ventures were, but he must have been one of the few people who did well during the Depression.” Grandpa Mike was a person, but in this story he also functions as a component in the business’s identity. He stands for the idea that in financial matters the business should not proceed recklessly, but with a certain willingness to take chances. This is an instance of how family stories can function quite usefully within a family business context.

At times, though, the lines between family and business can become blurred, or disappear altogether. An excellent business idea from Little Baby Rose can get dismissed just because she is Little Baby Rose, the one who, according to family stories, always used to eat fingerpaint. A really bad idea from Grandpa Mike can get the go-ahead because, well, remember how he had started his fortune selling sandwiches?

 

While stories may focus on defining and/or constricting individual family members, past and present, they may also emphasize traits, skills, or aptitudes that all the family members share, or are believed to share, which make them a tribe. In many families there is a distinct vocational cast to these traits, even when there is no explicit family business.

For instance, I came across a woman who was from a long line of physicians, at least four generations worth. The earliest story she had was about her great-grandfather, who was an eye surgeon in Patava, a small town in Russia. According to this woman, her great-grandfather had a hand so sure that he could remove cataracts from people’s eyes with a knife without ever making a mistake. “People would come from miles around, and they would line up to be operated on by the doctor of Patava,” she said.

In this woman’s case, succeeding generations went on to become physicians, the last of whom was her brother. All were armed with the knowledge of who had come before them, and believed they had inherited the steady family hand. Though this isn’t quite a family business, it is a family whose ethos relates to the value of doing a particular kind of work, and the suggestion is that the acumen for it—a steady hand—is somehow passed down genetically.

As an inveterate reader of wedding and funeral announcements, I’m convinced that there are families that clearly have made a legacy of certain callings. When a family is involved in an explicit business, the children may well be groomed for it by hearing stories about their own aptitudes.

Take the Bachrach family, famous as photographers of presidents. I learned from reading an obituary for a Bachrach that photography is a central part of their family identity. Now in its fourth generation, the business was started by the first Bachrach in the 1860s or so, and one of the family’s flagship stories recounts that the founder was actually at Gettysburg with his camera when Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address. This Bachrach got a shot of the crowd, but somehow he miss ed getting Lincoln—it was the last time a Bachrach missed an opportunity like that! Though the story sounds negative, it nevertheless serves as a powerful reminder for current and future generations that photography is in their blood, that their mission in life is the portraiture of the great and famous. (Imagine how that story would be told if the photographer had not been an illustrious Bachrach: “Dummy, you were at Gettysburg with Abraham Lincoln, and all you came back with was a picture of the crowd?”)

Another example is found in the Heater family of Oregon. Jim Heater can trace his predecessors through seven generations. The family had begun as farmers in West Virginia in the 1730s, then moved to Ohio “in search of better farm land.” In the 19th century they headed even farther west, to Oregon, and eventually acquired an additional land grant signed by Ulysses Grant himself. And on the story goes up to the present.

Want to guess what kind of business the Heaters are in today? Something land-related. Jim Heater runs a Christmas tree farm—Silver Mountain Christmas Trees—which is spread over 4,000 acres, 1,200 of which are owned by the family. And this story—maybe the equivalent of all the begats in Genesis—has the land as a character, as central 200 years ago as it remains for the Heaters today. The centrality denotes how important land is to the family, for its prosperity and for its survival.

 

Most families have maybe a dozen or two stories that are told repeatedly, providing ample opportunity for the family to make clear its values. Families also have lots of instructions on all sorts of matters—from what to think about alcohol to how closely you have to obey the law. One subject most families have ideas about is religion, particularly how to resolve conflicts when religious demands may interfere with secular activities.

I came across an example in an obituary for Moe Ginsburg, 76, a third-generation family member in the clothing business in Manhattan started by his grandfather. According to Paul Ginsburg—Moe’s son—Moe told a story about the day of his bar mitzvah. He had already been working—part time or full time—since he was 11. According to the story, he was late getting to his own bar mitzvah because he was waiting on a customer.

I don’t know for sure what this story means, only that it’s so idiosyncratic, and so prominently displayed in the family’s mythology about itself, that I’m willing to bet it means something that everyone in the family understands. I surmise that the story belongs to the “Serve the Customer at all Costs” genre, a variety of story which all businesses undoubtedly share. It reinforces the importance of subordinating oneself—one’s temper, one’s knowledge, and even one’s bar mitzvah—to the one with the credit card.

Another major concern of family stories is money. Is money something you should save for a rainy day? Something that will burn a hole in your pocket? Is the love of money the root of all evil? The family story will tell you. I have never met a family, in business or out, that doesn’t have some story, or set of stories, which attempt to define the family perspective on money.

I interviewed a wealthy man from Pittsburgh, wealthy enough to have a wing named after his family in a museum elsewhere in the state. He was a lawyer involved in state government, but his family had had money pouring in for centuries, mostly from the manufacture of steel-related products. On his mother’s side, he was descended from a line of bankers, and therein lay a tale. “My mother’s family lost all their money in the Depression,” he told me. “Mother was in her teens when the family bank failed, and a big bank it was, and private. Her grandfather, who was president, paid out 100 cents on the dollar. He was not compelled by law to pay back everyone’s account. But he did it, thereby bankrupting himself and impoverishing the family. The point was that nobody criticized him for it. What he did was the right thing to do. It showed honor, it showed a responsible public stand, regardless of the money involved.”

If repaying business debt was a family value, a matter of public service, so too was the way in which money should or should not be spent, especially when there was so much of it. For that my wealthy friend had several stories. One was this: “Aunt Sally,” he told me, “left her personal estate of several hundred thousand dollars to a Home for Wayward Dalmations. A posh dog orphanage! I’m not making that up. The family tried every way we could to break that will. That was just too silly. You’re supposed to give money away, not throw it away.” In the other story, an uncle gave away several Stutz Bearcats to profligate nephews. “The message,” said my friend, “was that you shouldn’t be showy or grandiose.”

A different set of family stories about ethics and money came from a man in a Connecticut family, whose grandfather had started a silk mill that was for many decades quite prosperous. “When my grandfather was a little boy,” he said, “he would get a penny from his mother for every egg he found in the hen house. And then do you know what he’d do? He would take some eggs, return them to the hen house, and tell his mother he’d found a few more that he’d missed. For that he’d get additional pennies.”

As a commercial policy, you can’t quite say it obeyed the letter of the law. But the twig bent itself into exactly the kind of tree you’d expect. When the boy became a man, one of his first ventures was a lumber business, and there was a story about that, too. “One of his competitors was a man named Ezekiel Higgenbottom. Now Higgenbottom was no good. In fact he was probably a drunkard and certainly dishonest. So if my ancestor could trade wood lots with Higgenbottom and get the better end of the deal—give him a wood lot with all dead trees but make Higgenbottom think he was getting a good lot, and get a wood lot from Higgenbottom that was terrific but he didn’t know it—well that wasn’t dishonesty, that was shrewd Yankee trading.”

Neither my Pittsburgh friend nor my Connecticut friend had gone into their family’s business, but if they had, they likely would have found different sets of financial instructions governing how to make profits and deal with losses—one set based on “100 cents on the dollar,” and the other on “shrewd Yankee trading.”

Among families involved in businesses, stories about money come up often. Consider Strawbridge and Clothier in Philadelphia, the department store that began in the 1860s and has grown to a group of department stores still run by descendants. The business was founded by two young Quakers and good friends, Justus C. Strawbridge and Isaac H. Clothier, when both were 30 years old. Part of the story is that their initial investment was not identical. Strawbridge had $45,000 to put down and Isaac Clothier only $9,000. Nevertheless, they agreed to divide the profits equally and conduct business in the strict Quaker tradition of honest trading and fair dealing (Family Business, February 1990).

The point of the story, as the families seem to use it, is that money is not the bottom line. Not that it doesn’t count. After all, no one’s forgetting what each man’s investment was.

The story has stayed alive largely because it continues to be useful. As members of the current generation say over and over, profits have never been the bottom line, family control is. But the equal alliance between the two men, regardless of their initial financial contribution, also has implications among their descendants—quite a passel of them now. Generation to generation, it is never clear in advance which family’s offspring will be the CEO. Each family has had its turn. And perhaps thus it will continue.

What I learned most emphatically in exploring family stories is how tremendously complicated, intricate, and busy, families always are in their interactions and connections—much more than I realized. Even today, with my own family—my husband and my children—I think I probably don’t realize half of what is going on. And maybe no one who lives in a family does. Family businesses make families even busier and more complicated, in many ways. But I suspect that family businesses also expand a family’s strengths. They offer some straightforward and clearcut tasks, they encourage adaptability, and, in the process, they can let everyone grow and expand.

 

Elizabeth Stone is a journalist and professor of media studies at Fordham University in New York. This article is adapted from a talk she gave at a recent Family Firm Institute conference.