How to hold a family feud

By David Graulich

The family feud is usually considered the bane of family business. That's because the typical feud can be a nasty thing to behold — petty, dismal, and disruptive.

Not all family feuds, however, are created equal. A large feud, if properly carried out against a panoramic canvas, assumes mythic qualities. Such goings-on can be your ticket to international notoriety, and might even become your company's greatest asset; a flamboyant family fracas gives a business larger-than-life qualities. Customers, and the public, will find themselves irresistibly drawn.

A well-managed feud doesn't just happen, though. You have to work at it. Some families keep their antagonism bottled up within the conference room, or limit it to a mere pair of siblings. To qualify as a classic feud, there must be a Bunyanesque dimension to the struggle.

Family business workshops don't teach you this stuff. If you want to inflate your family tiff to epic proportions, you must learn by observing the pros.

LESSON 1: PLAY IT OUT IN PUBLIC. No use having a feud if nobody knows about it. The drama of great feuds should dominate headlines and talk shows. Novices might emulate Donald and Ivana Trump, each of whom has hired a high-powered press agent for the sole purpose of issuing pronouncements about their divorce and the breakup of the Trump holdings.

The outlandish and bizarre are what capture media attention. Consider the multifaceted donnybrook known as "The Brawl at U-Haul." Leonard S. Shoen of Phoenix, founder of the U-Haul rental business, decided to transfer stock to his children — a brood that grew to eight sons and five daughters from three different mothers. Two sons eventually took control of the company and proceeded to oust Leonard (he's now suing to regain control). A heated argument allegedly resulted in a fistfight in which two Shoen sons beat up a third, whose battered visage appeared in a Phoenix newspaper photograph. While not every family may want to engage in fisticuffs, you do have to admire the Shoens' talent for generating melodramatic publicity.

LESSON 2: INTERNATIONALIZE YOUR FRACAS. Everyone's "going global" these days, and those who haven't are in awe of those who have. If your feud can transcend continental borders, outsiders will hold your family business in reverential regard.

For sheer magnitude, it's tough to outfeud the Bacardi clan, heirs to the worldwide rum empire that Don Facundo Bacardi founded in Cuba 128 years ago. For the past four years some 250 Bacardis, spread across a dozen operating entities in 11 countries, have been battling over the company's future, creating a thick international web of suits and countersuits. Each faction is hanging on to its shares in a transcontinental endurance contest. As the great-great-grandson of Don Facundo recently said of a rival family group: 'The only solution is that they sell." Such a sterling example of multinational mayhem is the stuff legends are made of.

LESSON 3: EXPLOIT THE NAMES OF PUBLIC FIGURES, LIVING OR DEAD. Intertwining famous names with yours will intrigue even the most steadfast stoic, adding vigor and zest to any feud. Witness the Gallimard family, which owns France's biggest publishing house.

Le Feud began in 1960, when the founder's nephew and heir apparent perished in a car crash along with one of the company's most illustrious authors, Albert Camus. Gaston Gallimard, the founder, grudgingly turned the company over to his son, Claude, who, upon retirement, rejected his eldest son and gave the top spot to a younger child.

This triggered years of acrimony that today involves a full cast of dueling Gallimards. One sister recently announced the sale of her shares to a Paris bank, "based on the inability of the siblings to agree on how the firm should be operated." Meanwhile, the embattled company continues to collect royalties on its backlist of books by existentialists Camus and Sartre.

As Crocodile Dundee might have said, while pulling out his hunting knife — now that's a feud.

—D.G.