'Why Does This Kid Want To Work?'
When the Mennen Company was sold last March, one well-qualified scion faced rampant prejudice by employers and bosses. Be prepared, he warns.
When the family hierarchy decides to sell the business, members of the younger generation are often left out in the cold. I was caught in just such a situation, which few outsiders can, or want to, understand. “You have your entire working life ahead of you,” outsiders told me. “Now you have the flexibility [that is, money] to do what you really want.”
Great! The only problem is that what was once a clearly defined career path quickly becomes a source of confusion. Bottom line: Younger family members must go out into the open market, and it is much harder than anyone would think. The offspring of a family business carries baggage he or she is ill-prepared to deal with. What most outsiders view as an unfair advantage is actually a disadvantage for the child of a family business.
My family held The Mennen Company for 113 years, an impressive run by any standard. That came to an abrupt halt in March 1992, when differing levels of interest in the company, to be expected through five generations, mandated its sale. At that time no family member was involved in the company's management. I was 25, and the only member of the fifth generation actively employed there.
None of my relatives had been able to fill the void left when my grandfather retired; it had been 10 years since any family member had held the title of chief executive officer. No one from the fourth generation stepped forward to lead, though a few members sat of the board of directors. Day-to-day management was handled by outsiders. I was uneasy about the void in family involvement, and I hoped a “white knight” would appear to take charge. None materialized, and we were sold.
Founded in 1878, The Mennen Company represented a realization of the American Dream. Gerhard H. Mennen set sail from Germany as a teenager, eventually found lodging in the back room of a pharmacy, took a liking to the trade, completed pharmacy school at night, and opened his own store in Newark, New Jersey—all before the age of 30. Talcum powder would become his vehicle to fame and fortune. Through succeeding generations, the company expanded, revolutionizing men's shaving habits (Skin Bracer, and Lather and Brushless Shave Creams), infant and child care (Baby Magic), and deodorant protection (Speed Stick deodorants and antiperspirants). The name Mennen carried great recognition and the brands had very positive images.
I decided to join the company in 1990 while finishing law school. I wanted to gain practical business experience to supplement my education, and started in the legal department. But I soon realized that the action was elsewhere, and I moved into marketing, sales, and international work. The learning curve was high as I discovered new facets of the business. What's more, the family heritage was intoxicating. The sense of pride and tradition in more than 100 years of operation could not be ignored.
Thus, two years later, the sale of the company was gut-wrenching. Members of my generation were not consulted; it was handled strictly by the board and the voting shareholders. It was a harsh emotional break. And the sale did not directly benefit me financially. But try explaining all that to an outsider who reads daily headlines about the purchase price of the company, along with the speculations about family wealth. It's a rare friend who can look beyond the glitz of sensational journalism and attempt to understand the wide breadth of emotions family members young and old are feeling.
After the sale I began the search for employment. The company's acquirer, Colgate-Palmolive, made me a generous offer. However, at that early stage of my career, I feared the appearance of nepotism. I had no desire to tolerate the “we know how he got that assignment” attitude from petty co-workers. So I declined the offer and opted to look for a job on the open market.
Luckily, my search did not take long. An expanding subsidiary of a mid-sized, international pharmaceutical company was hiring aggressively. The fit seemed right. However, what I learned after my arrival caused me to question the decision, and question whether I could ever work in a corporate environment again.
I started as an assistant marketing manager with naive optimism. Everything appeared normal at first. But what I did not know—thanks to a level-headed boss who acted as a buffer—was that employees were comparing notes on me and my motives. Eventually, I learned of the non-stop questioning: “Why does the kid work?” “If I were him I wouldn't be here.” “Do you realize he could buy this company?” An article in Forbes speculating on my family's wealth (not 100 percent accurate) did not help. It secretly passed around the company. So much for a quiet existence.
The stereotyped judgments about me started at the top and worked down. One company director told me on more than one occasion, “If I were you, I'd be a golf pro someplace.” What's worse, as time went on this attitude came out from behind closed doors. Try maintaining a professional demeanor during a presentation (as low man on the totem-pole) while two of the company's vice-presidents openly discuss your perceived wealth. “This brand has shown steady growth and continues to provide profits to the corporation,” I said. “Watch out,” they joked, “he might buy it.” Comic genius!
Speculation about wealth is annoying, but by no means the worst form of discrimination against the child of a family business. Invariably, there will be co-workers and executives who are resentful that, in their perception, you've “had it all” as a kid and they haven't. They may hold you back, and will definitely treat you differently. This discrimination is far more destructive and infinitely more career limiting.
The vice-president in charge of my department was aloof and resisted any chance to interact with me. When I attempted to associate with him socially one evening, I was told that people at my level did not associate with people at his level. My “mistake” was echoed throughout the company the next day. Keep in mind, this man was only in his mid-30s and commanded a department of only 15 people in a company of 150 employees. “He's intimidated by you,” I was told. Apparently, he was intimidated enough to force my immediate superior to make note in my professional review of my “interaction with company management in a manner not consistent with company culture.” How ironic to have my performance evaluation tainted by a social evaluation from someone who resisted getting to know me. I later found out he was a man of humble beginnings who had worked hard for everything he achieved. For that, I take my hat off to him. For his immediate assumption that I have not had to work for anything—based on stereotype and not fact—I fault him profusely.
It became clear to me that I would never progress in an organization which allowed one individual's blind prejudgment to override all else. I decided to find another job. However, I was soon demoralized again. I was shocked by the resistance the child of a family business meets when he or she attempts a career change. Headhunters who sent my resume around were inevitably asked: “Who is this person?” “Is he serious?” And the old standby, “Why does this person want to work?” A pattern emerged: Children of family businesses are taken at face value, and face value is the Richie Rich image, a spoiled heir who floats through life with no ambitions. This injustice stunts the growth and development of many otherwise qualified and capable individuals. While they may be viewed as a novelty, they are almost never taken seriously. The foolish pride, jealousy, and one-upsmanship of superiors won't allow it.
I realized the only way to truly test my abilities was to start my own business. What appealed most to me was entrepreneurial marketing, the type my great-great-grandfather and his successors built a business upon. This led me recently to start W.G. Mennen Associates, dedicated to repositioning existing products and introducing new ones to domestic and international markets. Succeed or fail, it will be on my own merit, and that is indeed a refreshing change.
In the new industrial age, giants grow exponentially and privately owned competitors must often sell out or vanish. When they do, the impact on the younger generation can be devastating. We do not want our children to become “trust babies,” living off the sweat equity of their ancestors. We want them to develop expertise of their own. But that expertise had better be broad and fundamental. Fortunately for me, my maternal grandparents pushed me to study law. I am lucky I did not listen to other family members who vowed to the newspapers that The Mennen Company “is going to stay in the family.” Diversity of skill was my saving grace.
Much has been written about succession planning. That facet of the family enterprise is important. However, it should be complemented with an equal dose of reality: The family business may not always be around. It is a tough world out there and children of family businesses should be prepared to fight in it with vigor. They should remember it is the older generation who usually holds the voting stock and will make the sell decision. Afterwards, the children will have to pick up the pieces and go on with their lives. The key to doing that successfully is possessing marketable skills. I attribute my ability to survive “in the real world” to always having viewed the family business as a safe harbor. With the confidence that afforded me as I matured, I was able to expand my credentials, making my contribution both in and out of the family business more significant. More importantly, now that there is no longer a Mennen Company, I can still feel a sense of fulfillment.
All may sound like a huge burden older generations would prefer not to consider while negotiating the sale of a family business. But it can be avoided. Don't just ponder succession planning. Make provisions for individual accomplishment by driving younger family members to expand their expertise beyond the skills needed in the family enterprise. If the company is sold, they will thank you. If the company is not sold, the family as a whole will reap the benefits of increased training. Clearly, planning for the worst will be the most successful formula for all involved.
William G. Mennen IV, an attorney, is president of W.G. Mennen Associates in Peapack, NJ, specializing in product introduction and repositioning.