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University of Massachusetts Amherst

Family Business Center

Curiouser and Curiouser
but at Least the Cat Isn’t Working for the Dog

by Ira Bryck

One hero of my youth was Ernst Bulova, founder of Buck’s Rock Camp, a high school employer of mine. There are many remarkable stories* about that maverick educator, who passed on at 98, with a piercing mind until the last.

At his 90th birthday party, he revealed the secret of his durability: Curiosity. “I need to know what will happen tomorrow, not by looking in my neighbor’s window, but by discovering how our world will solve its problems.”

Not genes, not lifestyle: Curiosity!

If you were ever described as “uncurious,” would you not think it also implied something (bad) about your intelligence, openness, enthusiasm and character?

And if you were a banker, would you lend money quicker to the Curious or Uncurious? If there were 2 family businesses, equivalent except that one was collectively more inquiring, who would get your check?

Curiosity by itself might not be a winning trait. I wouldn’t take a chance on someone who vaguely wondered about the next big thing, ensconced in his La-Z-Boy. But add a propensity to explore and implement, I’d bet my ROI on someone who compulsively poked at tomorrow’s mousetrap, overturned stones, and cleared them away from the newly beaten path to their door.

I am curious - but not surprised- that the obvious and cliché “Work on – not just in – the business” is much more said than done, especially on the family aspects of family business. It's much simpler to reduce waste in your factory than reduce haste in paying family too much, too little, or all the same. It’s daunting to see your daughter’s salary as an investment with an anticipated return (meaning if you pay your relatives unequally, you’re investing in them based on disparate expectations). If you feel that curiosity killed the cat, you are unlikely to rock the boat.

It’s challenging to concede that you decide vital matters based on short term gain or obsolete tradition, rather than on what your company needs to compete long term. What prevents you from betting on your company’s future high-value competencies, rather than your staples of yesteryear, which are already commoditized? What is the greater risk: to constrain and frustrate family members based on archaic stereotypes, or generously confront and dare yourselves to bloom, even if late, and promote a renaissance in your family business, so that the family can maximally operate the business that is serving the family?

It’s just lazy to buy new equipment and not encourage new thinking; to strive for quality in processes and not in relationships; to invest in R&D and not in R&R. There is no better mousetrap to lure faithful customers and loyal help than to have a bit of loyalty and faith in your own family’s ability to improve.

If your family has enough curiosity to examine the likelihood of its company's longevity, it will make you courageous enough to think it through and inspired enough to make it happen.

*i.e. among them his friendship with Albert Einstein, being a pupil of Maria Montessori, and his estrangement from his Bulova watch family due to his stand against their manufacture of time bomb mechanisms

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