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University of Massachusetts Amherst

Family Business Center

Given the Right Conditions...

by Ira Bryck, director, UMass Amherst Family Business Center

If it's true that a tree planted in a typical American city will survive, on average, only seven years, versus that same tree, grown in it's natural surroundings, will thrive for two hundred, it only goes to prove once more the importance of ... Location, Location, Location.

Not that a tree has much choice in where to root, but neither do you, in selecting, for instance, your family of origin. Or, if you are a family business member, where you spend many of your employable hours. Possibly you feel you lacked the vital infomation, insight, and foresight to choose consciously when you enlisted in your family business. To paraphrase the bumper sticker : " Family Business Happens." Before you've even had a chance to really find yourself, you find yourself in conditions unfavorable to the fulfillment of one's dreams, talents, or destiny.

As much as we'd all like to see our work be incredibly meaningful, it's unlikely the world would desperately miss the Cutting Edge Clothes Pin, Pet Rock, or Crinkle Cut French Fry that has been enriching your family for generations. In the big picture, is it enough that you've brought one more widget to market, even if market share is growing? Isn't it disheartening that you can't quite muster the missionary zeal to rise up and tell the world more about...Discount Footwear !?!

But how fulfilling need it be, anyway? You're making the big bucks (or at least enough to keep you there), and someday (keep those fingers crossed) it will all be yours. And slowly but surely, you're getting some respect, even getting it right... but you can't ...quite... catch... the... spirit...

Trees have it easy. Soil, sun and water, as well as a healthy portion of good fortune in landing a situation where it's possible to avoid the indignities of dogs, cement, and carbon monoxide. The factors that make a person feel nourished, planted, and secure in their work are much more fleeting.

Whether human or arboreal, good fortune is a crucial ingredient. In the realm of luck, being in the right place at the right time can't hurt. A mighty oak born under the intense shade of a maple might never reach full potential. And there is some truth to the notion of being a member of the "lucky sperm club." But for every Donald Trump there are dozens... hundreds... of Prince Charles's.... It didn't hurt that Fred Trump owns half of Brooklyn (as my father would say "it's easy to ride on a heavy wagon"). But it didn't help Charles that Queen Elizabeth rules Britannia- and has no intention of lending the keys to the family wagon.

Assuming that the coincidence of right place and right time happens regularly to many, it's also essential to be able to RECOGNIZE the occurence . Entrepreneurs might be those people who have, among their several gifts and talents, the sense of smell for the right combination of opportunity, luck, risk, and return. While others are griping, " I coulda...I shoulda," the Bold and the Few went into debt, broke the chains that bound them, and stayed up all night wondering if they were daring or insane. Ask any successful entrepreneur if they consider what they do easy. If it was easy, we'd all be doing it.

As stated previously, it's not only the right place- timing is crucial. You could be a tree born in the most remote part of the Rain Forest, just as some miscreant starts clear-cutting to build condos. Luck is only a factor, it's no guarantee.

It's easy to conclude that business founders are the trailblazers, and heirs just need to stay in the middle of the path. But the next generation faces no less a dangerous terrain. I haven't yet met a business founder who started out with the stated goal of creating jobs for their family. It's usually more like "if it turns you on, if you can grab on and hold on, if you're lucky enough to be as crazy as me, glad to have you aboard."

Obviously, trees are not people and people are not trees. Trees are stoic and unwavering, admirably un-neurotic, but unable to make life altering decisions. They don't have questions, but nor do they have answers. If they were to decide they were discontent, they would still spend their eternity in that same location, location, location.

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