Family Business Conflict Takes Center Stage at UMass
As seen in Boston Business Journal, October 25-31, 2002
Family Business Center head to take his autobiographical play on the road next month
By Mark Micheli, Boston Business Journal Staff
The director of the UMass Amherst Family Business Center in Amherst is moonlighting.
Ira Bryck has written an autobiographical play about family businesses, hired two actors to play himself and his father, and is taking the show on the road.
"A Tough Nut to Crack" debuted this month at UMass Amherst and then traveled to Northeastern University.
Next month it will travel to Ohio and next year to Kansas, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Connecticut. The market for this play, as well as his two previous productions, are family business centers at universities.
The plays and the discussion groups which follow are intended to show family business owners that the problems they face are common among family businesses. Bryck charges the schools $3,000 per performance, a fee he says he knows is within most budgets. To avoid a conflict of interest UMass is not charged, he says.
The play follows Bryck's life as a recent college graduate who ends up working at his father's children's clothing store in Long Island, New York for 17 years. His character, Bud, is constantly grappling with the idea that he is a failure for returning to the family business and his desire to strike out on his own.
One phrase that haunts Bud is "If all else fails, there's always the family business." Bryck says this is a family saying that haunted him all of those years too.
"Yes, it's my story," says Bryck. "But it's not a moral tale. It doesn't tell you to quit your family business or stay in it but hopefully it will make you think about your management style."
Bryck started doing odd jobs at his father's shop, Barasch's Kidstore in Freeport Long Island, when he was 5-years-old. After graduating from college he taught elementary school for a year and was co-director of an experimental private school in Buffalo. But that school closed and he returned to the family business in 1976 and worked there until he closed that in 1993. Bryck says they decided to close the store because the town they were in went down hill bringing the business down with it.
"We were in a dangerous town," Bryck says. "Merchants were murdered on both sides of us."
He says he moved his family—a wife and two children—to Amherst with the idea of opening a children's clothing store but decided not to after writing a business plan that showed it wouldn't work. He says he almost moved back to New York and would have if UMass wasn't looking for someone to start a family business center.
Bryck says most people who work in family businesses believe the problems they face are unique and that when they come to the center, "first they feel more normal."
The joys of being normal
This feeling of being normal is one of the goals of Bryck's plays. "My father had a Yiddish saying, "From a fool, you can also learn,"" Bryck says. He explains that it's important to respect other family members in the business and to realize that you can learn things from people who are different. "As I hope the play demonstrates, it's important to run a business professionally- but the other benefit is you get to interact with family members in a way that you wouldn't normally," Bryck says.
In the play, Bryck and his father are often at odds with one another—about what's important in life; about how to handle customers, employees and suppliers; and about who is boss—but still they manage to build a relationship that is closer than most fathers and sons. And it is the business that has allowed them to forge this brotherly relationship built on mutual admiration and trust.
Although "A Tough Nut to Crack" is based on reality, Bryck uses humor to delve into the emotional states of a father and son working side by side, day in and day out. "Everyone has to be able to laugh at themselves," says Eric Hagopian, president of Hoppe Tool Inc. in Chicopee, who is a member of the UMass Amherst Family Business Center and has seen Bryck's other two plays.
Hagopian's grandfather started the machine parts manufacturing business in 1941 and his father took over the business in 1965. Hagopian and his brother have been in charge since 1995 and he says the center at UMass helped them with the transition between generations. "It's all about listening to the failures and successes of others," Hagopian says. "We've definitely avoided some of the pitfalls."
Paul Karofsky, executive director of Northeastern University's Center for Family Business, says storytelling is one the best methods of teaching and one of the reasons he brought all three of Bryck's plays to the school. "Whenever you portray reality...people find it compelling," he says. "Stories are the way in which lessons are learned."
Karofsky may be Bryck's biggest fan. He even encouraged him to write this play, telling him he'd book a performance at Northeastern site unseen. Karofsky says the plays are a great tool to get family business owners talking. It's these post-performance discussions that Bryck believes are important. "My biggest satisfaction is that both plays have started a lot of discussions," Bryck says.
He notes that the older generation and younger generation often avoid discussions because they don't want to offend each other. As an example he says the issue of retirement is often avoided because children worry that if they mention it the parent may think they are wishing they would die. Meanwhile, he says the parent may want to retire and is disappointed that the child hasn't taken the initiative to take complete control of the business.
Not brave, honest
Bryck says his father hasn't seen this play yet, but he believes he will enjoy it. He says writing the play has clarified things in his life, but watching it has been emotional. "I was surprised at how much it moved me. It's already made me cry a few times," he says. "Several people have commented that is was brave of me to write this, but I don't feel brave. I don't feel it's about bravery. It took a lot of honesty."
And Bryck says honesty is at the heart of unraveling the emotional strings that can keep a family business down.
"I would love the play to be a catalyst to help people have honest discussions," he says.