First-person account on the questions of succession
'I bring you my family's story not as a eulogy -- but as witness to the often unacknowledged ways a family business changes one's life. Even if you try, asmy family did, to ignore it'
It shouldn't have been news. It should have been one of those revelations that come gradually, preempting any chance of surprise. But now, more than a decade after that humid June night, I can still remember the panic that gripped me, and how impossible it seemed that I could have been so easily blindsided.
Had my grandfather been alive, maybe I would have confronted him. Had he been dead more than half a week, maybe I could have forgiven him. But I was stuck someplace in the middle, still feeling his presence everywhere but not sure now -- in light of what I had just heard -- how I felt about that. I wanted him to be alive just so I could tell him to go away.
Until that moment his withering death had held few surprises. On the final day, the disease having run its course, he had taken to raising his arm. Later, on the way to the funeral, my father offered the interpretation that the gesture had been my grandfather's attempt to wave good-bye. I personally thought it was only another body twitch, just as his legs had earlier shaken uncontrollably. After seeing him that last time, I made my final routine stop to sob in the bathroom of the nursing home.
The night before he died, I couldn't sleep. Around 3 a.m., I left my bed and walked past the room the 11-year-old me had ceded to him when he moved in with us, about 10 years earlier. It had already been changed around from the way he'd kept it, but there remained one unsightly piece of furniture -- a heavy black bureau that nobody wanted to open. It was months before I finally poked around in it, feeling something akin to what Geraldo Rivera must have felt when he threw open Al Capone's armoire on national TV. Inside were little green stenographer's notebooks with newspaper articles lumpily glued to each page. There seemed no particular thematic agenda: education, crime, immigration, religion. Maybe, I thought, he'd intended to use some of the information for speeches.
But that seemed farfetched, given that he had been delivering roughly the same speech since I could remember. It always began with his family's 14-day journey, in steerage, from the Ukraine to Castle Island, in South Boston. His own father, a scribe, had died when my grandfather was just three. When the family arrived, my grandfather celebrated by devouring a banana -- which, much to his stomach's regret, he did not know enough to peel. He described his struggles as a paperboy, learning English from Boston's street signs and becoming editor-in-chief of a newspaper called Newsboy's World. Egged on by a teacher he claimed was 92 years old, he won a statewide essay contest that earned him a visit from Mayor John "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald (JFK's maternal grandfather) and a $25 booty. "I never knew there was so much money in the United States mint," he always said.
By 19 he had completely shifted from delivering newspapers to writing for them. In 1915 he covered the horrible anti-Semitic lynching of Atlanta's Leo Frank, for a group of daily newspapers that often ran his picture above his dispatches. In 1916 Louis Brandeis, before taking his place on the Supreme Court, contacted my then-22-year-old grandfather about taking over a Boston weekly newspaper called the Jewish Advocate. Brandeis had plans for the current editor, and with my grandfather he devised a primitive version of -- not that anybody would have called it this, of course -- a leveraged buy-out, selling shares to community leaders to raise money. With no significant investment and nearly as little formal education, my grandfather, Alexander Brin, became an editor and a publisher. In Boston he became so well known that a restaurant named a dish after him. It was not a completely well-received gesture; some community members found it unforgivably insensitive that the platter included ham.
Over the years my grandfather spent more of his time in Florida, leaving operational control of the Advocate to his nephew and to his son-in-law, my father. But he was still formally the publisher when we got the 6 a.m. call that informed us of his death, on June 20, 1980.
A few days after his funeral, I arrived at a checkout counter to see a Jewish Advocate displayed in the spot normally reserved for an impulse buy like the National Enquirer. My grandfather's obituary was front-page news. Leaning jauntily on a walking stick, he appeared younger than the man I had known. He stared out at me while I collected my change.
As is Jewish custom, for days my parents' house was filled with people, offering memories and baked goods. Given that my grandfather had lived to be 87, few of his peers survived him. "My friends," he used to complain, "disappear like seltzer bubbles." Among the visitors was a seventysomething gent who seemed to take a great interest in me. I reeled off the acceptable highlights of my 20 or so years on earth: editor of my high school newspaper; news editor, managing editor, and -- as of that coming fall -- editor-in-chief of my college newspaper; small articles published in a real newspaper or two. He smiled appreciatively enough, but he seemed to be looking over my shoulder. I was still talking when he interrupted. What he said vastly increased my need for fresh air.
" Bernie," he shouted, catching my father's attention, " so this is the one who is being groomed?" He pointed at me.
My father, who was biting into something gooey, nodded. I excused myself.
Outside, I felt something ugly well up within me. Groomed? It sounded as though I were some breed of poodle. All of a sudden, nothing I had achieved was my own. There was a plan for my life. I had dumbly followed my grandfather and father into journalism. Next I was slated to become what they had been, the editor and publisher of a small weekly newspaper. I wasn't leading a life so much as slipping into one. How could I have been so stupid? I felt sick. And cursed.
And trapped.* * *
New-age types are fond of saying that we always teach what we need to learn.
During my eight years at Inc., I discovered and wrote about the stuggles of many entrepreneurs to remake their fathers' companies. Some used their companies as tools for rebellion ("Healthy Returns," April 1987), and others were nearly consumed by their fathers' looming presence ("Ghost Story," July 1988). There were those who gained strength from proving their fathers wrong ("Growing Up As a CEO," No. 07890601, July 1989) and others who moved gingerly and respectfully in their fathers' shadows ("Surviving on Chaos," No. 05900601, May 1990). Through all of those stories, I probed and pried and extracted as much detail as I possibly could. And then some.
I worked diligently for the sake of helping you, the reader. I did it for the greedier good of keeping a job with a steady paycheck. I did it because my ruthless editors wouldn't let me get away with anything less. But mostly -- and no, you haven't accidentally picked up People at the newsstand -- I wrote those stories because I had to. I was scared. Once while working on a story about a company that wasn't even a family business, I questioned the CEO so much about his relationship with his father that he helplessly erupted into tears. And we were supposed to be talking about employee empowerment.
None of that, mind you, was a conscious effort on my part. I looked for stories I thought would be interesting to Inc. readers, but I seemed to gravitate toward company builders whose biggest problem involved figuring out how to make a mark that separated them from their predecessors. Other people picked up on that thematic thread long before I did; one colleague shocked me by derisively referring to my articles as the "dead-father stories."
My own father, of course, was very much alive. And if he saw any thematic connection between my work for Inc. and my own plight, he kept it to himself. I once handed him a copy of one of my favorite stories, with a scribbled note thanking him "for the gift of writing." He never said much about it. One time he called me up all excited about a family-business story he had read in Inc., but it turned out to be one written by a colleague. Both that story and the one I had given to my father told tales of very rocky successions.
Such accounts, of course, are a staple of just about every business publication. Who can resist them? There's something intrinsically fascinating about seeing a family, the closest of all units, torn apart by such comparatively mundane intruders as greed and power. I suppose we all like to think our families are above such unseemly behavior. Maybe yours is.
The truth is that mine is, too. I bring you my family's story not as a eulogy for loving relationships now lost -- as a family we are still, by any measure, blessedly intact -- but as witness to the often unacknowledged ways that a family business changes your life, even if you try, as my family did, to ignore it. There is no blowup in my family's story and no collision of siblings driven by ambition or envy. The business was never spoken of as necessary to the fulfillment of anyone's destiny. And yet each of us was affected by the expectations and obligations family businesses impose. If you are a potential family-business successor or an entrepreneur who imagines having a successor someday, maybe this story will offer insight into how it feels to be next in line -- how heavy the burden is, how great the comfort, how consuming the confusion. Universal feelings, I believe.
Of course, I can really speak only for myself -- and barely, at that. My feelings about the Advocate were never consistent. There were days when, riding to work on the subway, I thought how wonderful it was that my family happened to own a business that coincided with my own interests. Other days I felt my whole life was about being a passenger. Technically, my father did not ascend to editor and publisher of the newspaper until April 1984, after the death of Joe, a distant cousin who had been at its helm. My father often spoke about taking over as if it were a burden that had come to him too late in life to be appreciated. He was 61, an age at which his peers were beginning to experience health problems or, at least, to wind down their daily grind. According to my mother, my father was so wound up he couldn't sleep much past 5 a.m. I often took her reports as appeals for me to rescue him. But my father rarely admitted to distress. "Be glad you don't own that thing," he'd mutter now and then.
I was glad to be working on my stories at Inc., earning the cover once in a while, making a name for myself. But just after my father had taken over at the Advocate, I noticed that he began talking more and more about the past. He recalled his own father's shoe store. He reminisced about his army days. Once he dug up some pictures from 1952, his first year at the newspaper. There he was, leaning over some copy, his hair dark and his skin smooth. "I wasn't much older than you are now," he pointed out.
Just one more year, I would say to myself, or two, tops. If his spirits would hold up, and if I could feel more secure about my own place in the world, then I could confront the decision. I stopped showing up at his office when other people were around: I felt as if they were staring at me, wondering when the heir was finally going to own up. I focused intently on my own work, rarely discussing it with my father. Sometimes he asked for advice on headlines, or read paragraphs from his editorials, or mumbled through his mail. During one period he began telling me about dreams he was having in which I -- or he -- would appear as a little boy. And he was always talking about someone he knew who had just gotten an unwelcome diagnosis.
I guess it was his way of saying that time was running out.* * *
As a small boy, I treasured going to work with my father. "Have you ever met my son?" he'd ask anyone who happened to cross our path. Of course, everyone had. Some, like the Italian-born owner of a nearby gas station, denied it so my father could have the pleasure of kvelling, recapitulating my status in the Good Boy Hall of Fame.
The newsroom itself was nothing special, heavy on wood paneling, clunky Royal typewriters, and wall calendars curling at the corners. When I or either of my two older sisters entered, any employees milling about obediently looked up and paid homage -- which, given the advanced age of some of them, qualified as aerobic exercise. One of my father's most immutable beliefs was that even nonfamily members of the Advocate staff wanted -- no, deserved -- to know the most intimate details of our lives. "Too bad you blew that trigonometry test," the switchboard operator might say to me as she accidentally pulled the plug on a call in progress.
If there were pressures on me back then, I didn't feel them. And there was one neat advantage to being the boss's boy: I could slip into the back room and explore as if I were one of my early literary heroes, the Hardy Boys. There were mysterious elevator shafts (in one of them, a cousin of mine nearly plummeted to his death, foreshadowing a legendary episode of "L.A. Law"); giant 500-pound rolls of newsprint ("toilet paper of the gods," I'd dubbed them in adolescence); and -- these were what I loved most -- big, noisy Linotype machines. The apron-wearing operator would hang a cylinder of metal, referred to as a pig, into one of them. As the heating mechanism dissolved the pig, the operator tapped out lines on a keyboard, making impressions on the molten metal. The machine spit out slugs of type, which were pushed together to make lines and then arranged into pages. Every time I visited, the operator made sure I walked away with a slug that bore my name.
As a kid I could read my father's concerns about the business in the shades of red that marched across his neck. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he was comparatively scraping by while many of his former classmates had commenced what was then becoming the main business of lawyers: getting rich. But he had never really wanted to practice law, anyway; he had hoped to join the diplomatic corps. He was serving as a lawyer at the Housing and Home Finance Agency, in Washington, D.C., when the call came.
Please join us, came the plea -- please help the family. My grandfather's brother had died, so my grandfather needed someone. My father, Bernard Hyatt, had served as a correspondent for Stars & Stripes during the war, and as the editor of a weekly publication while in law school, so he wasn't an outlandish pick. Technically, and genetically, my mother deserved the right of first refusal; but probably because of her gender, no one had thought to ask. My father spent three months making up his mind. He often reminded us later, with a pained look, that he could have quite comfortably retired from government in the early 1980s. Ultimately, he had accepted because he loved the newspaper's mission. My mother quietly gave up her promising job as an ethnological-research analyst at the National Archives. The newspaper, my father would later explain, "seemed like a very good way to spend your time."
And it might have been that simple, if not for the family dynamics. Unexpectedly fulfilling his diplomatic yearnings, my father often carried messages between family members who might not actually speak to one another for, oh, 25 years. Other members of the staff found their own unique modes of communication. It wasn't uncommon for two septuagenarian Advocate salesmen to try to settle a commission dispute like real men, stepping inside the newsroom for fisticuffs. Belly to belly, they would be unable to actually land punches. My father enjoyed the spectacle.
Among family members, inequities flew. My father's salary, for instance, was pegged to a cousin's, even though my father outranked him. My grandfather had handed out stock like M&Ms on Halloween; by my father's arrival, there wasn't any left. In fact, there was barely any left for my grandfather, who had inexplicably surrendered controlling interest without, it seems, noticing. Many times my father wondered if he had made the right decision. Had he given up too much to do this?
He was never really sure. Or that's how it seemed to me, anyway.* * *
It's not as if everyone avoided speaking about succession. It was spoken about on more than one occasion -- just not in my presence. The last time may have been around 1975, while I was still in high school. "Let's get him in," cousin Joe, then the editor of the Advocate, would instruct my father, as if somebody had left the dog outside.
But my cousin never expressed such wishes to me. Nor did my father commit me to anything. I don't know, he'd answer cousin Joe, don't count on him coming in. My father really meant that he didn't want to impose that on me, I think. To his credit, he rarely gave in to people who asked about my probable succession.
When I got out of college and began applying for journalism jobs, my father didn't offer me any connections. Of course, I wondered whether he was withholding them so the Advocate would stand out as my obvious path. I still don't know for sure. But I think he wanted me to come to the Advocate in my own way, so he wouldn't feel responsible for my choice.
Whatever my father's intentions, I ignored the whole matter. I moved to New York City, and later, I kicked speculation into high gear by joining a weekly not unlike the Advocate. How clever, people said, the poodle is getting his grooming somewhere else before trotting back to the family kennel. I knew my father was hearing those comments, but he never mentioned them or questioned me about whether I'd join him.
He did not want to burden me by asking; I did not want to hurt him by saying no. So, remarkably, we continued to dance around the issue. "People tell me I should feel complimented that you work in an allied field," he might say, never letting on about whether that was enough for him.
But in the fall of 1983 I quit my job without having another one. And then my father told me exactly how he would create a job for me and assured me that everybody on staff fully expected me to step in. He meant to throw me the company as a life raft; I interpreted his offer as the exploitation of a bad situation. I said nothing -- not yes or no -- but I returned to Boston to accept a position at Inc. on January 30, 1984. The timing was scary. About three months later cousin Joe died. After purchasing the stock, my father would own the newspaper outright.
Now he felt he could create something different, something more attractive to me. For a year or so he didn't say anything negative about the Advocate. He talked about building circulation and broadening coverage, finally using the kinds of words businesspeople use: marketing, diversification, demographics. He was, I think, trying to speak my language. "If you want to come work here," he'd toss in, "you can."
I wasn't brave enough even to give him an answer. Certainly not a direct one. My response was to work hard, scrambling around Inc. like a man possessed -- or, more accurately, a man determined not to be possessed. Failure at the magazine would give my father an opening and leave me no choice but to at least confront the issue. My work received scant attention at home. "I thought you could do better [than the Advocate]," my father once said. "And you did."
What a brilliant, and surprising, defensive maneuver, I thought. He even made my frantic running from him seem like part of his plan.* * *
At Inc. we sometimes call it "the rescue fantasy," and I'd be lying if I said I never entertained it. But let me add in my own defense that I never entertained it for long.
The rescue fantasy is usually harbored by would-be entrepreneurs who envision themselves stepping into a flagging business and turning it into a raging success. In my personal version, I would be the new generation in the family business, coming in, cleaning up, getting serious. With the help of a few very talented friends -- paid, mostly, in pizza -- I would revive the business as only new blood can. Thanks to my favorite magazine, I knew exactly what a determined heir could accomplish ("Taking the 'Family' Out of Family Business," September 1986), and I didn't see any reason I couldn't play the part.
I kept those thoughts to myself -- practically from myself. On some level, deep down, I made sure my actions never hinted at any ambivalence. If leaving issues of succession unresolved was a handicap, I just pushed myself harder to compensate. Once an entrepreneur I was interviewing astutely asked me about the most satisfying part of my job. Did I enjoy the writing most? Was there a special kick in seeing my name in print? No, I fired back, the most satisfying aspect of my job was having one. He laughed, and I smiled. But I meant it. I felt very strongly that my job was keeping me from the clutches of something bad.
I never identified that fate or what bothered me so much about it, even to myself. As I probed other people's angst and mined every irony I could from their situations, I missed the most overarching irony of all: By refusing to even confront the prospect of taking over my father's business, I let it take me over.
Feeling guilty, and not wanting to disappoint anyone involved, living or dead, I did all I could to evade the succession issue altogether. At dinner every Friday night, both while I was growing up and later, when I would visit, my father always started the meal by passing me the same question: "Good paper this week, huh?"
As straightforward as that query may sound, it got to the point where all I could do was respond with a nod so weak that anyone might have mistaken it for a body spasm. I felt there was no safe way to answer that question: If the Advocate was good, why wasn't it good enough for me? And if the paper wasn't good, why wasn't I in there using my skills to make it better? And what, exactly, was I doing anyway? Eventually, my father got so frustrated with the response to his opening question that he began recasting it as a statement: "We had a good paper this week." Silence followed, punctuated by one of my habitual cranial jiggles.
In truth, my father was improving the newspaper, running tougher stories and standing up to lots of pressures, some of which I'm sure I don't even know about. But we never discussed them, and avoidance turned into a cage of its own.
My father surely felt confined. A couple of years ago I began hearing through my mother that he was talking more and more about not having the energy to carry the Advocate forward. It needed someone younger, my 67-year-old father would say, somebody who hadn't already fought so many battles. He saw, quite clearly, that the newspaper was being assaulted on all fronts: increased competition, the need for investment in computerization, and a gruesome-looking recession. It wasn't that he thought the newspaper couldn't survive; he just wasn't up to the fight. Clearly, I wasn't going to lead the charge. "If he wanted to dive in," sources close to my father reported him as stating, "he wouldn't have waited until now."
In November 1990 my father invited me to lunch. With tuna salad dangling from his mustache, he told me he was selling the business that my family had owned since 1917.
I said -- oh go on, alert reader, take a guess -- nothing.
In his way, my father had thought this one through. Either to relieve me of any heir's remorse, or to make himself feel OK about my abandonment of the business, he made it seem as if any unexpected moves on my part would be indubitably self-destructive. If I wanted to come help him meet the new challenges, of course I could. But my career was going so well. Besides, the strongest likelihood was not that I'd succeed, but that the cost of modernizing the newspaper would force my parents to drain their savings. Having explored the evils of family financing ("The Parent Trap," No. 10900491, October 1990), I could gauge the approximate height of the stakes.
It seemed so painless. All that remained, my father told me, was paperwork. I would have to sign a paper wherein I officially resigned from the so-called board of directors. On December 9, a day after the sale, the Boston Globe reported it on the front page of its business section. My father, the article said, "decided to sell, in part, because none of his own children were interested in taking over the Advocate."
That hurt. Later my father appeared on a cable-TV talk show to reiterate how I had let him down -- or that's how it seemed to me. The whole family united to watch the tape at my parents' house. I watched the show sitting, like a kid, on my parents' bedroom floor. After it was over, I said nothing. My sisters, Susan and Judy, found a way to turn the state of affairs into something humorous. They began referring to the siblings, collectively, as The Ingrates.
I felt none of that, I decided. My reasoning went like this: My father may have hurt my feelings, but at least I didn't have to live his life. I was paying a small price for my freedom.
For quite a while, I persisted in believing a burden had been lifted. To invoke another literary hero, I felt like Nathan Zuckerman, the protagonist of several Philip Roth novels. In Zuckerman Unbound, Zuckerman rides a limousine through his old neighborhood after his father's death, uttering this affirmation to himself: "You are no longer any man's son, you are no longer some good woman's husband, you are no longer your brother's brother, and you don't come from anywhere, either."
How exhilarating. How liberating. How utterly untrue.
These days it feels instead as if a net beneath me, whose presence I never really acknowledged, has been pulled away. As Inc. writers, we are encouraged to find stories that will tell our readers something new about the entrepreneurial experience. But the truth is, reader, this time I hope I'm telling you something you already know: be you its owner or its prospective inheritor, there is no running from the responsibility a family business imposes.
I wish I could compress my experience to offer the kind of useful moral that magazine articles are supposed to provide; all I know, though, is that I equated joining the Advocate with doing what my father and grandfather had done. Perhaps it's a failure of imagination on my part. Or maybe my father never bothered to communicate the possibilities the newspaper offered. In any family, people are always making guesses about what other people really mean -- symbols and signs get hopelessly tangled; too much of what matters goes unsaid. If you're expecting to find a solution to any of that by plunking down $3 for a magazine (or $19 for 12, a 47% savings), then you haven't yet begun to wrestle in earnest with the quandary.
All I can tell you is this: I never wanted the family business, yet I feel lost without it.
Far from freeing me, my father's selling of the business last year has weighed me down with the task of finding my own way. Crazy questions swirl around in my brain: Did I choose to become a journalist, or was I just following the program? How many out there think I should have studied something that would have allowed me a more secure and lucrative career? (Put your hand down, Mom.)
Some days, as I drive to work, I actually feel jealous of my father. The security of "the cocoon" -- as he sometimes called the Advocate -- especially compared with the capriciousness of the outside world, looks more and more appealing. Too bad, because it's not there to take me in anymore.
A friend of mine -- a new-age type -- suggested that it might help if my family said some sort of formal good-bye to the Advocate, held a kind of funeral for it. We could each write something, make a definitive statement, sit around the dining-room table holding hands and sharing our feelings. To me, it sounded a little too much like a séance; the last thing I need is any more intrusion from the past.
After all, I still see my grandfather on a regular basis. He appears in my dreams more and more often. Some mornings I wake up with one of his favorite phrases on my lips. "I'm a man without a plan," I found myself whispering one morning -- and it was truer than even he had ever imagined. A decade ago I railed against his ghost. Now, as I struggle to define myself, I take in what he has to say. It would be hard to sustain any anger at the image my memory serves up; there is my grandfather exactly as I knew him, a charismatic and gentle elderly man. During my life, he was to ethnic journalism what Famous Amos was to chocolate-chip cookies: a self-depreciating front man, the guy who got the laughs. "I talk by the mile," he used to say, "and the people react by the inch."
Some nights I am again the small boy who could listen to his stories over and over again. He launches into tales of his early days as a reporter, his punch lines hinging on embarrassing typographical errors. One time, for instance, he wound up reporting that an actress was "starving," instead of starring, in a Boston play. And there was one anecdote in which etchings substituted for itchings. I wake up ever amazed, and grateful, that my brain has stored these tapes.
But in one recent dream, my grandfather turned on me. He actually stopped dead in the middle of saying something, interrupting himself to speak as if he were holding a press conference inside my psyche. What he said, I think, serves as a practical warning for any family struggling to confront -- or, for that matter, avoid confronting -- the question of succession within its business. As a family we allowed events to overtake us, instead of reviewing our options beforehand. Apparently, my grandfather was familiar with that tactic. "For people to act," he said reprovingly, "too often we must substitute catastrophe for imagination."
I don't know why he said it, but I think I know what he meant.