How does a family business owner respond to being told that he has a terminal illness?

Business Leader Post, June 13, 2012

Thomas D. Davidow, Ed.D.

I once had a case where a father who believed that he was not going to get through the night called his daughter. When his daughter came to see him, he told her that despite the fact that she had worked in the family business for many years, he had instructed his attorney to sell it. She listened, and although she was heartbroken because she loved the business and felt that she had the potential to run it and even take it to the next level, she said nothing out of respect for her father’s situation. Fortunately, he survived. They never spoke about it again, but their relationship was never the same.

I met with the daughter nine years later. She recounted the story as if it were yesterday. I encouraged her to discuss the event with her father, but she refused at first, assuming that he probably would not even remember the incident. She feared that if she brought up the subject with him, she would go through the humiliation of being discounted by her father again.

She finally relented, and we brought him in to discuss their relationship. He sat down. I introduced myself, and within 15 seconds he went back to that night in the hospital. Through tears, he tried to explain that the reason he had decided to sell the business was that he did not want her to be burdened with the stress of running it. He wanted her to be able to have a “normal life” and to raise his grandchildren with as little stress as possible. He said that it had nothing to do with her competence or his trust and confidence in her. Conversations continued and they worked out an alternative.

Lesson: Communicate. Talk about all the issues with your loved ones, and do not assume anything. The saddest thing would have been that if this man had not lived through the night, his daughter’s memories of him would have created significantly more stress for her than owning and running a business.