Joining the Family Business—Without the Drama of HBO’s ‘Succession’


The series finale of HBO’s soapy Succession is nigh, and the Roy family’s latest business dealings and personal machinations have captured the cultural zeitgeist. Welcome back to the multigenerational workplace model.

But favorable business outcomes and the happiness of familial employees isn’t predicated on power plays and same-day yacht weddings or collapses on company jets. For someone considering joining mom, dad or grandpa in their real-life, family business or boardroom, here are some successful practices and ways to avoid acting in the same diabolical vein as the Roys.

Have a conversation about joining the family business first

According to The New York Times, “calculations by management professors at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Kennesaw State University, in collaboration with the research and advocacy group Family Enterprise USA…. found there are as many as 32 million family businesses in the country.”

But that doesn’t mean 32 million sons and daughters are angling to join and later run those businesses.

Holly Geerdes, founding attorney of the Estate Law Center USA, told The New York Times that parents often make assumptions when it comes to their business and children.

“We have a lot of parents who just assume and wish and pray that their children are going to come into the business, but they don’t have that conversation,” she says. “They really have to map it out and make a game plan.”

Choosing to join the family business on your own terms

Lawyer Ben Tobin of St. Louis, Missouri, serves as managing partner and trial attorney at Pratt & Tobin, P.C., which represents injured railroaders under the “Federal Employers’ Liability Act,” and also specializes in “auto accidents, premises liability, workers compensation, malpractice and product liability,” according to their website. His grandfather Paul Pratt founded the firm in 1964. Pratt’s son-in-law, Greg Tobin, later took over. Following Greg’s passing in July 2019, Ben became the next generation to sit at Pratt & Tobin’s helm.

Assuming control of the family business wasn’t Ben’s initial dream. While he performed manual labor in and around the law firm, drove clients and ran errands during summers as a young man, his ultimate goal was to play football or baseball professionally.

“During my junior year [of college], I started to appreciate that pro scouts were not coming to watch me play football or baseball so my dream… was going to remain just a dream,” he says.

Ben, a business administration and management major, also took note that some of his friends graduating with similar degrees grappled with finding a job that held their interest, making less than they desired or finding a job at all. He started to consider how he could avoid the same path.

“I called my dad, who never pushed me to be a lawyer—no one ever did—and said, ‘Hey, Dad, I think I’m going to take the LSAT and try to go to law school.’ I could tell he was happy to hear that, and offered to help me in any way he could,” Ben recalls.

Following law school, he began working at the family firm.

Is joining the family business right for you?

An article from the Spring 2000 issue of Family Business magazine suggests a similar approach to the one exemplified by Ben’s family. You can determine if joining the family business is the right move for you by:

Listening to your own voiceDefining your interests and skillsEnvisioning what working with your family will be likeQuestioning your motivation behind the decisionDefining the hidden costs of joining

Personal and professional respect go a long way

Ben saw similarities in how his father coached him in sports with how he related to him as an employee.

“Sometimes there was tough love, but when he’d critique or be hard on me, I knew it was because he loved me and wanted me to excel at being a lawyer, or anything in life,” he says.

For his part, Ben acted with respect toward his father in order to be inclusive of their professional and personal relationship.

“One, he’s my dad and I’m going to listen to him, and do what he says, because he’s my dad, and two, he’s my boss so I’m going to listen to him, and do what he says, because he’s my boss,” Ben explains.

The two would often discuss work or cases outside the office.

“Our conversations of any kind never disrupted our personal relationship. I loved working for my dad. I would do anything to bring him back and be his understudy, working for him.”

Allow the business/dream to evolve

While Ben is carrying on the successful legacy of his father and grandfather, he and his brother Zach Tobin, who is an attorney at the firm, are also paving their own path. 

“Today the firm employs five lawyers and 20 office personnel. Since taking over in 2019, our number of clients have gone up 50%,” Ben says.

Further change is on the way. Ben and his wife are expecting their first child in October, as are Zach and his wife. With expanding broods, the Tobin brothers are making arrangements to have offices in their homes as well. The firm is also becoming more digital so that when employees work from home, they can function as if they had gone into the office.

While Ben is not yet near retirement age, it stands to reason that he’ll eventually have to consider what’s next for his family’s business.

“Would it be outstanding to pass along the law firm to my daughter or son? Absolutely,” he says. “I also have five nieces and nephews, so that’s something I’m sure we’ll be thinking about.”

Photo by Dragon Images/Shutterstock

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