THE Ewings. The Carringtons. The – gulp – Corleones. They may all be fictional family businesses hellbent on establishing a dynasty to maintain their wealth through the generations but also an object lesson in how this plan might unravel in bitchiness, rancour and, in some cases, foul deeds.
But with life often uncomfortably imitating art, it might have been surprising when last week Richard Branson was quite so vocal about bringing his offspring to the forefront of his Virgin empire.
Branson, now 62 but still possessing his puppyish enthusiasm, spoke of the day he might eventually take a step back as the high-profile face of the Virgin Group, a brand he built from nothing into a company that covers banking as well as air, rail and, before too long, space travel, all worth a tidy £2.5 billion.
“I may be pushing my son out more as I get a bit older, and my daughter,” he said. “Companies benefit from faces. I think Virgin would definitely benefit if Holly or Sam were willing to be more of a face of it.”
The junior Bransons are certainly better connected than their anti-establishment father was when he opened his first record shop in the early 1970s. Sam, 27, who currently runs a television production company, is a good chum of Prince Harry, while Holly, 30, a qualified doctor who now works at Virgin HQ, recently returned from a charity expedition climbing Mont Blanc with Princess Beatrice.
But are they hungry? Do either boast the kind of entrepreneurial spirit that saw daddy start his first business at the age of 16 (a magazine called Student) and has helped make him the fourth richest man in the UK?
Do dynasties work anyway? Just because you share the same genes doesn’t necessarily mean you inherit the skills and the work ethic that have made a business so successful. The theory goes that what the first generation builds, the next generation squanders. Having grown up with all the privilege and influence that come with such extravagant wealth, those who inherit fail to realise that, actually, the world owes them nothing. Success and respect must be earned.
If keeping control of the empire is a bit time-consuming (Branson has 400 companies to keep tabs on, for pity’s sake, give the man a break), he might consider calling up Rupert Murdoch, who has recently had more experience than he’d probably like in trying to find a family successor. It’s no wonder the 81-year-old media magnate shows no sign of giving up the News Corp hot seat just yet, with the phone-hacking scandal that closed down the News of the World resulting in his son James – and the once obvious heir apparent – resigning from the UK board.
James Murdoch has now moved across the pond to take over at Fox TV Networks, where he hopes to be less in sight of vengeful investors, particularly in the UK, while his elder brother Lachlan, a non-executive director of his father’s company quietly building up his own mini media empire in Australia, has risen in the pecking order. But it is Murdoch’s 44-year-old daughter Elisabeth, also quietly building her business credentials within the Murdoch empire and unsullied by scandal, who may end up claiming the throne when Daddy eventually succumbs to the pipe and slippers.
Donald Trump, whose three eldest children hold prominent positions in his property conglomerate, might be a better bet for advice. The American tycoon is currently waging war with First Minister Alex Salmond over plans for a wind farm close to his new golf resort off the Aberdeenshire coast. Trump appears to have been grooming the succession since his kids were in their prams and has deployed them to fight his cause while he’s off polishing his golf handicap. However, they insist they were never given a free ride. Daughter Ivanka says: “He does not appreciate mediocrity. He expects excellence from everyone that works for him, and that includes his children, so it’s a high bar.”
“Although we were privileged and travelled around the world extensively and had the best education, we were expected to work hard,” adds son Eric. “Every summer I was working. I was either mowing lawns at some of our properties, laying tiles with some of our stonemasons or doing some other job.”
As for Donald Jr, a veritable chip off the old block in terms of his in-their-face style, he says: “As a young boy growing up, [free time] wasn’t playing catch or ball, it was touring job sites, listening to [my dad] in board meetings.” What fun.
So what’s the advice out there for tycoons who want to pass on their business – even though most of them won’t take it. According to Martin Stepek, chief executive of the Scottish Family Business Association, the strong preference of around 70 per cent of owners is for their children to take over, but statistics show only one in three do so successfully. And often a successful transition depends on the luck of the chromosomal draw. Although some offspring inherit the entrepreneurial genes and thrive, others want to branch out on their own and may even see following in dad’s footsteps as a burden.
“My eldest brother took over the running of the family business from my dad,” Stepek said. “Years after we no longer had the business I asked him what advice he’d give to families who owned a business. ‘Sell the damned thing’ was his reply. I think this is actually the best advice for most. Sell it when it is really successful.
“The chances of it successfully passing down to the next generation is one in three so a betting person would see that selling it gives better odds. The trouble is few family business owners think that their business will be one of the ones which fails to make it through the transition from one generation to another.”
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Tuesday 21 May 2013
Temperature: 6 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: North west
Temperature: 3 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 23 mph
Wind direction: West