Peter Shand: Family businesses can be dysfunctional but they’re the engine room of the economy

Peter Shand is a Partner with Murray Beith Murray
Peter Shand is a Partner with Murray Beith Murray
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Business owners can find the succession pathway difficult to negotiate, says Peter Shand

In breaking news last week, the hit series Succession will return on Sky Atlantic for a second series in August 2019. Featuring the rise and fall of the fictional Roy family, the release of Season 2 will be a treat for worldwide viewers after a successful first run.

The TV drama centres around ageing patriarch, Logan Roy, as he clings on to the continuity of his global family business, Waystar Royco. The first series had all the trappings of a stereotypical family business: power struggles; dysfunctional family politics; awkward dynamics involving spouses; unpredictable behaviour; emotional decision-making and, at the head of it all, a family business owner with a poor sense of his own mortality. In the teaser for Season 2, Logan’s children are all too aware that “Dad sees everything”.

The series makes for fascinating viewing but it is close to home. UK business families and their professional advisers will recognise their reflection in the TV mirror. Family businesses are the engine room of the economy; in Scotland, according to Family Business United Scotland, the top 100 family firms last year generated a collective combined turnover of £17.2 billion, made £1.2 billion in profits and supported more than 111,000 jobs.

It is fitting that, in the Succession storyline, the media tycoon is portrayed as a Dundee-born entrepreneur who started his empire in Scotland before going global. Brian Cox, who plays the leading character is a native Dundonian himself. The Scottish connection is no coincidence.

Mairi Mickel is a business family consultant based in Edinburgh and is no stranger to dealing professionally with real-life questions of family business behaviour.

She advises business families in Scotland (and the US) on their governance and business continuity and has her own take on Succession: “The collision of family and business issues in the world of the Roy family illuminates, perfectly, the complex needs of families who are in business together today and it nods to the myriad of professional expertise required to serve them well,” she says. “Logan Roy has created an empire he should be proud of. However, by avoiding his own succession planning and making decisions based on his fluctuating emotions, both the business and those who are set to own it and lead it in the future, are suffering.”

On the psyche of the Logan Roy, Mairi says: “Who, in his inner sanctum, has thick enough skin to artfully ask him the questions that will support the emergence of the un-discussable issues, into a form such as an estate and business plan? How will he achieve family alignment to smooth out answering the bigger questions, such as will the business continue or will they sell out? His fear of dying and of losing control is completely natural, as is his desire to avoid complex decisions by playing his children off against one another for the leadership spot. Playing all of this out in the public eye is not good for any business and, in the background, the taxman lurks. I am delighted a second series has been commissioned.”

Much educative work has already been undertaken in the United States to try to help families unlock some of the family business dysfunctional behaviour, and Scotland is making its own inroads into this.

There are already success stories. Kinloch Anderson, for example, is a family that often features as a role model having made it to the sixth generation.

In doing so they are among a number of gold standard family businesses that defy the old adage that the first generation creates a family business, the second spends the money and the third destroys it. The legal system and taxation regime present unique challenges when it comes to handing a Scottish business to the next generation. Little wonder that, in some cases, when the family dynamics are added to the mix, business owners can find the succession pathway difficult to negotiate.

For those awaiting the second series of Succession, there is already growing speculation over the fate of the Roy family and the next instalment of family chaos that will likely help unravel it. We are in for a treat.

Peter Shand is a partner with Murray Beith Murray