Ask two people to describe the same movie and you can get two versions colored by each viewer's perception. Take the movie Titanic. My brother says it is a story about an unsinkable ship that hits an iceberg. For me, the movie is a love story that just happened to be set on a doomed ship.

Isn't that how most family feuds start? Each side has a different version of the same story. Take the Demoulas family, subject of one of the top 10 civil cases in Massachusetts legal history. The story starts with brothers George and Telemachus Demoulas and their jointly owned grocery store chain. They promised each other that if one died, the other would take care of his family. George died first and Telemachus, true to his word, provided for his sister-in-law and nephews, buying them luxury condos and giving them a comfortable lifestyle. Yet, 16 years later, George's sons claimed Telemachus cheated them out of millions.

Telemachus saw it differently. He contended that he provided for the family by turning their stock into cash. George's family claimed this was done without their consent and resulted in their 50% stake in the family business dropping to 8%. They also accused Telemachus of diverting profits into a new chain of grocery stores owned only by his side of the family. The new chain, Market Basket, saw rapid expansion, while the Demoulas chain stagnated. The courts agreed with George's family and returned the controlling interest in Demoulas Super Markets to the widow and sons and ordered Telemachus to return $1 billion to the business.

As often happens, the family feud escalated-in this case, to extraordinary levels. The case included fist fighting in court and an episode in which the judge's law clerk was lured to phony job interviews to uncover evidence of judicial misconduct. The family's dirty laundry aired on 60 Minutes and we can only imagine that George was turning over in his grave. If George and Telemachus had only defined "take care of my family," and told their family what they could expect, it may have saved a fortune in legal fees.

Family Feuds: A Succession Nightmare
An Internet search for "family feuds" provides dozens of cautionary tales. One involves the Redstone entertainment dynasty. Redstone family members have been suing each other for years-sons suing fathers, brothers suing sisters, nephews suing uncles and so on. Sumner Redstone controls the majority voting stock in Viacom, CBS and National Amusements, a privately held theater chain.

The most recent public squabble revolves around Sumner Redstone and his daughter, Shari. Like many business owners, Sumner is having trouble letting go of his business. "I'm in control now and I'll be in control after I die," he said in a speech at Boston University in 2007. It is not that he hasn't tried to create a succession plan. In fact, an irrevocable trust holding 80% of National Amusement stock specifies that Shari will succeed her father as chairperson if he quits or dies. Shari was assumed to be the heir apparent to Viacom and CBS as well, but in July 2008 Sumner said, "The boards (of Viacom and CBS) should decide who succeeds me. I'm not worried about it 'cause it's going to be another 20, 30 years." He was 85 years old at the time. Sumner's camp has been negotiating with Shari's attorneys to buy out her interest in National Amusement in return for her giving up her right to succeed her father. If there is an alternative succession plan, no one is aware of it.

Then there are the Rooneys, one of the most prominent families in Pittsburgh and owner of the Steelers NFL football team. Art Rooney Sr. bought the franchise for $2,500 during the Great Depression and it's estimated worth is now about $1 billion. Upon Art's death in 1988, his estate was divided among his five sons and their cousins. Art's dying wish was to keep the NFL franchise in the family and to make sure his grandchildren were "treated fairly." Unfortunately, the will did not define "fairly." That has left his descendants squabbling over whether they should sell shares of the company to outside investors or keep the franchise 100% family owned. It's a pressing issue because the Steelers franchise is a trophy asset that loses money. Is it fair to require an heir to keep an inheritance that pays less than the bank?

It is naive to think family members will put aside emotions and self-interest when handed equal shares in the family business. Take the case of a family we'll call the Smiths (their real names are being withheld because they own a privately held company). Fifty years ago, Fred Smith built a hugely successful business in an affluent suburb of Boston. His oldest son, Steve, joined the family business while Fred's other two children, Julie and Rick, built successful careers in other fields. Fred never officially retired, but about 20 years ago, he started spending less and less time at the business. Steve was promoted to CEO, but his efforts to expand or explore opportunities were hampered by his father. Steve was frustrated by his father's inability to let him make a real contribution to the business. At Fred's death, the business was divided equally between his three children.

Julie and Rick second-guessed Steve's leadership and sought to bring in outside management. They felt Steve had everything handed to him while they were forced to take risks in their careers. Steve shot back that he put aside his own career ambitions to act as the caretaker of his father's retirement income. He claimed he was no different than the child who stayed home to care for his ailing parent when no one else would. They should thank him, he said, not accuse him. The resulting feud raised questions about the future viability of the business in the minds of its employees and business relationships. Today, there is nothing left of the family business but an empty building.

Overcoming Roadblocks To Succession
How does an advisor help a business owner build a succession plan that retains family harmony? Before the legal documents are written and before buying insurance to equalize an estate, the first place to start is to uncover family issues that could act as roadblocks to a successful plan.

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