Case Study

A variety of diverse and necessary professionals become deeply involved in the process of helping a family sell their business. Many of the elements are technical and involve accountants, lawyers, merger and acquisition specialists, financial advisors and others who need to work collaboratively as a team. The interplay of family dynamics/relationships with family business/wealth is a critical piece of the puzzle and can stymie a lucrative sale even when more technical elements have been deftly handled by other professionals. Enlightened professionals know experts in family facilitation and reach out for help and guidance even if it means setting aside their services for a time. They realize this is in the best interests of their family clients and, critically, is most likely to help clients achieve their goals.

A well-known merger and acquisition (M&A) firm developed an ongoing relationship with Jeff over many years and they developed high levels of trust for one another and reached out on behalf of a client. Two brothers had developed a very successful and profitable marketing firm and had approached the M&A firm over a year earlier to prepare to sell their business. Currently the market was ripe to sell and they had potential buyers. The brothers became stuck and unable to move forward. The M&A professionals knew little except that it seemed to be related to unresolved emotional issues between the brothers. The M&A partner wanted to do whatever was best for the brothers, felt the issues were out of his realm of competence and contacted Jeff.

Main themes and interventions were:
  • After a brief call involving Jeff and one of the M&A firm partners, Jeff suggested an hour video conference with the partner and two brothers. The brothers made clear they wanted a quick resolution – something that is often requested and frequently impossible when family conflict is high and time is short.
  • They agreed on details of the history between them: they started the business as 50/50 partners and invested equal amounts of money, each worked hard in different areas of the firm, the older brother had a master’s degree while the younger did not finish college. Several years earlier the older brother demanded and received an extra $150,000/year because of his advanced degree.
  • Jeff determined on this initial call that the brothers trusted one another, genuinely cared about each other and were willing to be flexible and compromise – a rare combination offering a foundation of hope for a quick resolution. Additionally, they were both adamant that they wanted to have the kind of close, fun brotherly relationship they had when young.
  • Jeff suggested meeting alone with each brother for two hours (one Monday and the other Wednesday) then holding four hours on Friday for Jeff to meet with the brothers together, with the M&A partner agreeing to be available by phone during that period if needed.
  • The younger brother came on Monday and was able to articulate his brother’s frustrations in a way that was empathic and appeared to be accurate based on the M&A partner’s briefing. He also was able to describe and be accountable for his tendency to not speak up directly with his older brother about important business decisions and he knew that frustrated his brother.
  • He disclosed that as a child he was assaulted by a school teacher and that he tended to become frozen as an adult when it was time to speak up and assert himself. He had insight into how this was negatively affecting his older brother and felt deep shame about it. The family knew of this incident and he gave Jeff permission to use his judgment about whether to discuss this with the older brother. He was also angry that his brother was taking more compensation than him when they invested the same amount of time, money and energy. He was hurt and insulted. When his brother moved to another state he felt completely abandoned.
  • The older brother expressed deep caring and concern for his younger brother and was also able to accurately describe what his brother’s experience was. He was frustrated that whenever important decisions or strategic planning and choices needed to be made, his younger brother seemed to bail out and disappear. This older brother wanted a partner and a sense of support. He was saddened that their business would not grow beyond them and had always hoped they would develop a team to take over while they retire and reap an income. It felt to him as if his younger brother was not interested in supporting him and so he moved to another, distant state and did his work remotely travelling to the business now and then.
  • Jeff shared the younger brother’s experience of not being able to assert himself in important moments and how it related to the assault by his teacher years ago. The older brother was quickly able to understand the connection and that what he perceived as his brother’s lack of desire to work as a team was really an old, deep hurt. Jeff helped him understand that while his frustration was justified and made sense, it was experienced out of context.
  • The older brother was sure his younger brother resented the extra money he demanded and took and felt he had been arrogant in requiring it. He had written an apology letter and shared it with Jeff during this meeting, who suggested he email it right then to his brother.
  • At the Friday meeting Jeff welcomed the brothers and asked the younger brother if he received the email. With tears in his eyes he replied that he had and said how much it meant to him. Jeff encouraged the older brother to share his feeling of wanting to apologize and also to make it right. He offered a high six-figure amount to his brother to balance out the years of taking “unearned higher compensation.” The younger brother stood up and the brothers embraced and cried.
  • They both agreed it was time to sell the business and in fifteen minutes Jeff helped them articulate some basic terms about how they would work together to make the sale happen. This final meeting took less than an hour and the on-call M&A partner was not needed.
  • The fact that both brothers were able to understand the other’s perspective was very advanced and crucial to healing and moving forward. Also, the love they felt and desire to have a brotherly friendship was a key element of their ultimate success. At the time of this writing, the brothers were well on their way to completing the sale and were very close as brothers

*Identifying details have been changed to protect client privacy.