Kit O’Connor ’17
COPENHAGEN – Um, well, COPENHAGEN-ish. Mostly written on a flight from Copenhagen to London, which means I’m still very technically on the trip! And feeling much better; thanks for everyone who expressed concern (both of them).
OK, so, last blog post, I wrote mostly about the Nordic part of this trip. Obviously, there’s another critical component of the class: family business! It was pretty amazing hearing the stories of so many people in the Three-Circle Model of the Family Business System, especially those with close connections to CBS. One quick caveat before I get started: our hosts were incredibly open with their personal experiences, so some of the references below are slightly changed or frustratingly vague in order to protect their privacy.
One big overall theme was the idea of pervasiveness, which manifested itself in two main ways. First, literally everyone, and I mean every one, who was a family member talked about how family dinners would always revolve around the family business, unless someone, almost inevitably Mom, banned the topic. For anyone who didn’t grow up in a family business (author raises hand), this is a sobering reminder of the all-encompassing nature of such a venture.
Second, we spoke a lot about the “long shadow” effect of company founders, even long after retirement or death. At Maersk, our host spoke in hushed reverence of Mr. Moller, the only person he didn’t refer to by first name. At Ikea’s headquarters, our tour guide told the story of Ingvar Kamprad, Ikea’s founder, coming in with an eleventh-hour request (ha, no, it was definitely a demand) that the restaurant be removed from the first floor of the massive open-concept four-floor complex. He felt that if employees wanted a hot meal, they could trek ten minutes across the parking lot…to an Ikea retail store.*
The other word that every presentation contained was choice. The amount of choices that need to be made in a family venture are enormous, and start at a very young age. One current CEO spoke of his father pointing to a chair and telling him that he’d sit there one day – no choice for the five-year-old kid there. More than one had lives and un-related businesses in other countries when the call came – would they give it all up to come home?
This choice element seemed to me to hint at why family businesses have so rarely persist beyond three or so generations. Does the grandson truly want to be there or is it just expected? Are there the right management skills to go along with the last name? Current CEOs we spoke to who had experienced the chance to work outside the family business before moving back seemed much more happy with their firms, as it was largely their decision to be there. Others felt trapped – one even mentioned possibly selling the company, but as he put it, how could he? It’s his name – his legacy – on that bottle!
That will do it for in-country updates from me. Time to figure out where and when my classes are tomorrow! I’ll see you again in a week or so with a final recap of the trip.
*Alright, this is a little harsh. His reasoning was that upper management couldn’t lose sight of what was happening in the stores and this was a good way to keep them engaged there. Ikea also seems to fancy itself a bit of a socialist workers’ paradise, constantly stressing that if something is good enough for an entry-level employee, then it must be good enough for management as well. In the end, a small-ish cafeteria with prepared meals replaced the restaurant.