Overcoming Tragedy in the Family Business – Case of the Brolin Family

The Brolin family seemed to have it all: a flourishing high-end retail business now going into its third generation; grandchildren and cousins who grew up together and now connected to each other. Everything seemed to be falling into place.

The big issue confronting them was succession in the business. The three children, Susannah 39, Jonas, 34 and Maria 32, all worked in the business. Business was good and they all got along. The question was, how would they manage this transition?

Mom and dad hired an advisor. In a family meeting they talked of the early years with the children while growing the business. Jonas offhandedly remarked, “There are 5 years between Susannah and me. How come?” He was just wondering out loud. Mom, usually quite composed, burst out, “What do you mean by that? Why bring that up!” Taken aback, Susannah said, “What’s the matter with you? He was just wondering.”

Tearfully, Mom went on, “When Susannah was just two, we had another baby. His name was Thomas. He was a wonderful little boy. When he was 15 months old, he got very sick. We didn’t know what it was. We took him to the hospital and two weeks later he died. It was a serious brain infection.”

In the silence, the children looked at each other. No one said a word. Finally, Maria said, “I remember when I was seven, I found a toy box with the name ‘Thomas’ on it. I asked Mom, but she wouldn’t talk about it. That was it.”

This stunning news, after so many years, shook each member of the family. Over the next few months, the discussions, with the advisor, and later on with a family therapist, were tearful, heart wrenching, confrontational and, at times, disturbing.

This family had to deal with the long-buried secret of another child. Those many years ago, Mom and Dad had decided to never again talk of Thomas and “just let it be.” While Susannah, Jonas and Maria could appreciate the tremendous grief of their parents back then, they were also angry, disappointed and confused about how Mom and Dad could keep such a secret for so long.

In meetings with the family business advisor, they gained perspective on the transition issues facing them: who would run the business, who would own the business, what is their business plan? The family therapist helped them to cope with the conflicted feelings of such news.

The Brolins regained their footing. They had difficult discussions about a broad range of family issues, many related to the business.

How is it, then, that this family not only survived this emotional tsunami, but also moved ahead? Three major components of all good-enough families emerge from their story:

  • The Brolins solid foundation of love and respect for each other
  • Their commitment to finding a way to “work it out, no matter how difficult”, and
  • Their judicious use of advisors, colleagues, other enterprising families and a wide network of supports to them as a family.
  • They were no longer shackled to the past. They were ready to build the future.