Working as a computer consultant gives me a chance to interact with all types of businesses. I’m not just referring to the product or service they provide but to the company structure as well. The common denominator is that I usually deal with the owners or company controller- rarely with a lower level management type. Not bragging- it’s just the nature of the work I do. But, that’s not the reason for this story- just a referential lead-in.
The business model that has provided the most entertaining experiences over the years is the family business. Usually this means I’m caught in the middle of siblings duking it out for power.
In the 1980’s, I did work for a sales and service organization where one brother sold business equipment while the other serviced and repaired them. During the good times, which I guess must have been the 1970’s through the early 1980’s, both the sales and service departments were very much profitable. Each brother had wives who also came in to help out and justify being a part of the payroll.
All four of them were cigarette smokers to the extent that they could not hold a conversation unless there was tobacco rolled up in a piece of paper clenched in one hand. Needless to say, I didn’t smoke and never have. The aroma (or should I say stench) was difficult to handle as well as getting rid of the smell off of my clothes when I left the place. I’m sure there were other clients who thought I was a closet smoker. Yes, making money was more important than the aggravation of going to their place of business.
Then, the mid 1980’s turned into the late 1980’s and newer, fancier business equipment was being manufactured that lasted longer, didn’t need that much repair and frankly was better than the core products the brothers sold. Profits started a downward trend. The brothers began to bicker with each other. Each one felt the other was the drag on the business. Then the one who sold office equipment felt he didn’t need his brother anymore because he could do simple maintenance by himself. The brother who repaired the stuff felt that the future money was in repair as products could be bought at larger business supply retail stores more cheaply. And these stores would probably need a reliable independent operation to handle repair requests.
The brothers decided to break up the family business act and it was nasty. They stopped talking to each other. The repair guy moved out and opened up his own shop a mile or so down the road from his older brother. He called me to come over and help him set up his computer system. Money is money, like I said earlier, and obliged his request. When I was finished, he then pulled out a 5 1/4 inch floppy disk and said it contained the names, addresses and phone numbers of the customers he and his brother had previously shared. He asked me to install it into a database on his computer.
I had to decline because it was not ethical. The list belonged to the original company I serviced which was still in business being run by the older brother. I explained that I could not, that it was illegal for me to do so unless he could produce something in writing that gave him the right to use the list. He politely told me to go to hell and never come back.
I subsequently told the older brother what had transpired and he thanked me and said that I had done the correct thing because he would have taken legal action. Subsequently, both guys went out of business because the world had changed on them and they did not adapt. I never saw the younger sibling, the repairman, again. The older one, a gregarious salesman by trade, ended up selling industrial supplies for a company as a route salesman. I saw him a few years later at a client taking an order and he told me that he had survived a heart attack and a double bypass, but other than that he was doing fine.
Another client consisting of a pair of siblings was a n industrial supply business. The one I would work with on their accounting system always seemed to be looking over my shoulder and trying to consult to me rather than the other way around even though I was the one getting paid. His brother was rarely in the office, always out handling accounts as did another employee of theirs. The family business had originally been started by their father who had since passed on.
After a couple of years, the one with whom I always communicated left the family business and went into- you guessed it- business consulting. He started out by getting leads and doing things in partnership with another fellow who had been a consultant with a pretty big CPA firm. The brother who was the salesman stuck with it. He had apparently already found what made him happy. A couple of years later I saw one of them- you guessed it again- the one who was the outside salesperson as he happened to sell cleaning supplies to another client of mine, strictly out of coincidence. I’d ask him how his brother- the consultant- was and he quickly changed the subject. The same would go for the consultant when we chatted. He had little to talk about his brother and the business he left. As I write this, I now vaguely recall that there is a third brother who had not been in the cleaning supply business and neither has anything to do with him, either.
Last but not least, I have a client that is a partnership of two sisters and a brother. The brother does not talk to one sister ever and uses the other one as a messenger if it is necessary to convey information to the hated one. Frankly, they do not like each other. They sit within 15 feet of each other in their own cubicles. If I need to discuss anything with them that pertains to all three, I have to do it in two separate conversations. If an email is required, I must send it without copying one to the other but as separate emails even if I am repeating myself. A great family business prototype, huh?
Very recently, their mother passed away. I attended the funeral. The person conducting the solemn event announced that three people would speak- those who knew the dearly departed very well. The funeral facilitator then stated the names of the two sisters and one of their cousins. The son had been shut out. Maybe he didn’t care or maybe he didn’t want to have his sister- the one he could not stand- hear his true feelings.
So, if you know of anyone who has a family business needing a computer consultant who knows how to stay in the middle- I’m your man.