Saltwater Crocodile

Family Conflicts:  The Apex Factor

The challenges presented by dominant parents/entrepreneurs

The Australian saltwater crocodile is an apex predator – it sits at the top of its food chain.  An adult croc faces few natural threats, other than man, and ferociously uses its considerable bulk to assert dominion over its chosen territory.

Many family businesses are similar:  a domineering matriarch or patriarch creates a business (and family?) environment that closely reflects their personal desires, drivers and demons.  Business best practice comes a distant second.

These entrepreneurs generate material success and personal drama in equal measure although, just like the crocodile, their all-or-nothing approach provides little room or encouragement for others to share the pride, the pain, or the prize.

Let’s share a story   …….

Brabbins is a very successful personal security company.  It offers a range of physical and professional protection services to major corporations and high net worth families.

The company was founded over 30 years ago by Bertie Brabbins after leaving the intelligence services in slightly murky circumstances.  Bertie was not a big man, and he’d had a difficult childhood, with an overbearing father and academic abilities that assured him a hard time at the much-loathed private school he was forced to attend.  He was tough though, both inside and out, helped by martial arts expertise and regular marathon runs.  In business he was known to be street smart, ruthless and reliable to a fault, although nobody ever got on the wrong side of him twice.

Like a crocodile, Bertie carried these values into his home life.  His relationship with Maria, his wife of 35 years, was functional and lonely.  His son (Matt) and daughter (Sofie) knew him only as a remote provider and strict disciplinarian, who ruled the roost, when he was home, with endless platitudes and rules.

Sofie was clever, withdrawn and in constant sullen conflict with Maria.  She’d developed an eating disorder and a serious self-harming habit in her teens.  She worked long hours as a corporate lawyer in a mid-sized city firm, occasionally surprising both clients and peers with explosive aggression when things didn’t go her way.

Matt was academic, non-physical, and an obvious source of disappointment to his father.  He lectured in accounting , economics and commerce at a reputable business school.

On his 65th birthday Bertie surprised everyone, including himself, by waking up with an irresistible desire to start enjoying life; to “make good” with his family; to reverse the damaging cycle of destructive behaviours inherited from his father, and to pass on his legacy, in the form of the substantial value of his business, to Matt and Sofie.

Issues (reflecting how Bertie prioritised his challenges)

Business.  Plan?  What Plan?  Bertie thought he’d live forever and wouldn’t need any partners, contingency plans or successors.  Brabbins had many sensitive, highly prescriptive and very confidential contracts with demanding, and sometimes dangerous, clients (and operatives).  It was not a simple business and it could go very bad, very quickly, without proper direction.  He felt trapped by his own indispensability.

Financial.  On paper Bertie was comfortable and secure, but his entire fortune was tied up in the business.  Work provided the cashflow to support a “successful lifestyle”, but there was never surplus cash in the bank.  With no plans or assets in place to provide financial security, he’d need to burden his business successors with a substantial pension commitment, significant debt, or both.

Personal.  Bertie quickly recognised that he would need much more than “good intentions” to sustain him through a successful transition away from leading and managing the business.  He’d need a whole new set of personal goals and connections, and the support of family, friends and colleagues.  Unfortunately, his immediate family was emotionally unskilled, de-sensitised and fearful; he had no real hobbies, pastimes or friends, and his long term business contacts were more likely to eat, than support, a departing apex predator.

Solutions (reflecting how I prioritised the challenges)

Personal.  As a decision making organism the family was disempowered, untrusting and dysfunctional.  There was little point in their trying to do anything as a group until they had appropriate ground rules, processes, skills and confidence to facilitate credible decision making.  Engaging them all in the following processes began to build bridges:

Mediation and Mentoring:  we identified, worked on and resolved significant personal and interpersonal issues so we could proceed safely.

Dialogue coaching:  we built on the “working peace” derived from mediation to develop processes, skills and rules for talking constructively and respectfully to each other, as equals.

Problem solving and decision making:  we developed and committed to a credible process for making group decisions.  The whole family owned and supported the process.

Values and Visions:  a workshop helped everyone agree that it was worth making the effort to build a shared family future, and deal with the family’s emotional baggage.

Business.   A long term business plan would enable everyone to know what they were dealing with, and how to deal with it.  There were no sacred cows.  We started with Bertie’s big picture;  shared, discussed and refined it with Matt and Sofie;  then engaged key staff to flesh out and finalise formal business plans.

Financial.  This was now mere arithmetic, rather than an ego-driven exercise by a former apex predator to prove to the world, and to himself, that he was successful.  A financial planner calculated what Bertie and Maria needed to lead, within reason, the life they wanted.  This would be “enough” and any additional value in the business could be passed on to Matt and Sofie (and their children) as Bertie’s legacy and gift.

(Note:  the alternative – to demand full value for the business – provides no financial benefit to successors and typically loads them with so much debt they either run away or struggle horribly under the burden.  Such a course of action has been known to destroy families and their businesses).


Ownership of the business was moved into a family trust.  A newly formed Family Council developed a code of expectations and rules for family sharing and governance.

Several leading employees became executive directors and managers of the business.  They were also given limited rights shares.  The business thrived.

Bertie transitioned into a non-executive chairman’s role over several years.  He continued to mellow, while developing a number of external interests and passions (including his family).

Matt and Sofie became non-executive directors with very positive interests in the business.  Both of them continued to develop their own careers as well.  Reduced tensions meant that they, and their children, began to enjoy being part of the family.

Maria felt that she was on the way to having the family she’d always wanted.

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