Three years ago, HBO announced the launch “Succession”, a not so thinly veiled fictional account of the Rupert Murdoch Family and his Fox empire. While the announcement of a new television doesn’t normally rattle my innards, I was faced with a television watching dilemma, a true “Squid Game” of streaming options.
As a third-generation Family Business member, I experienced the miasma of family business succession that bedevils the lives of family business members. This isn’t to say that every family business member spends every day, all day, thinking about the family business. However, if you’re born into a family business, it is a living breathing reality that serves as a prism on how you view the world. It’s like death and taxes, except if you have “Roy Money”, you find ways to avoid paying taxes.
“Succession” isn’t unique because it identifies the overlap of wealth, family, and business as a powerful topic for a movie or television show. The Godfather”, “Empire”, “Arrested Development”, and every Western from the 1960’s has family business at the heart of their story. “Succession” is unique because succession is driving the narrative.
The most consequential decision in my life was not entering the family business. If “Succession” was going to drill down into the issues and intricacies generated by the deep emotional underpinnings of the family businesses, I was in. However, HBO isn’t known as “the subtle network” so I was pretty sure there was going to be no peeling back the layers of the onion.
For two years, I steadfastly avoided watching “Succession”. Since I’m the founder of a platform for next generation family business members, it wasn’t easy. I thought I could seamlessly slide through Season Three until I heard the “Succession” theme beckoning from my wife’s cellphone.
At this point, I realized that “taking my eyes off the car wreck” was unavoidable, and I was going to watch Season Three. I also concluded that to justify watching the show, I would write “Succession and Your Family Business”.
Over the course of a week, I binged the first two seasons of “Succession”. While there are numerous reviews, articles, and recaps about “Succession”, nobody discussed the show from the family business perspective. That’s our goal. Our other goal is to avert a massive spoiler alert for the first two seasons. Therefore, we decided to focus on Season 1, Episode 1 to provide the family business flavor without giving away the story.
Each week, “Succession and Your Family Business” will include general musings about Family Business, our Family Business and “Succession”. We invite you to share your thoughts about the show and your Family Business on our Instagram, LinkedIn or Facebook accounts at @NxtGenNexus and use the hashtag #NxtGenNexus to be featured.
Welcome to “Succession and Your Family Business”
Episode One – The Celebration
Logan Roy, the 80-year old Leading Gen of Waystar Royco, stumbles out of bed and accidently pees in the closet instead of the toilet. Marcia, his third wife, gets up and brings Roy back to bed. She doesn’t clean up the pee because, after all, one of the great things about being Roy Rich or living at the Omega House in “Animal House”, is that nobody cares that there’s pee soaking into the carpet overnight. Throw down a towel for God’s sake! At least Marcia didn’t wake up one of their staff members in the middle of night so that was very egalitarian of her.
We’re then transported to the streets of Manhattan where Kendall Roy, oldest son of Logan Roy, is being chauffeured through the city, listening to “An Open Letter to NYC” by the Beastie Boys and pumping himself up for appears to be an extraordinarily consequential day. Kendall Roy is literally the whitest man in America. He makes Casper the Friend Ghost look like a candidate for DEI credits. Kendall exits the car and enters the building’s foyer. We cue to the Nicolas Burielis’ theme and go to the opening of “Succession”.
Burielis’ opening theme features piano over bells and continues building in intensity adding choral, percussion and strings. By overlaying the music over the traditional photos and videos which chronicles a family’s legacy, the viewer is ushered down the rabbit hole of the twisted nature of the Roy family. The most informative moment in the opening is a video of a young girl watching her brothers playing tennis. The concept of categorically assuming that a woman isn’t the right person to lead a Family Businesses is changing; however, not changing quickly enough.
Kendall enters the glass conference where Frank Vernon, who’s served as COO for 30-years, is heading Waystar’s negotiating team. Kendall, who is as genuine as a cell phone tower, disguised as a tree in the middle of suburban neighborhood, shakes hands with Lawrence, the founder of Vaulter. Lawrence Yee, a Korean entrepreneur, is attired in New York City, M&A, digital media casual and is leading his team of 10+ people. Lawrence is not engaged in the conversation. He doesn’t understand Kendall’s awkward attempt to be hip and walks out the door. Negotiations are over!
Lawrence doesn’t work for me on many different levels. First of all, his teeth are perfect. If you’ve seen pictures of Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg or any other young tech entrepreneur, they don’t belong to the perfect teeth club. That’s why they became tech entrepreneurs. Lawerence claims to be squashing the deal to create more value for his shareholders.
M&A deals can always fall apart at the last minute, it’s the nature of the beast. While Kendall may have the EQ quotient of a fig, he’s not stupid. Kendall confronts him in the hallway, and Lawrence goes full tilt Hulk and rips into Kendall about raping his company, Kendall being a Daddy’s boy and a drug addict. Every entrepreneur dreams about the day he/she can say FU to all the people who dissed on the way up; however, you eventually get over on it. Since Lawrence and Kendall didn’t know each other, his reaction pushed the credibility of the story line.
After the Lawrence leaves, Kendall tells the team he wants to raise the offer. One of lackeys asked if Kendall “wanted to call his Dad” and Kendall asked if they wanted to call their Dads. Kendall picks up and hears his father’s gravelly voice question “did you close?”. If a manager at any level asks a subordinate “did you close”, it is purely a business question. It’s different in the family business world because when a father asks the son the same question, it’s a referendum on their lives.
From here, we’re transported to a Waystar Royco theme park meeting, where Greg the Cousin wearing his chipmunk/squirrel/aardvark costume watches the Roy Family “Welcome to the Theme Park” video. It sucks being The Cousin because they’re hoping to find a family business tit to suck on; however, there’s only so many piglets that can wean at one time. The most famous family business cousin in modern literature is Clyde Griffiths. from Theodore Dreiser’s extraordinary novel “An American Tragedy. Movie lovers know it as a “A Place in the Sun” starring Montgomery Clift (think Chris Hemsworth only better looking). Greg, who is no Montgomery Clift, manages to throw up in this chipmunk costume, so we’re up to two excretions of bodily fluids from two different orifices. Will we get the hat trick? Greg calls his mother who tells him to go to New York to attend Uncle Roy’s 80th birthday party.
Meanwhile, Kendall’s team continues to strategize about next steps with Vulture media. Younger brother, Ronen, who is all hipster style, frenetic energy and self-serving crashes the meeting. We learn that Ronen didn’t like working for the family business because…..he was expected to work.
Back at the house, Logan observes a housekeeper cleaning his night moves and shuffles around the house watching the preparations for his opulent 80th birthday lunch. Logan sees the cover of Forbes anointing Kendall as the man. Roy straightens himself and tells Marcia that he’s leaving.
We move to the streets of New York in front of de Grisogono, an incredibly high-end jeweler with its own sordid history. Here, we meet Shev, the beloved daughter of Roy’s second marriage. On the surface, she is the grounded member of the Roy family. Shev is attractive with red hair that she wears down to the shoulders. She’s wearing a full-length winter cashmere coat and carries a purse which at a quick glance, doesn’t’ scream Prada or Gucci. We learn that she has a job in politics which is probably the healthiest thing she could have done in her life. (Working outside the family business, not going into politics).
We also meet her boyfriend Tom Wamsgans, who is headed down the dreaded In-Law lane. When Shev describes the right present, she’s also describing the fate of the in-law “everything that you will get him will mean an equal amount of nothing. So make sure it looks like 10 to 15 grand worth and you’re good.”.
My father was the In-Law in the family business and like Tom, grew up lower class than my mother. My father had the additional burden of working for his mother-in-law which was exceeding rare in the 1950s. He ultimately solved his issue by spinning off a new business but they never resolved the In-Law issue within the family.
With the introduction of the main set of characters, the plot ramps up. As Kendall and team continues to ponder their offer, Roy walks unannounced into the office. Kendall is concerned that his appearance signifies a set back with the announcement of Kendall becoming CEO of the business (he’s only been thinking about this for 30-years). Roy reassures him that he’s only there for Kendall to sign the family trust document…now. Kendall starts to push back, then signs.
The action shifts back to the Roy house as the guests join the party. We meet oldest step-brother Connor, who is the son of Logan’s first wife and a non-player in the family affairs. He gives his father a sour bread starter for his birthday which describes his role within the family. As Roy approaches the house, he’s hounded by reporters and paparazzi. Cousin Greg also greets him and is taken down by Roy’s security guard. However, Greg is legit and he rides up the elevator with Roy and starts sucking.
When Kendall arrives at the party, he’s congratulated by various members of the family. Roy asks him for an update with Vaulter and Kendall responds things are going well. Kendall and Frank step into another room where they learn there’s another bid for Vaulter. Kendall quickly devices a strategy to eliminate other suiters and Frank congratulates him on a great move. Kendall returns to the party with an additional shot of confidence and asks about the announcement. Everything changes when Roy informs him “he’s not going” and walks away.
Roy calls the four children into a room and tells them he’s adding Marcia to the Family Trust in the event of his “unlikely” demise and giving her a second seat on the board which doubles her influence on the business. And they have three hours to sign the document. And he’s officially staying as Chairman and CEO of the company.
Kendall corners Roy and looks for an explanation. Roy says it’s about him, then begins to degrade Kendall about being weak, he wushed out during the Vaulter negotiation, and he was in the nuthouse. Roy’s right about a couple of things including: 1) it’s about him because by now we’ve learned that everything is about him; and 2) Kendall isn’t going to go anywhere because he has no choices.
Lunch commences and Frank gives a warm speech about Roy’s tremendous success and how honored he is to work for him. After the speech, Roy announces that it’s his birthday and their going to play “The Game”.
“The Game”, which is a softball game between the family members, is my favorite segment of the episode because family business traditions are an enormous component of building the family legacy. Of course, not every family’s tradition includes chartering helicopters to a softball field, but that’s okay. During the game, Ronen offers a young Hispanic spectator a $1 million if he hits a home run. The youngster comes close but is tagged out at the plate. He’s very upset, but is slightly cheered when one of Roy’s guards gives him the gift that Tom agonized over with Shev.
At the end of The Game, Roy fires Frank after 30-years of service because Ronen says he wants to be COO. Roy asks Ronen, Shev and Connor to ride back in his helicopter (Kendall left early to close to the Vaulter deal) and tells them to sign the Family Trust paperwork. Shev and Ronen push back while Connor does nothing. Suddenly, Roy passes out and the helicopter is diverted to the hospital.
Season Three “Succession” airs on HBO on October 17, 2021.