(by Daniel G. Van Der Vliet as originally appeared at CornellFamBiz.)

By now you may have already had your share of the myriad of movies and shows that seem to be re-run over and over. Many of these movies have become part of our Christmas heritage and traditions. Others, quite forgettable. This is not a post to wax poetic about too many or too few movies, or what a tragedy it is that Christmas starts earlier each year. Instead, I offer you a short quiz on three family businesses portrayed in some of the most memorable Christmas movies of all time.

  1. This movie was based on a real family business which still exists today. In it, two rival retail family businesses are competing, yet collaborating by referring their customers to each other in an attempt to increase their own reputation and ultimately their holiday business. When a key non-family employee’s employment history and mental state of mind is called into play, it leads to his dismissal creating ill-will in the community. Ultimately a legal battle ensues, the family business owner recapitulates and the employee is finally reinstated in time for a Merry Christmas.
  2. After a business partner dies, succession issues loom as no identified family members seem ready or interested in taking over this frugal accounting firm. The business also suffers from poor community connections and public support. After a late night off-site retreat leads to an innovative “gap-analysis” study, the owner envisions a more desirable future for the company (as well as his own life) which includes improving family connections, added benefits, improved working conditions for employees, and finally some long overdue altruistic giving tied to his estate plan.
  3. This embattled and struggling real estate business is faced with many challenges; sibling rivalry, incompetent family members in key positions, fierce corporate competition, lack of a succession plan, and work-life balance issues. Despite its smallish nature, this family business has implemented a board of directors which proves critical in the wake of the founder’s sudden death.The board votes to keep the business solvent under the stipulation that it remains in family ownership. The new president struggles to keep the business relevant and is nearly lured into working for the cross-town rival. As he struggles with his own growing family and then a company scandal, he contemplates taking his own life.

Can you guess them? All of the issues are very real and play out in many family and privately owned businesses. The added pressures on time and money at Christmas may stress some businesses that have had marginal years, or even good years. Keep your eye out as you watch Christmas and holiday movies this year; what family business themes are you noticing? The good news is the movies always have a happy ending, usually complete with snow.

Remember, however, that failure to plan, to communicate openly and to resolve family issues can result in many not so pleasant endings for your family business. In nearly half (47.7 percent) of all FOB collapses, the failure of the business was precipitated by the founder’s death, or in 29.8 percent of the cases, the owner’s unexpected death. Only in relatively few instances (16.4 percent), did the business failure follow an orderly transition, and in situations where the owner was forced to retire, the figure drops to 6.1 percent. (University of Connecticut Family Business Program, 2009).

Take stock in your family and business at this time of year. Be sure to enjoy family first, but also do not put off those issues that keep you awake at night. You’ll ensure a happy ending for yourself, your family and your business if you do. Snowfall is optional and only available in select states.

P.S. Tweet me at @fambizsuccess if you are still stumped for the answers.

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