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Once upon a time there was a successful family ...

Christine Harland is director of Camden Writers.

If you want to chronicle your family's history, a frank and open discussion can mean the difference between an interesting read and a meaningful exploration, says Christine Harland

Tom, the third generation CEO in his family business, called a meeting to discuss writing a company history. In the boardroom overlooking Central Park, introductions were made, costs and timetables were laid out. At the end of an hour, Tom said that he wanted to speak privately with the writers and asked the others, including his father, to leave the room.

In private, he talked openly about his goals. "I want everything discussed," he said, "and I have asked my father to speak frankly about his experiences, both personal and business."

"My father and mother divorced, there was a serious challenge to Dad's leadership from within the family and my brother took part in that. I want the truth told about all these aspects of our life."

Tom went on to say that he had decided to produce two histories: one, the highly personal account, would be archived and restricted; the second, an honest and substantive but edited account, would be readily available to a wider audience. He handed over a list of individuals to be interviewed, including his siblings, his mother, retired executives and even an individual who had been involved in the takeover bid.

Why was he recording this history?

"I have two young children." he said, "I want them to know exactly who we are and why things evolved as they did. I want them to know how the family feels about money and responsibility and about the relationship I've had with my father. That is as much a part of their lives and my legacy as the estate I leave behind me."

The result was a profound and well-rounded look at their family business and a remarkable portrait of successful, ambitious and thoughtful human beings engaged in the business of life.

Would your family and your family business benefit from a definitive overview of people and events? Grant Gordon, director general of the Institute for Family Business in the UK, holds that successful family firms "build long-term success and sustainability on the twin foundations of a clear vision allied to a strong set of values."

How, he asks, can the family business provide those ingredients?

"Founders," Gordon continues, "and subsequent family and business leaders are usually the starting point from which those visions and values emerge." Looking in depth into the growth and development of the individuals who contributed so much to the family business reveals the source of those foundations. Family business histories are an effective way to do this.

Howard Muson, research associate with Lansberg Gersick in Connecticut, delineates two useful categories of histories.

First there is the 'coffee table' history, with high-end graphics and selected text, often commemorating an anniversary or special occasion. These books celebrate a family's legacy, entrepreneurial achievements, the founder's story, company mission and prominent individuals. It is intended for general circulation with some public relations impact. Precisely because it is celebratory in nature, these histories don't usually examine many of the complexities and difficulties surrounding a family business.

The second option is what Muson refers to as the "memoir," usually focusing on the founder or an individual of some subsequent generation. This is one of the best ways a family can access its history. Often, the individual featured has moved outside the fray and can look back with wisdom and insight to tell it pretty much like it is. And while the focus may be on an individual, it is around this core that the story of the family business unfolds.

You need to distinguish which of these two goals best reflects your intentions. Investing in the more detailed memoir often provides a solid foundation for the production of other material, including the glossier and less personal public relations piece.

Where do you begin?
You need a writer. There are numerous firms and individuals who provide this service and your estate or investment adviser probably has some suggestions. You must determine that the writer you hire has the necessary skills to research and write, but even more important than that is the chemistry between you. Your family will be working with this individual or group of individuals for a number of months and the people you bring in will be entrusted with private information. They must be confidential and diplomatic. There will be a number of judgment calls.

In Ralph Waldo Emerson's words, history is really biography, and you don't necessarily need to search out a business writer to prepare your history. A family business is about people as well as balance sheets. Company structure, key turning points and business philosophy will usually fall within the purview of a good journalist.

Most people welcome the chance to talk and are usually refreshingly open and honest given the right opportunity. Frankness should be encouraged to produce the most meaningful history. Mixed in with usable material, however, are the things that should never be repeated and the individual you employ must be highly sensitive to that distinction.

History as an investment
Company histories require a substantial commitment of time and money. Within the parameters of a pre-arranged budget, the process works best when you have complete faith that the individual(s) you commission will be efficient and will make sound decisions in your best interests. I'll give you an example. I spent a number of weeks talking at length with the patriarch of a family business but still didn't feel that we had heard all he had to say. A few months later, I returned and we engaged in perhaps the most interesting and unique conversation we had had to date. Why? We had cleared a lot of information off the table and had come to know each other better. We had talked about his early days as a fisherman's son and the long hours he spent on his own in a boat hauling traps.

"I learned about hard work and discipline," he said. But then he went on, "I also learned to be alone. That was probably the most important lesson of all."

He said that the hours he had spent on his own as a young boy had endowed him with a great sense of imagination. That vision gave him the tools to think creatively about both his family and the company over the years. In that conversation, I learned a great deal about the personal qualities that allowed this patriarch to lead and to make difficult decisions.

No one questioned the few extra hours of interview time; I was free to follow my instincts, and it paid off. As long as there is agreement about a general budget and bills are submitted in a timely way, it is best to allow your writer leeway.

How do you manage the project?
Efficiency is greatly enhanced by appointing someone with authority in the family or company to coordinate the history project. A comprehensive memoir will probably take a few years, but once the project is up and running, micromanagement should not be necessary. The coordinator will set up interviews, explain the project to the rest of the family and others who are involved, transmit messages and requests and review bills. One person, perhaps the coordinator, should review progressive drafts.

Allowing your writer or graphic designer a free hand to go through papers and photographs also pays off. Trust their skilled eye to pick out the piece of information or picture that you might pass by. The opportunity to become familiar with large volumes of material spanning generations permits the writer to shape an informed overview and distil a meaningful history.

Is it time to speak for ourselves?
Wonderful memoirs, not least David Rockefeller's, exhibit a refreshing openness. A private man of great stature, he wrote revealingly about his family, his children, his business and his marriage.

"My wife, Peggy," he wrote, "meant more to me than anyone else… her love enabled me to become more self-confident in facing the many responsibilities I had inherited or assumed, but she also saved me from the error of self-satisfaction when I was blessed with success."

He was the first in his family to write publicly about the family. "It seemed to me that it could perhaps be interesting … to have someone from within the family tell the stories as we saw them as opposed to how outsiders saw them."

Last but not least, your history is only as effective as it is readable. The greater the honesty, the greater will be the appeal. To read, to remember, to internalise and feel connection, we must believe that our heroes have a heart.

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