Family-owned businesses

Family business: How to pass the baton

July 9, 2012: 10:07 AM ET

Retail CEO Jack Mitchell outlines how his family's business has been able to successfully pull off succession from one generation to the next.

By Jack Mitchell

FORTUNE -- Fifty-four years ago -- with three suits, a coffee pot, and a dream -- my parents, Ed and Norma Mitchell, founded a men's clothing store in Westport, Conn., in a little 800-square-foot building.

In the mid-1960s, my brother Bill and I joined the family business, and in 1974 our parents passed the torch to us. By the mid-1980s, Bill and I had built the business into a dominant clothing store in Westport. In the 1990s, our seven sons came aboard, along with my wife Linda, and the business has grown into the largest family-owned upscale clothing store in the United States, with sales exceeding $100 million.

Can you imagine spending half of your working life in a family business, beside your mother, father, and brother, and all getting along? And then spending the next half of your work life with your brother, your spouse, your four sons and three nephews, and still all getting along?  I pinch myself. We have been able to create an environment of mutual respect and trust, one where we can function as a team that shares the emotional and intellectual challenges of business along with its financial rewards.

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The succession from the second to the third generation has been a joyful journey, so much so that we have already begun to plan for the transition to the fourth generation. When I think back over our half century, I can identify seven things that made it all go smoothly.

1. Passion to pass the torch

You have to want to do it. You have to want to pass the equity and the responsibility to the next generation. My mother and father had this passion, and my brother and I embraced it.

2. Asking for help

My father gave us a wonderful phrase that my brother and I adopted: "I need your help." To shape a successful succession plan, we needed help.  We didn't know everything about family businesses and so we agreed to study successful ones. In 1979, we joined the Forum, a networking group of a dozen or so similar family businesses. At a 1985 meeting, David Bork, a family business consultant, gave a talk that resonated with us. The next day, we hired him. Bill and I worked with him for several years on our plan. We also set up an outside advisory board to assist with this and other strategic issues. More

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