Marrying into a family agribusiness

It stands to reason that without marriages, family businesses cannot continue. But the integration of in-laws into the business introduces complex dynamics. Trevor Dickinson suggests ways in which new spouses and family businesses can cope effectively.

Marrying into a family agribusiness
Joining a successful family farm as an in-law can be challenging. However, if skilfully handled, both parties can benefit.
Photo: FW Archive
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Marriage is both the blessing and the curse of the family business. Without marriages and the resultant children, there wouldn’t be family businesses! But marriages can lead to divorce, remarriage, step-parents, stepchildren, problems with in-laws and, consequently, uneasiness or conflict, or even a threat to the business itself. Another potential problem is that the business can be so demanding that it strains a marriage, sometimes to breaking point.

It’s natural to have some fears when someone in your family gets married. In a business family, these fears are more likely to be concerns about ‘emotional alliances’ than about the possibility of divorce and its financial impact on the business.

How can a family agribusiness cope with the issues that marriage raises? To begin with, it helps to look at things from the viewpoint of the ‘outsider’. What can you expect if you are marrying into a family agribusiness?

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There will be benefits. You may be marrying into wealth. You may have opportunities such as working in the family business and even sharing in its ownership. And you may enjoy the love of a family that is strong and close-knit, as business families often are.

There is much interaction in such families, as their members deal with one another at work as well as after hours. For the new in-law, this can be overwhelming.

Among the things to be managed will be pressure to conform to the family norms. Very often, what happens is that the in-law is expected to take on a role similar to the person in the family of the same sex as the in-law and who owns the business. But if no women (say) are involved in the business, a new daughter-in-law would probably be discouraged from having an active role.

Believe in yourself
As someone marrying into a family business, it’s important to have a strong sense of self and your own value. Also, you and your wife/husband need to focus on establishing a sense of identity as a couple outside of the business.

New in-laws may feel they are regarded with suspicion. And they are! The moment they come into the family, they are effectively on trial. Everybody in the family is hypersensitive to all the subtle signals that in-laws give on whether they are ‘with us or against us’.

Because he (for example) is in a new culture and is trying to take it all in, a son-in-law may seem reserved. But the strong business family may be wondering: “Why aren’t you joining us faster? Why aren’t you committing yourself to us?”

Focus on your own family, too
When sons or daughters work in the family business, they may feel they have something to prove, and may therefore spend an extraordinary amount of time at work. And the less time they spend at home or with the children, the more their spouses can come to resent the business.

Sons or daughters may also bring home all the problems they have at work, such as disagreements with other family members. If you are the husband or wife, you may be tempted to take sides with your spouse.

But if you do, you may find yourself in a position that may pit you against one or several family members. The best way to be supportive is not to try to tell your spouse what to do, but to ask good questions.

For example, instead of agreeing with her husband (the son of the owner) who complains that he’s not earning enough money, a wife might say, “Honey, if this wasn’t a family business, what do you think you should be earning?” Then he can start exploring the issue himself.

For a newcomer, one of the most difficult decisions may be whether to join the family business in the first place. Many families put pressure on their children and their children’s spouses to work in the firm.

Family business experts generally advise children and new in-laws to acquire outside experience before they join the family firm. I would also stress the importance of being well-qualified before you get caught up in the business. There’s no substitute for competence in a family business.

Being competent gives you more than confidence; it minimises the tendency of non-family employees to believe that you got your job just because you’re a family member.

It’s also advisable to make sure that you will have a real job with well-defined responsibilities. Otherwise, relatives will be carrying out the same tasks as you are, and you’ll be ‘underfoot’ all the time. Having separate responsibilities also avoids rivalry.

Of course, it is not just young people who marry into a family business. After a divorce or the death of a spouse, the business owner or a senior partner may remarry, and this can bring a host of fears and ill feelings to the surface.

Marlese Smit* jokingly refers to herself as the “wicked stepmother” of the family agribusiness. Pieter Smit’s* three children, already adults when Marlese married him, were still suffering after the death of their mother the year before. Marlese had visions that she would be able to “tie up a lot of the wounds of a grieving family”.

But this wasn’t to be. While the children didn’t seem anxious about having to share the family agribusiness or wealth, they regarded the marriage and their stepmother with hostility.

“I think they were angry at me,” recalls Pieter. “They’d lost a mother and perhaps they now thought they were losing their father, too.”

For some children, the arrival of a step-parent poses a real obstacle to inheritance or position in a business. One son I knew had joined his father’s agribusiness as a teenager and had worked his way up to general manager by his early 30s.

But his father died unexpectedly at the age 52 and, to the surprise of the son, had left everything to his second wife. She became managing director, and the son left the family farm to start his own business.

With today’s high rate of divorce, the possibility of a business owner remarrying is one that can hardly be ignored. According to a divorce attorney, “The big fears are what wife No. 2’s motives are, and whether Dad can balance his desire for happiness with what the children perceive to be an obligation to perpetuate the wealth for their benefit.”

Opening up communication early on may ease the situation.

“When the children see that their father is enamoured of wife No. 2, they should work together to establish a strategy for approaching their father and letting him know what their concerns are.

“They should also have a goal in mind regarding legal steps their parents might be willing to take to protect them. It might mean giving the children an interest in the family agribusiness or a premarital agreement in which the second spouse relinquishes any claim to the business,” the attorney suggests.

In a healthy family, there is usually opportunity for informal give and take, and discussing such issues might be addressed in a more spontaneous and less staged manner. Good communication is also important in handling other situations arising from relationships.

Roos Farming was started by Johan* and Karen Roos*, brother-in-law Kobus Boshoff*, as well as Johan’s parents. Johan recalls that his father, now retired, used to keep Kobus out of business discussions.

“My father would pretty much decide what he wanted to do, and my brother-in-law had to fall in behind us, and that was source of great difficulty,” recalls Johan.
Now the two couples run the business, and Kobus is part of the inner circle.

“We sit down, listen and communicate, bring in everybody’s point of view, and get commitment and consensus. All this helps the system to work,” says Johan.

And although Pieter’s children did not welcome his second wife to the family, Marlese reports that some progress is being made with these relationships. “They’ve become a lot more forgiving, finally,” she says.

More importantly, she and Pieter have been able to talk about the problem. “He understands, and he never lets his children’s feelings interfere with our relationship.”

Communication before marriage helps, too. The couple should anticipate as many problems as possible and discuss how they will be handled. For example, the person marrying into the family business needs to ask questions such as: “Can I live within the constraints of what the family business requires? Can I live with the long hours? Can I live with the relationship that I’m going to have to develop in the business with my in-laws?”

*Not their real names.

Trevor Dickinson is CEO of Family Legacies, a family business consulting company. Visit FW