Book Reviews

“Family planning: Waterloo’s family business doctor dispenses advice”
By Chuck Howitt, REX: Business in Waterloo Region & Guelph, Feb/March 2008

John Fast has written a book about family businesses, but don’t expect to see a lot of technical stuff about estate freezes, shareholder agreements and financial audits. Instead…Fast’s goal in The Family Business Doctor was to tackle the “soft issues” – family dynamics, getting people to the table, working through conflict and ensuring everybody is heard…. Financial issues are often the biggest concern before a business owner sets up a succession plan, but once the process is underway, the emotional and psychological issues take over, he says….Don’t get him wrong. Cash concerns are still important. He advises owners to get the right kind of advice at an early stage from lawyers, accountants, bankers and financial advisers. He calls it “professionalizing the process.”

The book came about gradually. During some of his public speaking engagements, people would ask, “John, where can I buy your book?” ….in the meantime, Fast is busy with his consulting, training and public speaking work which keeps him on the road much of the time. His speeches are a mix of humour, business and entertainment. At times he’s either Jay Leno, Dr. Phil or David Dodge.

Ed Sobol, who owns Mr. Lube franchises in Kitchener, Cambridge, and Guelph attended one of Fast’s recent speeches. He wishes he had heard it five years ago. “It might have helped with the management issues with family” he says. “I do have three of my sons working in the business,” Sobol says. “It will likely improve our relationship because of his comments…If we improve our communication, we’ve won.”

Asked to sum up what his book has to offer, Fast modestly replies that many of the concepts are not unique; it’s more the way he presents them. One of the book’s best innovations, he believes, is a chapter on habits of the heart, which advocates such ideas as family retreats and passing the baton ceremonies. “We all end up living by our habits – (such as) forgiveness, accountability, truth.”

“Succession book cuts through emotion”
By John Parsons, ONTARIO FARMER, Dec/07

Though it’s not considered a how-to book it does offer lots of examples of successes and failures.

Dr. John Fast is deceptively low-key. His presentation at the International Farm Succession Conference eased slowly into an understanding of the family behind any farm succession plan. Bit by bit, I was drawn into the subject until…”Hey, that’s me he’s talking about up there” or “Gee, that’s exactly why my client’s children never had any interest in taking over the family farm.”

This book is a must-read for those families approaching the time for succession planning. The book is chock full of these successful and not so successful examples including quite a number drawn specifically from farm scenarios. Family relationships and problems transcend all industries.

What was particularly compelling, both at the Ottawa conference and in the book, is a scenario we have all seen. Speaking about the unconscious control that parents exert over their children, Dr. Fast gradually leads up to the familiar refrain of “someday this will all be yours.” Only to shatter the feeling by likening it to golden handcuffs. Children work diligently for Mom and Dad, toe the line, with the potential prize of the family business in the future. Eventually they can wake up and resent the position they find themselves in, realize that they can no longer strike off on their own in a different direction, and feel they are getting nothing more than an enhanced weekly allowance they grew up with from early childhood. By the time the parents die off, any incentive and initiative has been crushed and the business may be doomed.

Ultimately the book is about succession planning, as difficult a process as you are ever likely to find within your business. The trick is to just get started.

The author knows his role is that of a family counsellor, of someone who has a wonderful ability to draw out the feelings, concerns, and ambitions of family members.

The all-encompassing look into actual family dynamics, into the emotional needs of both founders and the next generation, and to the failures and successes of other families makes the book a valuable first step…you’ll come away with a better understanding of what to expect when you start the (succession) process yourself.

I’ll leave you with a last word from the author who obviously thinks of the family first, “I have encountered too many clients who have spent tens of thousands of dollars on grand schemes to minimize taxes, only to belatedly discover that the technical succession scenario laid out doesn’t meet the actual needs and goals of the family or its individual members.”

“Take your family business temperature”
By Wally Kroeker, THE MARKETPLACE, Mennonite Economic Development Associates, January/February 2008

Family businesses are the unsung heroes of the western economy….And they generally outperform non-family companies…and most important, they enjoy a much higher degree of trust. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have challenges, as anyone in a family business will attest. To extend the metaphor of this book, they sometimes come down with a cold or virus. Certain ailments come with the territory.

John Fast, a leading Canadian authority on the topic, cleverly employs the health motif throughout this book. The ‘patient’ is the ‘business family,’ and the goal is wellness. Whether you feel a little punky or feel fine, a periodic check-up is a good idea.

And Doctor John is here to help, “charting pathways for the predictable aches and pains common to this patient.”…. The book combines his own wide consulting experience with a digest of the latest research on family business. He covers the key potential ailments, from sibling rivalry to succession.

The tightrope of balancing family members’ goals and the ongoing management of the business causes more than half of the problems business families face, says Fast….Unique challenges “seem to crystallize around the dilemma of succession…The reality is that ‘succession’ is actually another word for change – a sort of change that reaches into almost every crevice of a business family’s life.”

Like a holistic physician who senses the subtle links between body, mind and soul, Fast goes beyond the most apparent aches and pains to deeper issues of the mind and spirit. What’s really going on in the business? What are the fears of passing on control: “Will the next generation show me up? Will they keep all the employees?” He addresses in a fresh way the pivotal role of emotional intelligence, including, among other things, accurate self-assessment and a philosophical view of one’s strengths and weaknesses.

The sections on healthy aging and male menopause are themselves worth the price of the book.

If you are involved in a family business, you need to read this book. If your business in tip-top form, you’ll love being affirmed for how healthy you are and you won’t mind being reminded to get your exercise and eat your veggies. But if you wonder about that persistent cough, well, here’s a path to wellness.