Recently, I had the good fortune of attending a workshop on Family Business Succession Planning hosted by Oakland law firm, Wendel Rosen Black & Dean. The workshop was organized around a family business case study of Peerless Coffee & Tea, featuring George Vukasin, Sr., CEO, and his son, George Vukasin, Jr., Executive Vice President, who shared their own experience and wisdom.
Three Generations of Success
John and Natalie Vukasin founded Peerless Coffee & Tea in Oakland in 1924. Long before there was a Peet’s or Starbucks, Peerless produced fine specialty coffees and teas and featured artisan coffee roasting. The fact that it became successful and has endured successfully to this day is a remarkable accomplishment. I learned at the workshop that only 30% of family businesses survive beyond the first generation, and only 50% of those survive beyond the second generation. The Vukasin family business has made it well into the third generation with George Jr. and his sister, Kristina, now largely running the show.
Choice Yes, Manipulation No
My ears perked up when George, Sr. shared that he never expected or programmed his children to join the business. He knew that it was important that they choose to, or not, without interference or manipulation from anyone in the family.
Explore the World First
George, Jr. majored in Art History at Cal and went on to earn his Grand Diplome de Cuisine from the Cordon Bleu in Paris – not exactly the traditional path to success in business. Surprisingly, after exploring the world of cuisine, George Jr. decided he wanted to join the family business.
Once George Jr. was on board, his sister, Kristina Brouhard, a Deputy District Attorney for Alameda County, decided she liked the idea of joining the family coffee business too. Kristina now serves as Vice President and General Counsel.
Career Choice, Change, and Development
Our company, Bell Investment Advisors, is also a family business, although we didn’t know it would be when it began 20 years ago. After many years of personal exploration, education, and professional experience, I found my way to the field of investment management and financial planning, where I happily remain.
Today, my wife, Bonnie (following several years of personal and professional exploration of her own) and I co-manage our staff of 15 employees, and our son, Forrest, is in the role of Senior Investment Advisor and Financial Planner. I guess this makes us a family business, although it was not something any of us could have predicted in 1991.
As with Peerless Coffee & Tea in 1924, the future success of the business and our children’s career choices, were all unknowns.
When Forrest began college, he wrote me that he wanted to join Bell Investment Advisors after he graduated and wanted me to recommend what classes he should take in preparation. At that time, my instincts, and my own experience of being an 18-year-old college freshman, told me that this decision was premature. I thought it best to encourage my son and younger daughter, Emily, as well, to explore the world before focusing on a particular career. To this day, Emily has not expressed interest in joining the business, although she is interested in and very familiar with what we all do.
As it turned out for Forrest, he discovered in college that he had a passion for teaching, earned a Masters in Education from Claremont Graduate University, and met his wonderful wife Rose Lynn in the same graduate program. He taught school for seven years in Los Angeles County while pursuing a rigorous two-year Business Professionals Course on-line and in quarterly conferences in Silicon Valley. This course reignited his earlier interest in business and he began to talk about making a career change.
At the same time, almost six years ago now, the business was growing rapidly, we needed to hire another person for the client services team, and it just made good sense for all of us to see if there might be a match for him and for the business. No promises were made on either side, but over the next year or so it became clear that there was.. He continued to learn the business, completed the financial planning certification program, evolved into the role of senior investment advisor, and now heads the financial planning department. His years of experience in teaching continues to serve him, our clients, and our business well.
The jury is out on Emily, who completed an MA in International Policy and a Master’s of Social Work at Columbia in 2009. She moved from New York to Los Angeles with her new husband, Chris, where he studies architecture at Southern California School of Architecture and she works for a non-profit organization called Social Services for Groups (SSG) in Los Angeles. She, like Forrest, will or won’t join the business just because she’s family; only if there’s a match between her skills and desire and the needs of the business.
Family businesses are complicated. Some reek of nepotism and dysfunction. But family businesses can foster a close, healthy, and values-driven culture as well. In our case, the “extended family,” not actual family, includes a top-notch staff of high-quality and highly-qualified professionals who integrate with the culture we have established and make the business the strong, successful entity that it is. We would not be the successful business that we are without the character, intelligence, education, and client service attitude they bring.
The story of George Jr. Vukasin and his sister, Kristina, the third generation of Vukasins to own and manage Peerless Coffee & Tea, validates my own experience and inspires in me hopes for what has become our family business.
Poetry from Lebanon on Parenthood
At the same time, the Vukasin story brought back for me these familiar verses on Parenthood from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with
His might that His arrows may go swift and far. Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves that bow that is stable.
Jim Bell, CFP® is President and Founder of Bell Investment Advisors, Inc. 1111 Broadway, Suite 1630 in downtown Oakland, where he co-manages the business with his wife, Bonnie Bell, Director of Career & Life Coaching. The firm has been providing customized financial planning, investment management, and life coaching services since 1991. www.bellinvest.com 510-433-1066