From banking to writing – are they very different? Paperjam considers how they interact in an article about Philippe Depoorter and his new book: Ce que j'ai appris de vous, voyage au coeur des familles en entreprise.
In eleven fascinating stories, he recounts the challenges faced by families who have created or developed a family business, at a pivotal moment in their history. From the notion of sacrifice to that of reinventing themselves, in these extracts from his interview with Paperjam, Philippe Depoorter describes the fantastic and universal dimension of these highly-driven entrepreneurs' lives.
How did you become interested in families in business?
The family is an interactive mechanism. That's what interests me – the human element and the stories behind it.
Rather by chance. A good many years ago, the Bank was interested in partnering a university in Belgium. We approached ICHEC Brussels. As I learnt more about the subject, I became enmeshed in a passion for it and couldn’t tear myself away. The experience resulted in my heading up the Bank's Businesses division and giving it a new dynamic. It was wonderful because I was able to put into practice everything I’d learnt over the years. I became very involved in the handover of family businesses. The best service I could offer was not to tell them what to do, but to help them find their own solutions. My role was to bring together all the stakeholders in the family, those handing over and those receiving, and get them talking to each other. The family is an interactive mechanism. That's what interests me – the human element and the stories behind it.
What is the main problem you have encountered with families in business?
In Luxembourg, depending on the number of children they have, parents have to pass on a minimum amount imposed by law. This is a non-negotiable right for the children and obligation for the parents. It raises the question of how to pass on the estate, with founders who don't know how to pass it on, and young people who receive something they may not want – or don't know if it's what they want. These may be the problems of rich people, but they can create a huge dilemma for the families concerned.
What are the potential pitfalls in passing on a family business?
When you're thinking about handing over your estate, you have to define the limits and accept that you will no longer be part of the business every day.
It's sometimes very difficult for a founder to hand over their business because it represents their life's work. When you're thinking about handing over your estate, you have to define the limits and accept that you will no longer be part of the business every day. In some cases, the founder hands over the position but not the power, and that can be disastrous. The founders of a family business are formidably intelligent, but they can jeopardise the balance of the business if there are difficulties with the handover. To make it a success, you have to go through a psychological process and find another role where you can flourish.
Why is it important to make heritage meaningful?
I don't know of any great founders who set out to become rich. The people who have created their own wealth have been guided first and foremost by passion and the desire to transform their ideas into reality. The money comes later, and often they don't benefit from it. But they have a great responsibility: from the moment they build it up, they have a responsibility to pass it on. I've seen some very substantial estates pass from one generation to the next without anyone withdrawing the money. That will be the subject of my next book, due out by the end of the year.
Why did you write this book?
This 200-page book is not just about Philippe Depoorter's years of working with families in business. It is also, and above all, about “questioning meaning and ethics at a time when money, power and loyalties could distract us”. “I focused on subjects and situations that often come up in family businesses. I wanted this book to be thought-provoking and help people reflect on their own situation. At the end of each chapter, I offer a few short theoretical insights to prompt further thinking.”
Philippe Depoorter recounts eleven stories of families in business seen from his role as ‘facilitator’. They are all case studies in which the people involved were enabled to speak out and discussions were facilitated around the family's ‘internal music’.