Auto Service World
Feature   February 1, 2004   by Andrew Ross, Editor and Publisher

The Family Business

Mario Andretti is best known for being an icon of the motorsport community for the last half-century, but he is also a businessman, a vintner and a member of the Firestone family for about as long, as my hosts Bridgestone-Firestone reminded me at a recent luncheon. He is also a consummate family man.

I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to talk racing with Mario quite a few times over the years, but this was different.

Andretti’s mother Rina died just after Christmas at age 90, so we talked about family, about how the worst of times can become the best of times when you’re surrounded by the ones you love, and we talked about “the family business.” From the first time he turned a lap in anger, Andretti has raced because he couldn’t stop himself. He disobeyed his father to race, and he and brother Aldo even kept it secret for a time. He had the passion and the skill to make it happen. And I think everyone would agree that he did okay.

His son Michael, however, did not inherit the passion for the sport, says Mario. He did, however, inherit the skill. Michael spent his career wound tighter than a watch spring, operating out of fear of failure and forcing himself to stay focused day in, day out.

Still, Michael managed to win a bunch of championships along the way. He hit, for a little while anyway, the peak of motorsport in Formula One, and ended up pretty solid financially by the time he retired from driving and became a team owner last year at 40, while still arguably at the peak of his skills.

The father may not like the son’s lack of passion, but he would have a hard time arguing against his success.

If they were running an auto parts store, I don’t think it would be any different and the store would, I believe, be doing very well under the second generation.

But for those who have found themselves in the position of store ownership through hard work and dedication, the outlook over the next few years is startling.

Over the next 15 years, three-quarters of the current business leaders and managers of all privately held firms will retire. Few have a firm plan to pass along the business.

The succession-planning crisis is not unique to the automotive aftermarket. Small enterprises have been struggling for decades to make the inter-generational transition. Every time I hear of a business closing because the owners are retiring, I see a failed succession plan, not a failed business.

According to statistics put forth by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, only 30% will continue as a family operation into the second generation, 10% into the third, 1% into the fourth. Families are indeed difficult to manage, and keeping a family operation in the family generation after generation more than difficult.

The Andretti experience may not have a lot to do with the aftermarket, but it has a lot to do with families. Often, what we judge others on–in terms of commitment and ability–is really just a passion for the business, any business. I’m not going to discount the importance of that overt passion, but what the approach of two generations of Andretti men tells me is that there is more than one way to succeed.

So, when you look at the next generation, look for the passion, but look for skill and dedication, too. Their way may not be your way; don’t sell them short.

They can still accomplish great things. And you never know, maybe the following generation will bring the passion back.

P.S. Mario says Michael’s son Marco reminds him a lot of himself.

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