My brother, Mike, who worked with our father at Lockhart Lumber (the smallest lumber & millwork company in the Middle Atlantic Lumberman’s Association), seemed dumbfounded that Dad was not psyched about planning for retirement. On the cusp of 30, Mike did NOT see himself as the kid that Dad did, but as someone to take seriously & groom to start taking over the business within several years.
Dad saw it differently. He considered Mike (who worked at “the shop” between long stints of travel) a fledgling, just getting to know the ins & outs of the business. But above all, Dad loved his work, was proud of the company he built & hadn’t the slightest inclination to start planning a transition, certainly not retirement.
Sigh... It is rare that a business successfully spans generations. And back when our own family business drama played out, there wasn’t much – if any – support in nurturing multi-generation companies.
Today, a professional facilitator would have gotten the two men talking with each other & in tandem with their wives. Didn’t happen. Mike & Kerry sailed to Australia, put down roots & raised a family – – and Mike ultimately owned his own successful high-end hardware store in the heart of Sydney.
Mom & Dad were heartbroken when Mike & Kerry relocated, but not surprised. Kerry had been outspoken about starting a family AFTER returning to her native Australia. As much as they wanted them to stay, they supported the move as what was best for the two young people & their future family.
No one could have guessed that Dad would be gone – at 62 – within two years, working almost to the end.
Over the 40+ years since Dad died & Lockhart Lumber ceased to be, I’ve had a lot of “What if….?” thoughts. Knowing what I’ve discovered about aging upward, knowing Mike was in his late 50s when he started HardwareONE, kicking off new expansive aging activities at 65 & 71 (John), my #1 “What if…?” is – – what would Dad have accomplished ten, twenty years down the road from 62? What would he have done with “the shop,” which was just hitting stride when he died, 10+ years after opening its doors, as he grew savvier in how to market to his niche base, how to make the most of his special design skills, how to build his reputation for service & attention to detail beyond Huntingdon Valley & Bryn Athyn to the Greater Philadelphia area & beyond.
How amazed Mike would have been to discover that, far from winding down, Dad was just revving up! Dad would have found someone who was as good at millwork as he was & someone else who was a gifted designer, would have brought them into the business as employees, then partners. Dad would have, as he entered his mid-late 70s, eased out of the day-to-day operations, but always have kept an active hand in the business. Full retirement was not for him!
I like to think of what might have happened if Mike & Dad had the sort of professional family business cou nseling available today, been able to see the situation from each other’s point of view & found common ground. Mike might have stayed, learning & gradually taking responsibility for the operations of the business, something he, together with Kerry, would have probably done better than Dad. Relieved of that stress & with his son & daughter-in-law coming up with creative business & marketing ideas, Dad could have kicked back more, enjoyed the fruits of his labors, spent more time doing things with his Own True Love. OR the counseling might have supported Mike & Kerry’s decision to head Down Under, but what a different parting it would have been.
What might have happened if the two men, the two couples had gotten the counseling available today? What might have happened if Mike had stayed? How would Lockhart Lumber have grown & flourished with Dad in his richly layered 60s & beyond? Would the men have had a different relationship – distant only in miles, not emotions – if there had been counseling before the young people returned to Kerry’s homeland?
It’s not always true that “the saddest word of song or pen are those few words, ‘It might have been.'” Looking backward, reframing things into what might have happened, “if only” CAN empower. Mike & Dad didn’t have the benefit of professional counseling – what if they had. They only talked to each other as boss & employee, father & son, never person to person – what if they had. It doesn’t change a thing, but puts a reframed possibility out into the universe & asks not what might have been, but what if.
A happier, more satisfying ending exists, if only in my mind & heart.