“Act as the owners we are” are the words of Elisabeth Goth Chelberg, a Bancroft family member. In an article by Joe Nocera in the New York Times, “How the Bancrofts Blew It”, published just after the deal with Rupert Murdoch was approved by a divided Bancroft family, Ms. Chelberg talked about her attempts ten years ago to motivate fellow family members to take a more active role as the owners of their family business. The family’s approach over the years to the care and feeding of their company may be of keen interest to business advisors and a valuable cautionary tale.
But more striking from a mediator’s point of view is the reaction Ms. Chelberg received when she tried to rouse her family to do more than accept management’s perspective without question. She, and her cousin William Cox III, who was also criticizing management’s performance at that time, were “scorned and vilified.” It was years before they could even attend family meetings again. When the Murdoch offer was made, other cousins, including Crawford Hill, attempted to raise the same concerns.
This time around, Ms. Chelberg said, things were no better. “We all tried to work within the system, but there was no system to work within.” Conflict and criticism can be difficult within any organization (whether a family business or something else entirely), and change instills fear and anxiety in many people. But the price paid for simply refusing to discuss differences and ostracizing those who raise uncomfortable issues can be steep. Almost any structure — from regularly-scheduled, comprehensive family council meetings to mediation sessions called only to address a specific issue in a time-sensitive manner — is better than none.