Law News and Tips
The Family Business
THE FAMILY BUSINESS
Fred L. Vilbig (c) 2018
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My great-great-grandfather came from Bavaria in 1860. After some conflicts between his farming and the Missouri River, he moved in about
1876 to Dallas where there wasn’t as much water. He found that pecan trees grew in sandy soil, so he bought some land with pecan trees. He dug up the
sand and gravel and took it into town. Dallas at the time was a growing city with lots of building, so they needed lots of sand and gravel. The streets
of downtown Dallas have a layer of asphalt over cobblestone that was laid on Vilbig Brothers sand and gravel. Our roots are deep.
The family business survived to the third-generation. That’s kind of remarkable. Most family businesses don’t survive the second generation. It even survived a family feud.
Over time the business changed. They were good at digging up sand and gravel, so they moved into excavation work digging basements for many of the major buildings in downtown Dallas. From there they moved into building dams and doing the dirt-work for roads. When I was a teenager, I drove dump trucks, bulldozers, and scrapers. I wasn’t very good at all that, so I went to law school.
When my grandfather died in 1976, my brother wanted to take over the business. He had a civil engineering degree and had worked in the company for a few years. The problem was that there was no plan in place. I know my grandfather had an attorney (Bill Burrows) he worked with a lot. He’d often complained that Bill was making him do something. But evidently no succession plan was in place.
My grandmother survived my grandfather. Although I remember my grandfather as being successful (although he never did get us that pony he always promised us), I know it wasn’t always easy. My grandmother would remind us that in business, “Some years you eat the chicken, and some years you eat the feathers.”
I don’t know if my grandmother ever really liked the construction company. After my grandfather died, instead of working something out with my brother, she decided to just sell the equipment and close the business. She told my brother he should start from scratch just like my grandfather did. That wasn’t true. After the family feud, my great-grandfather bought to surplus WWI Army dump trucks to restart the business, and that’s what my grandfather had when he got started.
The problem with my grandmother’s strategy was that she wasted perhaps the most valuable company asset. Sure the dump trucks, bulldozers, and scrapers were worth something, but they were all used and beat up. The biggest asset of the company was the name and the 100 years of goodwill in the community. She got nothing for that. It just evaporated.
I don’t know why my grandfather didn’t have a succession plan or why my grandmother just liquidated a 100-year-old family business. I’ll never know. It’s just sad.
If you have a family business, you need to give some thought to what happens if you become incompetent or die. Is there a child involved? If not, are there key employees who could buy the business? There needs to be some sort of a plan. Otherwise, a lot of hard work and good will can just evaporate. And like I said, that’s just sad.
Let’s get together if you want to talk about your options.
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