Family Business

So where does one turn to for cutting-edge family business advice? America's publishers churn out new business books by the boatload, but none of them has as much to say about running a family business as Thomas Mann's "Buddenbrooks" published in Germany 109 years ago. Buddenbrooks chronicles, with profound insight, the four-decade rise and fall of a fictional 19th-century family of grain merchants in the Baltic seaport of Lübeck.

What makes Buddenbrooks particularly interesting is its author's deep understanding of how hard it is to keep a family enterprise going generation after generation. Mann had firsthand knowledge of his subject: He grew up in Lübeck, in just such a family. The book spans four generations of Buddenbrooks, along with a host of sharply drawn relations, and the family members deal with the same problems that bedevil family businesses today in 21st-century America.

Succession Planning

The Buddenbrook clan and its fate demonstrate the inadequacy of heredity as a technique for sustaining a family enterprise, for each new generation proves less adept at business than the previous one. The final generation, embodied by young Hanno Buddenbrook, isn't fit for much of anything except spending long hours at the piano. It's as if the drive and enterprise that launched the business are diluted every time a chief executive reproduces. It's best to keep in mind that while we may want to pass our success along, our children are not us and will ineviatably find their own purpose in life.


Then there's the problem of matrimony. Like many wealthy descendants, the Buddenbrook offspring are beset by gold diggers. Poor Tony Buddenbrook is pressured by her family (bent on sustaining the business via the altar) into marrying a seemingly pious entrepreneur who proves to be a con man. Her second marriage is little better. Her hapless brother Christian marries a woman of ill repute who quickly has him committed to a mental institution and Tony's daughter gets hitched to a future felon. Does this sound like last week's tv soap opera episode?


The most compelling, and tragic figure, is Thomas Buddenbrook himself, who runs the business through much of the book. Thomas is a decent enough businessman, for the most part, but it's a role he's adopted and one for which he never seems fully suited. He ages prematurely under the strain of maintaining that role. Whether it's keeping family members from spending dwindling assets, making bad marriages or dishonoring the Buddenbrook name.

Thomas squanders his own energies in diverting his attention to public affairs, getting elected senator, only to find himself entangled in endless meetings and hindered by his growing vanity. His life becomes increasingly about keeping up appearances rather than expanding the family enterprise. The lesson is clear: If you're going to run a business, focus on that business, because it's not going to run itself.

Perhaps most striking is the extent to which the business exercises a kind of tyranny over the lives of family members. Tony sacrifices her happiness. But even Thomas, who comes to embody the firm and the name it carries, finds himself held hostage to it, perhaps even more so than the family members who merely depend on its earnings. Buddenbrooks is a cautionary tale that illustrates the joys and many pitfalls of running a family business - and the reasons why most family firms don't last beyond a single generation. Read it and you may wonder whether it would be better if yours didn't either.

Source: Daniel Akst via

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