Probably you haven’t been in a real fire drill since grade school. I’m talking about a fire drill where you physically act out what to do in case a fire erupts – the kind of drill where the alarm sounds, you rise from your desks, go down the stairs and out the front hall, and stand quietly in the parking lot until the fire marshal says you may return.
If grade school was long ago for you, you probably haven’t run a fire drill on your business. By this I mean an actual, full-blown simulation where you plan out what would happen if disaster struck your business in the form of death of a key person. You have business interruption insurance, and you have assured continuity of your computer network and essential data. But if you have not also simulated transition in case the head of your company were to die suddenly, you have not planned for a most crucial contingency.
If you think the fire drill concept is far-fetched, consider last week’s New York Times article about the death of the president of Blackberry Farm, the ultra-high end country hotel just south of Knoxville - click here to read the full story. The article got my attention because years ago my wife and I went to Blackberry for our wedding anniversary, back before their prices became so very high. Their red-eye gravy is outstanding.
Until last February, Blackberry was run by the oldest member of a second generation of family owners. The first generation originated the concept, then turned it over to their oldest son, who put the hotel even more on the map. When he died in a shocking accident, the first generation turned to his widow, their daughter-in-law, to take over. They made clear to her that their future was in her hands and she’d better not say no. The story of Blackberry Farm is now the story of an in-law coming to terms with integrating someone else’s business into her family.
The Blackberry situation raises many very challenging questions. To pose all of these questions, much less answer them, is beyond the scope of this article. One point is clear: if you do not run a fire drill, you probably will not identify in your own family how the owners, the family, and the management will handle the loss that eventually will befall all of us. A fire drill is a simple tool for making sure your family capital is protected the way you hope it is.