Taking over the family business: Head start or hinderance?


Starting a business from scratch is no easy task, especially the first time you do it. There inevitably comes a point when you wish the path could have been easier, that you had had some foundation to build upon and that everything wasn’t entirely up to you.

What if your parents had been able to hand down a business to you? Not only would you have the infrastructure of an existing company to work with, but you would have their years of experience and accrued wisdom to guide you. Plus, you would have the motivation of carrying on your parents’ legacy to push you forward when you feel like you’re struggling… right?

EO Ireland President and EO GSEA Global Chair Stephen Shortt isn’t big on legacy.

As he puts it, many entrepreneurs who hope their children will carry on the family business “are resistant to change. But change is inevitable and change is necessary, and that’s a big problem with legacy thinking.”

Shortt started working for his parents and their two companies when he was just 10 or 11, doing whatever little tasks he could before quickly taking on more responsibility and learning both the entrepreneurial and managerial mindset.

EO Ireland President Stephen Shortt
EO Ireland President Stephen Shortt.

“I knew I was never going to be able to work for anybody else because I would be impossible to manage,” he told the Europreneur Podcast host Nir Zavaro. “So, it was always an attraction for me to run my own business and there were two family businesses, so it made sense for me to be what I call the next gentrepreneur.”

Shortt sold one of the family businesses, an English language school in Dublin, shortly before COVID rocked the economy. His current business, and the second left to him by his parents, focuses on career guidance, personal profiling, psychometrics and helping people progress in their careers.

While grateful for the straight forward chance to be an entrepreneur, Shortt learned a few important lessons about generational businesses the hard way.

“I actually remember coming home and being absolutely exhausted [from] arguing for a couple of weeks over the language we needed to go in with the language school… and I slumped at the kitchen table, and I said, ‘I gotta leave the family business, otherwise my kids are never going to see their grandparents cause we’re going to hate each other.’ I knew this was not what I wanted.”

Shortt realized he had been limited in the number of external interactions he had in the business world, which was part of his motivation to join EO, where he found new, outside perspectives on his situation. “I was able to use a lot of that to grow and develop personally,” he said.

Having stepped out the box and received outside input on his situation, Shortt found that building a legacy through business doesn’t work if your children are too bound to it to make their own decisions.

“What got you here, is not going to get them there,” he said. “The business needs to adapt and change, and it’s not to force the kids to adapt to the way you want to do things. You have to adapt your business to the future, and they are the future… Most family businesses don’t make it through the generations because they don’t adapt, they have to stay rigid.”

As a father himself, he hopes to do things a little differently.

“We have the ability and opportunity to allow our kids to be entrepreneurial, but they don’t necessarily have to go through all of the struggles that we’ve gone through. I’ve done alot, but I haven’t built this particular business from the ground up. What I want to is to allow my kids to be entrepreneurial, but to give them a head start.”

Do you hope to leave your company to your children? How will you go about it?