When I was a lad, Dallas. the long-running TV drama, was in its prime. For those youngsters who aren’t aware of the show, it ran for well over a decade and centred around the Ewings, a wealthy Texas oil family. The Ewings were a fantastic example of all that is bad in family business dynasties. They were chock full of nepotism, scheming and back-stabbing. It’s enough to convince an individual that donating their assets before they die is the smartest thing they can do. Maybe it’s Dallas that is behind my threat to my sons that my will includes a provision to donate everything to the cats’ protection league.

But not all dynasties are bad, and I was thinking of that fact as I read the other day that Whittaker’s, New Zealand’s best (in my view) mass-market chocolate company, is doubling its production facility at its Porirua headquarters. Maybe it is the fact that I was born only a few kilometres from the home of Whittaker’s Chocolates, or maybe it was the fact that a milk chocolate Sante bar, or a Peanut Slab, was the treat of choice when I was growing up. Either way, Whittaker’s has always been a favourite of mine.

Anyway, Whittaker’s was founded in 1896 in Christchurch by J. H. Whittaker. After a 1911 shift to Wellington, the company continued to prosper, through good times and bad. Two World Wars, the demise of the founder, and successive generations of Whittaker family members later, and the business is still going.

Interestingly, in contrast with many other family dynasties where subsequent generations use the success of their forbears to live it up and waste all that had been built, the Whittaker family members obviously have some good stuff in their DNA. Maurice, the son of J.H, invented the Peanut Slab back in 1950 (thanks, Maurice, they rock!)

Roll on to the 1970s and, apart from my birth being celebrated, the Whittaker family also celebrated the fact that Andrew and Brian, grandsons of the founder, took over the business. Today that theme continues with Holly and Matt, Andrew’s children, working in the business.

I may be tempting fate to say it, but the DNA seems to have been robust and Holly and Matt have managed to continue to improve the business – new flavours, collaborations with other businesses (witness the chocolate milk collaboration with Lewis Road Creamery) and signing on some big names as brand advocates (Nigella Lawson, no less!) The dynasty continues.

It’s something I think about in the context of Cactus Outdoor, the business I’m a shareholder in. Bucking today’s trend of businesses being built to sell quickly to the highest (or any) bidder, at 28 years young, Cactus is still in its infancy in our view. Taking a leaf out of the Maori approach towards business, we see Cactus as something that will outlive us and which will be passed on down through the generations.

Which raises a challenge – how to ensure we end up not like JR Ewing and his oil-rich family, but more like whanau Whittaker, with their focus on protecting the business taonga they’ve had passed down to them and, in turn, passing on an even better legacy to the generations that come. It’s something that is even more relevant for me, as my two lads finish school and start thinking about careers. They’ve both grown up feeling a familial connection to the business, so how do we foster that while encouraging them to forge their own path? How do we open up opportunities to take up the baton, without risking the flip side of nepotism?

It’s an interesting challenge and something we’re exploring at the moment. Our kids have worked in the factory over their school holidays and, after a gap year spent teaching in England, progeny #1 is now working fulltime in the warehouse – learning the business from the ground up.

There are no easy answers, and I’m pretty sure there is a fair amount of chance in determining whether subsequent generations follow a Ewing-esque path or a Whittaker one. There’s every chance that in a generation’s time my progeny will have run the business into the ground and blown it all, as the saying goes, on wine, women and song.

Here’s hoping that doesn’t come to pass – maybe I should book them a trip to Porirua to go and visit the Whittaker clan.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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