The Wild Bunch is an iconic movie of the ‘60’s. A western when westerns were fading away to irreverence, it brought a modern sensibility to the genre. It’s bloody, sarcastic, cutting, and has a scene that should be mandatory viewing for anyone dealing with a family business … or estate . . . or …
It happens fairly early in the film. William Holden, Ernest Borgnine and their gang rob a railroad office in a small, dusty (everything in the movie’s dusty, I’m sure when it was shown in movie theaters sales of soft drinks reached record highs) Texas border town.
Mayhem follows, choreographed as only Sam Peckinpah could, eventually, most of the gang gets away with its haul – bags of coins. Except, it’s not, the bags are filled with steel washers. Thousands of worthless washers. The whole thing was a set-up, they have nothing.
Holden tells his men not to worry, he’ll come up with a new business plan. He wanders off into the desert to be inspired. When he returns, he reveals the new plan – they will start running guns to Mexico; either to the bandits, Poncho Villa, Zapata, whoever will pay.
The gang’s Mexican member immediately asks if there’s a chance they’ll end up selling guns to the men who razed his village and killed his family.
Holden takes a very short moment before answering, “Angel, ten thousand dollars cuts a lot of family ties.”
“Ten thousand dollars cuts a lot of family ties.” That’s pretty cynical but that doesn’t take anything away from its basic truth. As many attorneys, CPAs, family therapists and more will attest.
In my experience, however, things go deeper than that. Sure, money is, well, money, but usually, for me, it represents something else. Or rather, it’s part of something else – a business. The money that severs family ties is usually the result of poor or no planning.
A promise here, an off-the-cuff remark there, over a period of years, across generations, and expectations are built. “Someday this will all be yours,” is a cliché, but that doesn’t mean it’s not said or certainly implied a hundred times a year across all manner of family owned businesses.
The bigger the family, the more successful the company, the more this is taken to heart. Problems start when planning isn’t done – real planning, taking into account death, disability, the estate, family not actively involved in the business, mergers, offers to buy, selling out, any of a dozen exit strategies.
In the absence of a plan, and the uncertainty that follows, it’s inevitable that the people involved will begin focusing on the lowest common denominator. When that happens, it takes a lot less than ten thousand dollars to cut family ties.