Ultimogeniture, the tradition of inheritance by the last born, is a real word, although frankly I had not heard of it until recently when I started to look at the relationship between succession and birth order in a number of family business clients and to discuss this with colleagues in the Family Business Consultancy.

Primogeniture, inheritance by the oldest, usually male, child is a widely known concept. Even in our Royal family primogeniture in its strictest form has been watered down so that, now, the eldest child on the reigning monarch will now inherit the crown, irrespective of their sex. The traditional model for the family business was also for the oldest son to take over the family firm. Although there is survey evidence to suggest that primogeniture is still alive and kicking in certain corners of the family business world, such as the inheritance of traditional landed estates, it now seems impossible to see this is the settled rule so far as most family business succession is concerned.

Based on the succession stories of a number of clients, we have started to question whether the converse situation is now more likely to apply; that the youngest child will most often be the one that takes over the family firm. In other words is the dominant practice in family business succession now ultimogeniture? There is some evidence from academic surveys (based on succession to family farms in Canada) that suggests that this might be the case. An informal straw poll taken by my colleague John Tucker when recently discussing the issue with rural professionals working in New Zealand also identified a high incidence of younger children taking over family farms in that country. Is this mere coincidence or are there any factors pointing towards ultimogeniture?

The answer might be found in the historic uses of ultimogeniture. Initially I hit on ultimogeniture as a label to describe the logical opposite of primogeniture, but then began to dig a little deeper. Apparently ultimogeniture was historically practised across a number of cultures, including not only the Maoris in New Zealand but also, historically, in some parts of England, where ultimogeniture formed the basis of the legal rules on intestacy, (known as 'Borough English'). The underlying reasons for favouring the younger child appear to be based on a mixture of the need to keep smaller farms intact, to provide a viable economic unit, allowing older children the opportunity to forge their way in the outside world and helping to make sure that someone, the youngest child is around to support the parents in old age.

At first sight medieval inheritance law might not have overmuch application to modern family business succession. There the language will more often be about children joining the family firm if they have the skills and commitment to do so. Typically all concerned will see a career in the family more as a possibility rather than an expectation. Ideally the senior generation will have fully funded pension plans and will not be over-reliant on their children continuing to plough the family fields in order to survive. The concepts of both primogeniture and ultimogeniture (and for that matter secondogeniture) imply a deliberate and conscious decision to favour the relevant child. Senior generation family members will almost universally suggest that they have tried to be fair to all of their children and to treat them equally.

But are more subtle forces at play that make it more likely that the youngest (or at least younger children) will take over the family firm? For example the hopes of the senior generation that their business will stay in family hands, particularly when combined with their own life stage.
When their oldest children are contemplating career options and the parents have comparatively more of their own active business careers in front of them, it will be relatively easy to adopt a neutral (or in some cases discouraging) stance so far as older children joining the family firm is concerned. But as years pass and successive offspring build lives away from the family firm any hopes of family succession harboured by the senior generation will inevitably become more focussed on the younger family members.

The language used might be subtle. The process may well be cloaked in objectivity. Language such as X (the youngest child) was the only one to take an interest in the family firm or that they were 'a natural' butcher, baker or candlestick maker. Is this really the case? Or has the choice of the youngest child as successor been influenced by more subtle processes of socialisation?

As with many things in the family business world the answers to the questions posed this article may ultimately be incapable of a precise answer. But what I would suggest is that the succession process for family business may be neither as random nor as scientific as might claimed by those concerned.

Nick Smith
It truly is a privilege to work alongside business owning families. The work is meaningful in a way that is difficult to put into words. Every so often, someone shares a thought or feeling that stays with you and that is what happened to me a few weeks ago.
The family business owner in question said that he felt very sad that he would never get to see where his remoter descendants take the business. He was commenting that he won't be around to witness the successes (and trials) of the future generations and that that left him with an overwhelming feeling of sadness. This really touched me and has stayed with me and played on my mind over the past few weeks.
There are strong themes that run through the thoughts and feelings that family business owners experience (this is why it can be so valuable for families in business to share experiences with one another) but no one had ever shared a thought quite like that with me before.
It made me wonder whether other family business owners felt this way? Perhaps they do but no one had been able to express it that way to me before.
We all know that the nature of family business work brings us face to face with death and mortality all the time. Often the challenge is in finding a safe way for those in the current / exiting generation to face up to their own mortality. Here you have a relatively young man who is not only facing up to his own mortality and what that means for him but expressing his thoughts and feelings in a very open and honest way. He was also demonstrating an understanding at a deep level about what it means for a business to endure in a family for generations.
This may sound very morbid but my own strongly held view is that we need to make conversations about death a part of normal life. It is only through open discussion about death and mortality that we can truly understand what it means to be on this world and part of a family business for such a short time. Surely this has to bring a greater sense of purpose and meaning to the everyday?
Is this an exception to the rule or a sign of things to come for those straddling the generation X/Y divide and beyond? Let's hope it’s the latter.

Emma Rudge
My work over the last six weeks or so has brought me full on with the topic of succession in the family owned and or run business. It seems to me the very notion of family business succession rests upon the premise that a set of generic concepts underlies the planning process.

In the UK, the issue of succession in family business is in danger of becoming a packaged industry. It is reliant on figures, legal agreements, share price and other administrative issues. One unintended consequence of the packaging of family business succession is that it fosters superficiality, a kind of pseudo-competence in both the professional advisers to the family business and the family business members themselves. It seems perfectly acceptable for advisers to family business clients to utilise ideas and concepts that come straight from the business text -book; without an acknowledgement or understanding of the powerful emotional forces at work within the family unit. Clarity of thinking is often the first casualty when the business confronts the family dynamics. It is as if entrepreneurs and owners feel on safe ground when dealing with ‘financial capital’, but when confronted by the problems of dealing with their ‘emotional capital’, aided and abetted by their advisers; they lose their perspective?

My experience tells me that there is a lack of clarity in the thinking when the members of a family confront the emotional issues inherent in being in business together’. How do you as a professional advisor or a family member cope with ‘cloudy thinking’?

Why is succession such a hot topic for the professional advisor to families in business together? Is it because much of what is on offer from the professional advisory community is, ‘more of the same’, commoditised services? With the market place for clients extremely competitive, succession is yet another business advisory service to be added to the portfolio on offer?

Succession be it to Management and or ownership is a natural process and at the same time a series of one of events, it is not some mystical happening wrapped up in psychological mumbo jumbo or some clear linear plan dependent on legal and financial planning.

I suppose what I am wondering is what families can do to guard against the tempting offer of the ‘off the shelve’ solution, the one size fits all approach that is often on offer from the professionals they encounter and indeed often put forward by their own family members? Perhaps this is one for another post, but if you have any thoughts I would love to hear from you. I for one will be continuing to delve deeper; because it is only by doing so will those of us serious about the field of family business; develop our own skills and understanding to be able to work collaboratively with our clients to find the right solution for that family.

John Tucker
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