Lesson From Stanley Ho’s Family Feud: How To Spot A Time Bomb

24-Mar-2011

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An eternal optimist, Liu-Yue built two social enterprises to help make the world a better place. Liu-Yue co-founded Oxstones Investment Club a searchable content platform and business tools for knowledge sharing and financial education. Oxstones.com also provides investors with direct access to U.S. commercial real estate opportunities and other alternative investments. In addition, Liu-Yue also co-founded Cute Brands a cause-oriented character brand management and brand licensing company that creates social awareness on global issues and societal challenges through character creations. Prior to his entrepreneurial endeavors, Liu-Yue worked as an Executive Associate at M&T Bank in the Structured Real Estate Finance Group where he worked with senior management on multiple bank-wide risk management projects. He also had a dual role as a commercial banker advising UHNWIs and family offices on investments, credit, and banking needs while focused on residential CRE, infrastructure development, and affordable housing projects. Prior to M&T, he held a number of positions in Latin American equities and bonds investment groups at SBC Warburg Dillon Read (Swiss Bank), OFFITBANK (the wealth management division of Wachovia Bank), and in small cap equities at Steinberg Priest Capital Management (family office). Liu-Yue has an MBA specializing in investment management and strategy from Georgetown University and a Bachelor of Science in Finance and Marketing from Stern School of Business at NYU. He also completed graduate studies in international management at the University of Oxford, Trinity College.







By Russell Flannery, Forbes Blog,

Stanley Ho has lived his life in full. Just the visible parts are remarkable:  a multinational business empire, four “wives,” 17 children, and a family fortune that Forbes estimated to be worth $3.1 billion in January.

Yet at age 89, the Macau gaming industry titan earlier this year also found himself at the center of a messy, high-profile family battle over the division of his wealth that extended from YouTube to daily newspapers.

Now that the conflict is reportedly settled, what can other family businesses and minority investors in them learn from Ho’s troubles? To what extent do relatively young mainland Chinese family companies and business leaders carry less risk than older ones outside of mainland China, such as Ho’s?

To find out, I exchanged with Jean Lee, chair of the management department at China Europe International Business School in Shanghai.  Lee says family relations add an emotional layer to running a business that can contribute to “a time bomb” for a family company if not handled property. Excerpts follow.

Q. What lessons can be learned from the problems surrounding Stanley Ho’s family empire, from a family business management and estate planning point of view?

A. When we look at a family firm, we are really looking at the interaction of two complex social systems: a business and a family. Businesses are objective; families tend to be emotional.

The greatest threat to the survival and success of any family business isn’t so much linked to outside factors such as technology, customers and competitors. It’s more associated with the relationships among family members.

Family business is the business of relationships. Without family relationships, the problems of family businesses are no different from those faced by non-family businesses. Thus, the heart of family business is indeed family relationships. The family relationships may not appear to be critical to the success of family business until a crisis due to family bickering, backbiting or outright conflict. The threat or conflict is increased when multiple family members are involved. Stanley Ho’s episode is just another example.

The complexity and intensity of family conflicts in a business depend on the degree of overlap among the day-to-day management of the business,  its ownership and the family.  Where the ownership, management leadership and the family completely overlap, the risk tends to be the highest.  If there are multiple family branches and family members involved,  the threat of family conflict will be a time bomb for the business.

In most cases, the bomb goes off after the death of the first generation, among sibling families in the second generation (usually after both parents have passed away), or among the cousin families in the third generation whose interests are often difficult to reconcile due to increasing distance in blood ties. This is the source of the famous Chinese saying, “Wealth doesn’t last more than three generations.”  In Ho’s case, the family conflicts have been brought forward due to different “wives” having first-generation families.

Q. What’s the best way for those conflicts and that “time bomb” to be avoided?

A. The only way to avoid family conflicts in a family business is to reduce the number of families and family members involved in the business and its ownership as early as possible.

Q. To what extent are Ho’s problems representative of problems at other family businesses in Asia? Many of Asia’s richest and most influential families are of Ho’s generation.

A. Ho’s family episode is certainly not the first case in Asia among Chinese family businesses, but it has captured the media’s attention due to his celebrity effect and the big scale of his wealth.

Many Chinese family businesses in Asia have been caught in a similar situation. The famous Yeo Yiap Seng’s case, with close to one hundred years over three generation, ended up dissolving the family business after the court sentence. The recent Y.C. Wang family episode in Taiwan is another example but it occurred only after the founder’s death.

Q. How do problems facing family companies in mainland China differ from other Asian countries?

A. There are two big differences in the family system in China. First, the one- child family reduces the complexity of the family relationships and conflicts. Secondly, the short history of family business hasn’t facilitated the manifestation of family conflicts, although succession has captured much attention in the recent years. The focus is not so much on wealth but on capability of the second generation.

I also observe that family business in China doesn’t like to be seen or admit that they are family business, partly due to the social stigma and jealousy surrounding individual and family wealth. The social-political environment has probably helped to suppress conflicts in family businesses.

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