Tom Hubler was a working-class kid from Selby-Dale neighborhood in St. Paul in the 1950s who worked with disadvantaged children and families early in his career. He has spent nearly 40 years counseling family-owned businesses. His 2018 book, “The Soul of Family Business,” addresses typical issues and “provides readers with the tools and insights to build the emotional equity of their family, while simultaneously building the equity of their company.” That includes creating strategies to ensure personal and business success, “and wealth preparation planning to ensure that family values emphasize a family culture of gratitude, philanthropy and living purposeful lives.” This piece was edited from written remarks and a telephone interview.
Q: How did you get into the family-business consulting profession?
A: In my original career as a family therapist, I received a Bush Fellowship to study organizational development. In 1981, I was doing a presentation at a conference and came across a paper on family-owned businesses. I read the paper … and said to my partner … this is a much better blend of our backgrounds. We created a practice … a family counselor and an attorney working together.
Q: Are you a psychologist?
A: I have an undergraduate degree in psychology and master’s in social work. After that, I went into training for family therapy and graduated in 1974 from the Family Therapy Institute of St. Paul.
Q: You mention that family businesses account for more than 60 percent of U.S. economic output, but less than a third of families control their business into the second generation and only 12 percent into the third generation. Why is that?
A: The first reason is that family businesses fail to manage the boundary between the family and their businesses. As a result, normal business and financial differences disrupt family relationships and in addition, family politics [enter] and disrupt. Family businesses need to develop structure and formality. Family businesses need an ownership plan, a management and leadership plan; a business plan, and a family plan about how you are going to be a family … and build the emotional equity of your family while you simultaneously build the equity of your business.
Q: You mentioned that growing up in inner-city St. Paul worked in your favor.
A: I grew up in Selby-Dale. People were afraid of the neighborhood. It was home. I live six blocks away today. Growing up in inner-city, which could be difficult, and attending diverse [Mechanic Arts] High School was a blessing.
Q: You dropped out of the University of St. Thomas after a year?
A: I know what it’s like to be broke, such as after [my] freshman year in college. I moved to St. Cloud [and attended St. Cloud State] and worked nights as a “cottage parent” for two years at St. Cloud Children’s Home. I was with kids, ages 7-10. Most had been emotionally and physically abused. They just wanted to be told they were loved and hugged and tucked in at night. We read to them. After I graduated from the University of Minnesota, I worked for Catholic Charities. Adoptions. Hard-to-adopt kids. Black, American Indian and white kids with disabilities. I was married. We adopted a couple of black kids. My daughter, Kiersten, is 48 and my son, Jon, is 46. I have seven grandchildren.
Q: Working with disadvantaged kids is a long way from counseling sometimes-affluent families, I would imagine?
A: I’m very fortunate. Also, the losses of my life have molded me with empathy, compassion and forgiveness. That’s important in family-owned businesses. Listening, creating understanding and forgiving each other inside of a family business often works out better than suing each other.
Q: Is there a most-difficult issue for private-business families to navigate? Is it a second-or-third generation member, such as one of the Lund siblings, who went to court several years ago to liquidate some of her holdings and was opposed by the brother running Lunds & Byerlys.
A: From my perspective, the [four Lund siblings] were not aligned to a common family vision to unite them, and they did not have a reciprocal commitment to each other’s success. Managing differences like those in the Lund family situation, are challenging. Hands down, however, the most difficult situations in family businesses are where the family relationships have been disrupted by an addiction of one kind or another. As a result, their capacity for problem-solving, decisionmaking and intimacy are diminished.
Q: How does your business work in a nutshell?
A: I get paid on a project basis. During the first half, I make an assessment. The fee is a flat rate [that varies by size of the project]. The second half of the project is a formal family business planning meeting with the client. There are two goals: develop a common understanding about the issues, concerns and challenges; and create an action plan. I recommend what I believe [the family] needs to do in order to accomplish their goals. On the basis of the action plan items, I create a proposal and budget. …
Q: I understand you’re still working at 77 and also still caring for kids.
A: I consult and write and serve nonprofit boards, such as Catholic Charities and Banyan Community.