I’m pretty sure I’m among a tiny group who followed the Lund family’s legal battles and thought of Thanksgiving. Maybe it’s a group of one.
My mind shifted to that festive November holiday not because the Lunds have, for three impressive generations, provided our community with a bounty of cranberries and green beans, turkeys and stuffing, although they have done that.
It’s because when I hear about family rifts big and small, I wonder with weird frequency: Who, then, will be invited to the Thanksgiving table?
We are led to believe that the greatest dramas, and resolutions, play out in boardrooms and courtrooms. But nothing in my mind comes close to the opportunity presented for contriteness, forgiveness and gratitude like Turkey Day in the dining room.
Who, then, will be invited?
Kim Lund was awarded $45.2 million for her share of the Lunds & Byerlys grocery chain, as my colleague Mike Hughlett reported in early June. A veteran teacher and the oldest of the four Lund siblings, she sued the family business and its CEO (aka her brother Russell “Tres” Lund III) to cash out of the company, a desire she had made known many times and for many years.
After the ruling, she expressed hope that “our family can move on and get back to the work that benefits the community.”
Getting back to the work — piece of cake. Moving on? Well. The judge’s order noted that Kim hasn’t had a conversation with Tres in more than two years.
“The sad truth of this case is that the bitterness defining the current relationship between Kim and Tres, in conjunction with the fact that they have been litigating against one another for nearly three years, has eradicated their ability to rely on each other in any capacity,” Hennepin County Chief Judge Ivy Bernhardson wrote.
But, hey, it’s only June. Nobody needs to be thawing a turkey for five months.
“I do think reconciliation is possible,” said Ben Oehler, one of many wise business leaders I contacted to reflect on this engrossing grocery saga. “Otherwise,” he said, “we’re doomed.”
Oehler is retired CEO of Waycrosse Inc., the family office for owners of Cargill Inc., and founding partner at Windward Mark, which helps family businesses through transitions.
He wears many hats: Financier. Project manager. But his handiest hat often is that of priest.
Oehler is trained as a lay minister and, if you don’t know why that’s helpful, you’ve never been in a family business. A seismic battle for control in my own extended clan led to a decades-long rift, which ebbed only when the dueling siblings became too tired and old to fight anymore.
“It is very difficult when you own an asset with other people, especially if they’re family members, and you have different hopes and dreams,” he said.
Oehler remembers when he spent a full year “working with three brothers to set their anger apart.” One brother ran the business with his father; the other two felt rejected by Dad.
“It was about anger and hurt feelings rather than money,” Oehler said. “Once we got through the hurt feelings, and it was really hard work, we were finally able to have a conversation with their father.”
While Oehler doesn’t know the Lunds, their struggles are familiar to him.
“I don’t think either one is wrong here,” he said.
For Tres, “it’s about loss, for sure. His sister wants him to do something that will change his vision of where he wants to take the business. It’s really hard when your name is on the door and you have the legacy piece.
“But she lost her vision, too,” he said. “For more than 20 years, she was asking [to cash out equity]. A sister has a right to have a different vision of her company than her brother does.
“It sounds like they are both wonderful people wrestling with what to do with Mom’s china.”
The tale also is familiar to Ritch Sorenson, Opus Endowed Chair in Family Business at the University of St. Thomas and associate editor for Family Business Review.
“I’ve seen similar things happen, some a lot worse than the Lunds,” he said. “They, at least, found a resolution. I’m guessing that at some point, they will be on speaking terms, but I don’t know enough to be sure.”
As the Lunds sort out things, or don’t, Sorenson is eager to offer tools to other families to help them navigate the toughest of times, which often arise at succession.
“Sometimes, they need someone who can help them communicate,” he said, perhaps a family business facilitator or mediator. “They need to learn how to relate as adults. The older they get, the harder it is to get them to cooperate if they have not been doing that.
“If they have a structure and understand business in general, and can agree on a vision as owners, they can make rapid changes in their decisionmaking.”
Families are hungry for this type of help, Sorenson said. One of the most popular programs that the St. Thomas Family Business Center runs is a Family Business Breakfast Series, serving up bacon and eggs and conversations about inevitable challenges.
“We invite the whole family to come,” he said, “so they can learn and make decisions as a group.”
Panelists tackle a variety of issues, from setting up a business structure to succession to conflict resolution. Last year, 135 families came to at least one breakfast, from as far away as Iowa.
Ken Ude, director of the University of Southern California’s Marshall Family Business Program, agrees that the Lund tale “is sadly not uncommon.”
He, too, champions proactive approaches, including family meetings, a family policy manual and a family “constitution” that spells out the mission of the family business.
“If Forbes calls you 40 years from now, what do you want the headline to be?”
In the Lund case, Ude surmises that “with one a teacher and one running the business, they just weren’t aligned. If it goes to the courts with this amount of money and publicity, there’s a lot of anger there.
“They probably thought the lawyers could fix things. But when it gets to the lawyer, it ain’t getting fixed. It’s sad when you start to get uber-wealthy how it just gets in the way.
“And Mom just wants all the kids to come over.”
If the sibs can’t come over for a fully inclusive Thanksgiving dinner this year, they do have an alternative. Maybe a family breakfast is the best place to test the waters of familial forgiveness and begin taking true steps forward.
Eggs — and turkey sausage — all around.