Life in a Wealthy Sept – What is their Family Meeting Like?

Family meetings are a great way for parents with young children to circle the wagons and communicate with their kids, but did you know that they are also valuable for conducting family business, passing family values, educating the next generation on family finances and ensuring the best possible wealth transfer?

Can you imagine sitting down with your children and grandchildren, or your parents and your children in a meeting?

Imagine the meetings that the Rockefeller and Gates and Johnson families must have!

Sam and Helen Walton’s family meetings.

Sam Walton and his wife Helen (founder of Wal-Mart)  held family meetings with their children. They made their four children partners in the business – Walton Enterprises, at very young ages. They met to talk about the business, and used the meetings as one means of teaching the children to make decisions.

They got together at places like the Ritz-Carleton in Naples, FL or The Del Coronado in San Diego, CA while Sam was alive, and in the living room of the family home in Bentonville, Arkansas after his death in 1992.

According to a Fortune article (“The Waltons: Inside America’s Richest Family” ANDY SERWER / Fortune v.150, n.10, 15nov04):

“These meetings are central to the Walton family. Topics are chosen in advance, and Wal-Mart executives or advisors from Walton Enterprises or the family foundations are invited to give presentations. The subject might be philanthropy, merchandising, or the company’s expansion overseas. “The meetings glue us together,” Rob Walton says. “We want the next generation to be actively involved and to be good stewards of this company.”

The Curwin family meeting.

The Curwins, according to Family Meetings that Work by Dennis Jaffe, Stephen Goldbart and Joan Indursky DiFuria, are a somewhat typical couple with two adult boys and two grandchildren.

Max Curwin started his own business 43 years ago and it was acquired by another company three years ago, resulting in Max and Evelyn Curwin suddenly having access to several million dollars.

They had never had a family meeting, but Max and Evelyn wanted to meet with their adult sons to talk about starting to make some distributions to them of some of that money.

Max and Evelyn hired a professional facilitator to help with the meeting, as they were all a bit nervous about having a meeting to talk about money.

In the meeting, the facilitator let each family member express whatever they wanted about meeting. Max and Evelyn were asked to explain why the distributions were so important to them and everyone was encouraged by the facilitator to express their attitudes and beliefs about money.

During the meeting, as everyone began to open up, the meeting became heated, but the family and facilitator were able to regain control to bring it to a successful conclusion. Although they had discovered differences, some not reconcilable, they managed to at least come to an agreement on core money values around those distributions.

Our family meeting.

This year, our meeting was held at the dining room table of my oldest son (call him Karl) during a late winter/early spring blizzard. We were all in his town for the 90th birthday celebration of my husband’s mother. Our youngest son (call him Alex), now in his thirties and we drove in separately. Because my Karl’s house was crowded (his in-laws were staying with he and his wife for awhile), Alex opted to stay in a motel instead of with us at Karl’s house. We had planned to get together in person, as it is always more productive for us, but due to the weather and the twisty, county roads with drop-offs leading to Karl’s house, Alex decided to use his computer to conference in using Skype.

Karl had developed the agenda and distributed it prior to the meeting – with items from a variety of leftover and new topics and he was charged with leading the meeting. This year we didn’t designate a note taker, so I jumped in to do that.

The other grandparents entertained our two grand-children (now aged 8 ad 5) downstairs.

Karl had planned the meeting to last no more than a couple of hours. He and his wife put out a few snacks at the table and we started.

Our agenda was pretty simple. We usually start by checking in, each family member having an opportunity to talk about news, concerns, goals and issues.

Then we started a somewhat uncomfortable discussion about the idea of starting some kind of joint pool of funds to be used for specific purposes, such as family member education. We learned some good information from Karl, who is the father of my grand-children, about the current costs of college and his wife kicked in with the thought that my family tradition of parents paying for kids college was a bit overwhelming for them. That was good to know and surprised me. We kicked that around for awhile trying to reassure that although it is a good tradition, sometimes traditions have to change due to current circumstances.

Next we threw in a discussion about establishing some kind of ‘family bank’ – a trust with funds that family members could borrow for certain purposes, to be managed by family members and which hopefully would grow and be there for at least a couple more generations.

Both of these discussions were hard. We are all nervous about shared funds and the management thereof.  Each family unit kind of has a different perspective, we weren’t certain exactly what these things are or how to structure them so, in the end, we tabled both discussions until the next meeting. Our hope was that during the interim we would find additional information or means to make the items gain clarity – besides, there is no time crunch to implement them.

I gave them an update my my two businesses – so they would understand more about them in the event I still have them when I die and then we gave them each a small distribution from our estate. When we can, we like to do this each year to take advantage of the annual gift/estate tax exclusion amount. This way, we can pass along money to them free of added taxes.

Other formats wealthy families use.

I’ve heard of families that hold meetings over a several day period. They may conduct business related to supervising family trustees and advisors; make decisions about the family business; hold elections for positions held by family members (usually in large families where family business is conducted between meetings by a family council); decide on charitable contributions and more.

Some families plan excursions for the young cousins in the family to bond – perhaps an activity where they have to depend on one another to achieve an outcome. Other’s dedicate part of a day to education of the next generation or even the adult members of the family.

Some include food and fun interspersed between meeting agenda items. Advisors may be included to listen in on family decision making and to be available for consultation on technical or legal items relating to finances.

You can have a family meeting now.

Even if your family isn’t wealthy (yet), you can start meeting with your young family around your kitchen table. Devote the time to a family specific topic of interest and start teaching the kids about that topic using discussion, games, small lessons and more.

Have you ever attended a family meeting? What format did it follow?

Read more about Wealthy Family Meetings at:

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