People who aren't involved in a family business-and who therefore don't understand what it is and what it can mean-often wonder what possible difference it can make whether a business dies with its owner. After all, they say, he or she started from scratch and struggled to the top on the basis of luck, talent and hard work. So why not let the kids learn the same lesson?
To my mind, this ``let them eat cake'' philosophy is glib, shallow and absurd. I also believe the temptation to throw in the towel must be resisted. All the progress we've shown in our uneven history has involved the building by one generation on the work of another. This continuity of purpose is what gives our actions meaning and value far beyond the dollars involved.
Most of us don't work hard and build wealth solely because we love wealth for itself. Some do, of course, but most of us are building in order to share. We are building as much for our children and our grandchildren as we are for ourselves.
There are obvious economic reasons why we would want to pass our businesses on to our children. After all, the best investment anyone can make in today's world is in earning power. And the best repository for that earning power is a successful, growing business that we, ourselves, own and control.
But the business is only an investment-not a guarantee. In turning the business over to the next generation, our heirs are being asked to enlarge the dream, to wrestle with their own talents and limitations, and to struggle with problems larger in scale than even we faced.
It's possible to be totally mercenary about the business-to reject the idea of the dream and view the company merely as a perpetual ``cow'' that the family can milk indefinitely. But this is little more than self-indulgence.
Even the most productive cow in the world requires some attention and concern. Output requires input, and the more output that's desired, the more input that's required.
Besides, we are giving this challenge and this opportunity to a wider group than just our children. Our offspring eventually marry and their spouses become potential participants-willing or otherwise-in the legacy. Any opportunity we provide our children, we provide also for their spouses and their children.
The ripples of our actions also widen beyond our immediate family. There are others who benefit from the business in ways other than ownership-the employees, their families, the community as a whole. Suppliers and customers also depend on the company's continued existence.
There is nothing in the laws of nature requiring us to build for the future. We could take all that we want, leaving not even enough to prime the pump for those who follow.
But the truth is that we have taken advantages from the sweat and dedication of those who've gone before. We didn't earn our present security, our longevity, our freedom and our opportunities. They were given to us by our predecessors.
We owe it to our posterity, to our children, to pass on those gifts in greater measure than we received them. This is why the dream should continue-because it isn't ours alone.
Mr. Danco is chairman and co-founder of The Center for Family Business, a national consulting practice in Cleveland that deals with the growth and continuity of family-owned businesses.