Note to Charles, Prince of Wales: Fish or cut bait. You're not getting any younger.
Pushing 56 and still waiting for his mum to decide when she'll hand over the reins, the British prince has much in common with some family business successors who stand in the wings for years hoping their parents will exit the business so they can run it.
The reality, said Rich Morris of ROI Consulting in Evanston, is that if a parent hasn't turned over the family business or made succession plans known by the time a child is 40, chances are it's not going to happen.
``If he doesn't trust you at 40 to run the business, he's never going to trust you,'' said Mr. Morris, who works with family and privately held businesses.
Family-owned businesses in the U.S. have enjoyed a surge of success over the last few years, according to a 2003 study. Mean revenues of family-owned businesses have grown to $36.5 million, up 50 percent from 1997, according to the American Family Business Survey, conducted by various colleges.
A survey by Loyola University Chicago shows that among family-business chief executives 61 and older, 55 percent of those expecting to retire within five years hadn't chosen a successor.
At a time when mandatory retirement is a vestige of the past and Americans are living longer, ``middle age'' eludes easy definition. And that makes things dicey for children in their 40s and 50s who are the heirs apparent to the family business.
If you live like you're going to get Dad's business, you could end up disappointed and ill-prepared to do something else. Few people in their 20s and 30s save enough money to launch a business of their own. Then, middle age hits, it's time to pay for the kids' college tuition and a business isn't passed along to them.
``Most businesses can't start on a shoestring,'' said Lloyd Shefsky, co-director of the Center for Family Enterprises at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.
Mr. Shefsky, author of the book ``Entrepreneurs Are Made, Not Born,'' most often sees tension between the first and second generations of a family business. That's understandable, given that the business is as much an offspring of the entrepreneur as his or her children. Mr. Shefsky likens the succession process for the first generation to new parents taking care of their first child: They don't want to let it out of their sight.
It's incumbent upon the successor generation to understand this drive. It's what makes the entrepreneur who he or she is, Mr. Morris said.
Communication is key to avoiding this kind of midlife crisis, the experts agree.
Early on, when a son or daughter expresses interest in the family business, the parent running it should begin to think about succession, Mr. Morris said. By the time parents running a family business hit 50, they should know when they'll exit and start planning for it by figuring out what they'll do once the business doesn't consume their lives. And they should let Junior in on the plan.
These discussions aren't easy, Mr. Morris said. Often, as much as the parent doesn't want to leave the business, the child-on one level-doesn't want to see the parent go.
During the heady years Murray Gordon spent building his business, Maga Ltd. in Deerfield, Ill., he always thought he'd be carried out on a stretcher someday. Now 61, he started the business, which specializes in long-term care insurance when he was 32-five years younger than his elder son Brian, who is the company's vice-president.
Brian Gordon, 37, helped expand the company and take it in directions his father had never considered, Murray Gordon said. Still, when they talked about the future of the business, their discussions didn't address who'd be running it in 15 years.
Then, four years ago, the elder Mr. Gordon suffered a stroke. In an instant, the younger Mr. Gordon was running Maga Ltd. Brian Gordon did what he had to do, he said.
Murray Gordon recovered and returned to the company, where he's still the president. But he sees a day-not too far off-when he won't want to come to the office every day and Brian will be his successor.