Old age, leadership and succession

A new report on the Italian family business sector has highlighted the problem of the old age of the country’s business bosses, but shouldn’t businesses embrace aging CEOs rather than seeing them as potentially inefficient?

The report by the Italian branch of the Family Business Network, Bocconi University and UniCredit, looked at the issues affecting the country’s family business sector, which is one of the biggest in the world in terms of its contribution to Gross Domestic Product. According to the report, around a quarter of all family businesses in Italy have leaders over the age of 60, with 6% of the total over the age of 70, compared with only 5.3% under the age of 40. The research went on to say that through various measurements the efficiency of businesses with older leaders is less than those run by younger leaders.

But here’s the problem. Demographic trends in Italy are such that older leaders are probably here to stay for sometime. The country’s statistics institute, ISTAT, reckons that the average age of Italians is set to increase to nearly 50 by 2059, compared to around 43 today. And the percentage of those over the age of 60 will rise in the same time to more than 30%, compared with around 20% today.

OK, predictions are fraught with problems - wide-scale immigration to Italy might bring the aging population down, but that’s a big if and the trend towards an older population is likely to increase no matter what. That’s because people are living longer in Italy and across much of the Western world.

So succession at many family businesses is likely to slow down as the number of sexagenarian and septuagenarian bosses rises, reflecting broader population trends. Even the number of 80 year-old bosses will rise. But is that such a bad thing? Not if you ask Leonardo Del Vecchio, 80, the executive chairman of sprawling fashion empire Luxottica, nor Rupert Murdoch, 84, the media mogul, nor Warren Buffett, 85, the world’s most famous investor.

Those three show little sign of retiring. Even being in your 80s might prove young to some - Serge Dassault, the chief executive and chairman of the Dassault Group, is 90. One day, no doubt, we will get our first 100 year-old CEO...