Families can end up hating their family business

Most families owning businesses will go to considerable length to say how much they love their company. But sometimes that passion can fade and turn into something else like embarrassment, or even hate. The Rockefeller family are a good example of changing attitudes to the family business.

Last week it was announced that the heirs to the oil fortune created by John D. Rockefeller are liquidating their investments in fossil fuel companies. The Rockefeller Family Fund said in a statement: “While the global community works to eliminate the use of fossil fuels, it makes little sense — financially or ethically — to continue holding investments in these companies…There is no sane rationale for companies to continue to explore for new sources of hydrocarbons.”

That means pulling the money from Exxon Mobil, which is the company that emerged from Standard Oil, founded by Rockefeller in 1870, and the source of much of the family’s wealth. In fact, the family went further and directly criticised Exxon for its attitude to climate change. The fund said: “Evidence appears to suggest that the company worked since the 1980s to confuse the public about climate change’s march, while simultaneously spending millions to fortify its own infrastructure against climate change’s destructive consequences and track new exploration opportunities as the Arctic’s ice receded.”

But might this not be a classic case of biting the hand that feeds you? Maybe, but the Rockefellers would probably say no. They have long since diversified much of their wealth out of oil and into other things like real estate, banks and even Apple. Nevertheless, the family, or at least some of them, are probably not going to express their passion towards the original family business as much as some other families might about their business.

If the Rockefeller move shows anything it is that people’s attitude to wealth creation can change over time. Given this, it will be interesting to see if the descendants of great wealth made in the last 20 years might just be a bit embarrassed about how they ended up with their wealth.



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