We found it hidden in my mother’s closet when we cleaned her apartment after she died. The summary of legal findings from the State of New York Supreme Court determining the resolution of my grandmother’s estate. The document was filled with the painful memories my parents harbored as they watched their family business and relations dissolve. The family business, Charles Citrin and Sons, which had supported five different families, blew up over the inability of the next generation to find common ground.
Growing up, I knew little about our family business except that we were involved in the paint industry. My grandparents, it turns out, built one of the largest wholesale paint companies in New York City. In addition to commercial and retail distribution, they sold the paint to the State of New York that covered the George Washington Bridge and other large structures for many years.
All of this fell apart at the death of my grandmother (Lena), the owner and matriarch. My father’s siblings and their spouses could not successfully manage the transition. Family squabbles over the estate and the future of the business could not be resolved among the heirs, and the pain and cost of litigation split the family. My father chose to spare himself the pain of seeing his family relations torn apart, so he left the family business and started a retail store he and mom called The Beauty Coat Paint Company. He started that business about the time I entered first grade, and I would go there after school and help out by getting paintbrushes or sandpaper for customers.
A few years later, my parents closed the store, and he made another career move, becoming a financial advisor. The story of our family paint legacy was lost around the success of his new venture.
All of us have remarkable family stories about work and careers. We don’t think of them as “family businesses,” but perhaps we should. As adults, we remember sitting around the dinner table with discussions of “how was school today,” and rarely consider the messages we heard from them about work, career, and money. These family messages create how we think and experience our lives as adults.
For example, my dad detested conflict due to that lawsuit and practically prohibited it from the household (like that was realistic with three boys.) I’ve constantly been challenged by conflict and how uncomfortable it is. I wouldn’t say I like confrontation, but I have learned how to deal with it successfully.
We create our family legacy every day we engage with those we love. My mother and father demonstrated their resilience in the face of family challenges. They chose a new route for themselves, but we can never distance ourselves from what has come before us.
© Richard Citrin 2023