Most people think that working in a family business is a privileged position. I can’t blame them for thinking that. I have the impression myself that many are.
I wish that mine had truly been of that fortunate variety.
But it wasn’t. My Dad just wasn’t the kind of person that you would want to work with, ever.
It was not solely because he was a nitpicker of the nth degree. Or a micromanager who would agonizingly complete the job poorer than you. Generally, such kind of people are insufferable to work with and are to be avoided like the plague.
Sadly, it went beyond that.
Maybe it was all due to his childhood experience of being second-place to an over-bearing older brother. Or his troll of a father. A mother who was overwhelmed by trying to shelter that older brother from the fault-finding excesses of her Stalin-duped husband. Accordingly, one Sunday morning in 1943, she got up out of bed, had a cup of coffee, and expired, all by 11AM!
Could have been just a character flaw, plain and simple.
Persistence of Memory, Salvador Dali, 1931.
In his lifetime, my Dad transcended every conceivable limitation to become a wildly successful inventor and globe-trotting businessman.
There were two things, however, that he couldn’t overcome. Old age and infirmity, the latter taking the form of dementia.
As to old age, he told me with a completely straight face that he planned to make it to 125. In human years. Not the street.
No one chooses to be mentally ill. Dementia and Alzheimer’s are very real public heath menaces. One out of ten people are estimated to be at risk. After the age of 75, the infection rate nearly doubles! Severe cases prevent people from taking care of themselves. Milder cases exhibit symptoms like emotional problems, communication issues, and the famous “Catastrophic reaction.” Other delusions, like believing other people are stealing from them, are sadly all too common.
Sometimes, you don’t even have to be the one who comes down with dementia yourself to be dramatically affected by this disease. What if someone you depend becomes afflicted? Can you get insurance to protect against your potential loss, which could be everything? If you were to file a claim, how would it be validated?
Indefinite Divisibility, Yves Tanguay, 1942.
Then again, how many 25 year olds do you know who actively go looking for such odd kinds of insurance?
As an employee at Olcott International, I was dramatically at risk. Although my Dad was officially diagnosed with dementia in 2006; yet 21 years prior, in 1985, do you think he was showing signs of the onset of the disease?
It’s an insidious illness. You are not normal one day and then obviously afflicted the next day. Dementia is a stealthy malady. It’s more like a creeper vine that grows a little bit every day. Never fast enough to be recognized as a problem until it pulls down your favorite tree. The one that shaded your house and added everything to your property.
It’s incremental nature adds to the ferocity of the sting.
If dementia were a person, it would need to be taken outside for an ass kicking. Hard. I’ll be first in the queue, just tell me where to line up. How can you not be resentful of a force that snatches away important people in your life? One that renders them unrecognizable?
Back in 1985, I had earned some small degree of “sweat equity” in the family business. But I still had no formal ownership of shares as a stockholder to show for my efforts. That would have been a suitable form of insurance; I could have been protected to some extent. And enduring constant indignity eventually proved to be too taxing for my wellbeing. The only enjoyable part of my job was leaving the office on trips. At least, I couldn’t be accused of theft while away! Is that any way to work?
It was clear to me that there was a lot to straighten out so that this excellent business, founded on a brilliant concept, could continue to be a major player in the industry for years to come. My challenge was to figure out how to save Bernard Olcott from himself. In this attempt, I marshalled all my resources to try to put things right.
I tried by myself, and by reaching out to others who could positively influence my Dad. When it became clear that even Bob Gerhardt, a giant who had created his own patent annuity business, couldn’t tame him as described in my story “KANGAROO COURT” last week, I knew that, despite my best efforts, my quest was turning out to be futile.
For my own sake, I needed to leave Olcott International. But to do what exactly? I was already several years out of school.
My critics might suggest, “Well, you knew what you were getting into. You knew yourself that certain things weren’t right with your Father.”
Certainly, there were warning signs but there were also some very encouraging developments as well. Indications that I might have been be able to break through. Nothing is guaranteed, right? Didn’t I owe it to myself and to my family to keep on trying? And then to try again, no matter how badly I felt?
Looking back on those terrible years, I remain convinced that there would have been greater shame in ducking these (which turned out to be impossible) challenges. Failure builds character. Hopefully, I could get away with a diminished supply. Besides, Dad hated milquetoast peeps!
At school, I had looked at careers into banking. There seemed to be plenty of good jobs out there. I enjoyed my academic coursework in banking and finance. My old roommate at Tufts, Peter Valiunas, (he was the one who translated the 1956 letter to my Grandfather) had even written a book about jobs in this sector, called “Money Jobs.” I thumbed through my signed copy again with a heavy heart. I knew that this was something I just had to do. But it was for the best.
I dusted off my resume and … (to be continued)
The Son of Man, René Magritte, 1964.