“Nobody, who has not been in the interior of a family, can say what the difficulties of any individual of that family may be.” — Jane Austen, 1815
When it comes to succession, many family businesses give deference to the second generation of their family, whether or not the offspring have the necessary credentials to qualify for an executive position.
When the business is against the ropes, struggling to survive, they finally come to the realization that perhaps an outsider might be worth considering. This is what Bill Ford did in 2006: he stepped down as CEO and brought in industry outsider Alan Mulally.
It’s also what happened with the Brooklyn Bridge.
In 1883 it was hailed as the world’s greatest engineering accomplishment since the completion of the Erie Canal.
The Brooklyn Bridge was masterminded by German-born engineering genius John Augustus Roebling. He had previously architected and built suspension bridges in Pittsburg, Cincinnati, Niagara Falls, and more; he founded John A. Roebling Sons’ Company to supply the wire for his projects.
Plans for the Brooklyn Bridge received final approval on June 21, 1869. One month later, Roebling was dead.
Without his continuing guidance, his supervision, his engineering expertise, the project seemed like a bridge too far. There was only one engineer in the world who was qualified to carry on.
How that was carried out is the most remarkable story of his—or any family’s—business.