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How infighting can light a fire under the family business

Even if you have only half-heard of Gina Rinehart, you will know that she is a force to be reckoned with. She is the Australian mining magnate who controls Hancock Prospecting, founded by her father. Her aggressive approach to business and family relations has prompted three of her four children to sue her.

The e-mails and letters in this court battle were released last week. They make for compulsive reading. In brief, the children allege Ms. Rinehart gave them one business day to agree to extend her control of a family trust or face "financial ruination." She, in turn, deems them "manifestly unsuited" to running the trust. Her letter says it is "reasonably arguable" that bankruptcy of the trust might – "personal development-wise" – be in her children's best interests: It would "force them to go to work and reconsider their holidaying lifestyles and attitudes".

This would just be a tawdry family spat, bar the fact that Ms. Rinehart is already one of the richest people on the planet – and getting richer. Owning a giant iron ore mine at a time of growing Asian demand helps, but I think the ruthless vigour with which she has prosecuted this and other family feuds (she was at acrimonious odds with her father in his later years), is also part of the reason for her success.

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It is a staple assumption of the literature on family companies that their owners should avoid feuds at all costs. In-fighting overrides most of the genetic advantages of the family model. Strong corporate cultures, a predisposition towards collaboration and co-operation, and an inherent tendency to favour benevolent long-termism are tossed aside when relatives go to war. Rancorous and debilitating feuds destroy the value in such groups – for heirs and for any outside investors unlucky enough to get caught in the crossfire. The aftermath of vicious bouts of intrafamilial hair-pulling can last generations and cost billions.

All true. But perhaps academics are underestimating the motivational advantages of familial rivalry. Just occasionally, the vitriol and poison combine to create a rocket fuel that powers certain ruthless, entrepreneurial family members and the companies they head to the top.

This is the sort of drive that could well turn Volkswagen, under Austrian chairman Ferdinand Piech, into the largest car maker in the world. Last week, his wife Ursula was nominated to join the VW board. The proposal flouts corporate governance orthodoxy so flagrantly it takes the breath away. But it is also a sign of the determination of Mr Piech – a grandson of the man who founded Porsche – to dominate and enlarge the family business. His victory over cousin Wolfgang Porsche in a 2009 attempt to fuse the sports car maker with VW drove the latter to tears.

The Australian mining heiress and the Austrian motor magnate, for all their differences, appear to share similar attitudes to the business legacies they are doing everything to secure. The VW chairman has in the past listed his priorities as "VW, family, money," while the mining magnate has been quoted as saying: "Whatever I do, the House of Hancock comes first."

They are not alone. The late Jan Stenbeck, the buccaneering Swedish telecom and media magnate, consolidated his foothold in the 1980s by defeating two sisters for the right to rule over the family investments, which he then vastly increased in size and scope.

To prosecute such wars without annihilating the inheritance takes a special person, however. Family members who seek to dominate by force must be persistent, thick-skinned – and skillful. According to most accounts, Ms. Rinehart and Mr. Piech are coldly effective executives.

Family companies, it is said, usually disintegrate in the third generation, as myriad weak-chinned heirs-of-heirs start to squabble. Disinterested business people can exploit these situations: Bernard Arnault has used such opportunities to add to his LVMH luxury goods empire. But hard-hearted insiders who have already neutralized their less competent, or less ambitious, relatives are proof against the predations of such opportunists.

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The dangers of such an uncompromising pursuit of outright victory in a family feud are evident. But while outsiders may pity relatives stuck in the path of such unbridled ambition, it is impossible not to be awestruck by the sheer power unleashed by a business obsession that comes as a birthright.

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