Inception’s deepest layer: Insight to the family business

Topping the box office, Inception is full of intense action scenes, new age special effects and intriguing concepts.  Yet, all the Hollywood-hype set aside, at the very heart of the blockbuster, the movie portrays many facts, fictions and biases about family businesses.

InceptionCritics have widely celebrated this new heist film about dream-stealing, praising its multi-layer story. Mr Cobb, played by one of Hollywood’s favorites Leonardo DiCaprio, leads a team specialized in infiltrating people’s dreams in order to steal their ideas. He is hired by Saito (Ken Watanabe), the CEO of a large Japanese energy corporation, to go beyond what he normally does: stealing information deeply hidden in people’s minds. Saito, fearing a powerful family-run competitor, challenges Cobb to “incept” or plant an idea into the mind of his business opponent through lucid dreaming.

The finely interwoven layers of this complex plot are wrapped around an intriguing theme on family business.

Both script writers, Christopher Nolan and DiCaprio, have cleverly used reality about family firms to construct this engaging story – in particular, the film unveils the little known strength of, as well as the continuity threat to, family businesses.

The power of family business

Family businesses are strong, powerful players in today’s marketplace. Often associated with small, local mom-and-pop shops, family firms are known to be hidden champions. Spending their energy on building powerful positions in their industries, they don’t typically ask for attention by listing themselves on stock exchanges. And, even when they do become ‘corporate,’ a large stake often remains within the family.  Some of today’s well known businesses – Ford Motor Company, Wal-Mart, L’Oréal, BMW, Samsung, and many more – remain rooted in the family lines that created them.

Generally speaking, family businesses are conservatively financed and “under leveraged” according to investment bankers.  Additionally, they are known to be quick decision makers, thanks to the natural alignment between shareholders and management. A number of large-scale empirical studies show that family firms outperform non-family firms, some reporting an outperformance of up to a solid 158% over 10 years.

Inception shows that Saito is very well aware of the competitive threat coming from a family firm called Fischer Morrow. Rather than making a generous offer to buy Fischer Morrow from the founding father/CEO, Maurice, and his son/heir Robert (Cillian Murphy), Saito summons Cobb and his team to subconsciously influence Robert, to “split up his father’s empire.”

Saito understands that this family business competitor is not a small player. He realizes the unlikelihood of making an offer to buy Fischer Morrow and resorts to using non-market means to dismantle his rivals. Cobb’s team devises a plan to incept the idea into Robert’s mind that his father doesn’t want him to follow his foot steps.  From this base of dismantling a family business, Cobb takes Robert into various levels of dreams in order to carry out Saito’s mission.

Conveniently enough, this is Hollywood after all, Saito is able to cunningly take advantage of the reality of business succession.

[Next: The need for succession planning]

The need for succession planning

Continuity is uncertain when any business changes leadership but family business are most vulnerable when succession is unplanned. It has become almost common knowledge that the survival rate for family firms is very low.  Usually, 33% of family businesses continue from the first to the second generation. From there, only10% make it to the third, and when it passes into a forth generation only 2 to 3% survive. As a rule of thumb, in passing each generation, only one third of family businesses survive. One of the main reasons for this dismal rate is that succession is not well planned. The film makes it very clear that Fisher Morrow lacks a well-thought succession plan. As the company’s founder is on his deathbed, Robert is urged to talk to his father about signing a power of attorney.

Setting up this scenario, provides great timing for Saito.  With the opportunity for a long flight to Maurice’s funeral, Cobb’s team can do their work in getting Robert to think, “I will create for myself, not follow in my father’s footsteps.”  Yet, in the reality of the business world, Saito probably could have weighed the statistics a little better.  With Fischer Morrow’s succession so badly planned, the chances for passing successfully to Robert’s generation would already be low. The Fisher Morrow dynasty would be challenged naturally, and the event would likely lend an advantage to competitors as powerful as Saito.

As it goes in Hollywood, in the end everybody is happy. Cobb and his team accomplish their goal. The son is determined to go his own way and Saito is relieved the Fischer Morrow is headed downward.

In addition to these insights on the family firm, Inception is an American production and the ideas it intentionally or unintentionally “incepts” into our minds portray a certain American ideology.  A family firm does not fit into the American Dream of meritocracy, where an individual with a hard-working entrepreneurial spirit identifies an opportunity.  From this, he or she creates and expands a business, eventually bringing it to the stock exchange or selling out before moving on to the next business venture. This is what’s expected and an institutional example of inheritance tax further illustrates the bias against family business.  The heavy tax takes away about half of a business’ value at generational change.

In corporate America, generally speaking, family firms do not have an overly positive image and they are liable to be accused of nepotism, opacity in corporate governance, low pay, and unclear career perspectives. All allowing Inception to wrap itself around the pressing need to destroy Fischer Morrow.

In other regions of the world where less individualistic and more collective cultures dominate, such as in Europe, Latin America and Asia, family firms tend to be perceived differently. They often stand in a far more positive spotlight. They are important generators of jobs and are stable contributors to the economy. Over generations they are known to be able to deliver reliable quality. They are admired as long-term thinkers and are known to aim for sustainable development.  In India, for example, family firms are viewed as vehicles for progression into life and society.

Bottom line, Inception is a great thriller with fantastic effects.  And, at the end of the day, it’s nice to see a movie addressing the complexities, challenges and rewards of family business, even if the ideas are vaguely “incepted.”

Joachim Schwass is Professor of Family Business at IMD and Director of the Leading the Family Business program.
Willem Smit is a research fellow at IMD specialized in market intelligence and strategy.

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