In terms of its economic behavior, my family might be considered a limited liability corporation. If it weren't for the liabilities. And that they don't really seem to be limited.
Family operations are principally local. There is one old-line subsidiary in Phoenixville, three new-economy operations in Spring City, one in Charlestown.
The family corporation has historical links to partnerships downstate, and in New Jersey, Florida, California, and Maryland; international partners are in two Ontario locations. We have recently extended our reach south, to include a promising experiment in Arlington, VA, serving the District of Columbia. Literally.
The corporation specializes in a dizzying array of services, which gives the firm a unique degree of flexibility. Business plans have been constructed as opportunities have arisen. Or as new revenue streams are required by the latest call from the bank or a credit card company.
Primary contractual obligations are to the pharmaceutical industry, medical services, and higher education. Not surprising, given the times, and given the location of central operations. We are well-geeked, with six staffers devoted to IT services to those industries.
But we have become stakeholders, too, in such growth industries as home design and furnishings (the purview of the window treatments specialist), environmental consulting (EPA field staff), real estate (an appraiser), specialty food services (one wonderfully talented part-time baker), entymological services (one exterminator), media access infrastructure engineering (one cable guy), and pastoral counseling (a bartender).
All of this describes the operations of our single, extended family. One that a principal member once called "the most functional dysfunctional family I've ever seen."
That principal is one of a core of four second-generation salaried revenue centers, three of whom have attracted new principals to the firm. Two of those three relationships have been extraordinarily productive, bringing no fewer than six hourly and piece-work employees, all under 12, into the family business. The fourth has been content for fifteen years in the corporate relations department.
There are also five second-generation adoptees of sorts. One allowed herself to be wooed away from Northern California by the sheer charm of our corporate culture. Two will never leave New Jersey, though we're working on that. Two are Ravens fans. We report the latter, though there is obviously no explaining it. Full disclosure.
Each corporate subsidiary is generally regarded as a boat floating on its own bottom, so to speak. Good microeconomics and general familial respect would have it no other way.
But intra-corporate relations are also distinguished by a web of various cost-center favors, temporary employment agreements, short-term and long-term loans, shared contractual obligations, and alternate-month bill payments (as in, "If you can cover this month, once I get paid by X I can cover next month.").
A web of fiscal relationships so thick it would take a CPA to sort out the ledgers. That's OK, though. The CPA is one of ours. She's a principal. We cover all angles.
The corporation watches leading economic indicators carefully. Selectively, though. We gave up watching savings rates a long time ago, just after we gave up watching housing starts and home sales because those were both converted by the corporation into new debt.
The family corporation is mortgaged up and maxed-out. So we watch our own leading economic indicators.
The first tracks just which principal will be the first in line at the coin machine at the bank before payday, and just how many days before payday.
A second leading economic indicator, once our favorite, has dwindled in significance. It used to be such a great status check.
It had to do with who had "the twenty." For reasons understood only by some economist somewhere who has yet to publish and share, on any given Thursday-before-payday, and on several years of such Thursdays, one subsidiary had a twenty-dollar bill remaining from the prior payday. Usually one subsidiary only.
Intra-corporate relations being what they are, that twenty circulated among subsidiaries. Like every good twenty should.
The twenty was important in covering a variety of urgencies: the unplanned costs of somebody's school field trip, the balance of somebody else's grocery bill, the oops-I-forgot-that-birthday-present moment, somebody's train fare. It passed from hand to hand, from the control of one subsidiary to another, week to week.
When last seen a year and a half ago, that twenty covered a tank of gas for a necessary drive to Connecticut.
"When last seen." We haven't, for a while. I made a pale joke about it at last Friday evening's Board meeting. I made the point that if the twenty had been circulating over the last six months, it would've had to have been a fifty.
"No joke," said a colleague Board member. "The twenty can't circulate because nobody's got it anymore. Let alone a fifty." Everything no longer comes down to whatever it comes down to on Thursdays. It's got to stretch to Friday.
This family may be mortgaged up and maxed out, but we are fortunate. There are homes, with roofs. Groceries after Friday, but groceries nonetheless. Clothes. Medical insurance.
And, truth be told, however our family corporate economy is structured and strained, at any given moment each member is doing what he needs to, or, more often than not, what she wishes to. And its children do not want.
On this day, a day to honor the struggles of labor, work, and the kitchen table, remember, remember hard, those not so well-situated.
(For Robert Lewis Pettit, who proudly kept a predecessor family organization always "one step ahead of the Sheriff.")
G.E. "Skip" Lawrence can be contacted at a new e-mail address, email@example.com.