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Why Nepo Babies Are Bad For Business (Sorry, 'Succession')

Claudette Barius

The hit HBO show Succession is back for its final season. For us viewers, it means Sunday nights just got a lot more entertaining — and, I must say, given the plot of the show — disturbing.

If you haven't seen the show, it centers on the Roys, a dysfunctional family of billionaires jockeying for the reins of their aging father's multinational media and entertainment conglomerate, Waystar RoyCo. The Roys are a seriously messed up family. They're ruthless and callous — and, despite their incompetence, they possess a Machiavellian penchant for double-crossing each other. Their family gatherings are awkward, to say the least.

At Planet Money, we view the world through the lens of economics. And so, for us, Succession isn't merely a riveting dramedy. It offers an inside look at the bizarre dynamics of a family business that eschews meritocracy and scientific management in favor of nepotism and toxic family politicking.

Our economy is populated by countless family businesses, and most, of course, aren't as spectacularly flawed as Waystar Royco. The economists Belén Villalonga and Raphael Amit write that the field typically defines "a family firm" as any company that is "under the control or significant influence of an individual shareholder (typically the founder) and/or his or her family." Some of the biggest companies in the world meet that definition, including Walmart, which is controlled by the Walton Family; Samsung; Volkswagen; Berkshire Hathaway; Koch Industries; Ford Motor Company; and, of course, what is perhaps the inspiration for Succession: News Corp, which is largely controlled by Rupert Murdoch and his progeny.

In fact, more than half of the world's companies, both privately owned and publicly listed, are family firms, according to Villalonga and Amit. The Wharton Global Family Alliance, a research center at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, estimates that around 35 percent of the Fortune 500 largest companies in the United States are family controlled. Family firms, the research center estimates, account for a whopping 64 percent of our nation's GDP.

So, yeah, family firms are pretty much everywhere. And a central problem they face is what to do after their founding patriarch or matriarch steps down. Researchers have said that "Succession is the ultimate test of a family business." That, of course, is the central test that faces ailing Logan Roy, the family patriarch who built Waystar Royco, in Succession.

In the real world, the heirs of a family firm have three basic options after their founding patriarch or matriarch steps down: they can sell the company and get rich quick.

They can keep ownership, but perhaps acknowledge their own limitations and outsource management to skilled outsiders.

Or they can chart an alternative path — choosing to let nepo babies run the show. But the research on this nepotistic route isn't pretty. It suggests that keeping company management in the family — as some of the Roys hope to do in Succession — risks destroying the entire enterprise.

Should the Roy kids really lead Waystar Royco?

For a long time, economists have been perplexed as to why seemingly similar looking companies can vary so widely in their productivity. For example, economist Chad Syverson crunched data on 200,000 manufacturing plants in the United States, and he found that employees working at the top 10 percent of plants were four times more productive than those working in the bottom 10 percent. This gap is puzzling because one would think that the least productive companies would learn from the successes of the most productive companies. In a Darwinian capitalist economy, this gap should drastically shrink, at least theoretically.

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The Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom has come to view company management as the key to explaining persistent differences in productivity. Some years back, Bloom and John Van Reenen, of MIT, surveyed more than 10,000 manufacturing firms across the United States and Europe. They found that management practices were crucial to explaining company success or failure. And a really important determinant of good or bad management: whether nepo babies had hopped into the driver's seat.

"We find that firms that hand down management within the family have worse management practices, particularly those that hand it down to the oldest son," Bloom says. "They were managed extremely poorly and often ended up bankrupted by poor management practices."

Spoiler alert! (maybe)

Bloom says the typical story goes something like this: Someone founds a company and builds it up over 40 years or so. He or she "then hands it to their oldest son, only for them to slowly wither the company for the next 20 years." Just think about why that can be so dumb, Bloom suggests, paraphrasing something he once heard. "'If you wanted to win the 2040 World Cup, you would not pick the oldest sons and daughters of the 2020 team.'"

Of course, if you're a viewer of Succession, you're familiar with the fact that Logan Roy, the family patriarch, has no intention of handing the reins to the first of his line. His oldest son, Connor Roy, isn't really interested. He's more drawn — quite unrealistically — to a grandiose career in libertarian politics. It's his second oldest son, the drug-addled Kendall Roy; his daughter, the politically savvy Siobhan Roy; and his perverted youngest son, Roman Roy, who grasp the most for their father's throne.

For the last five years, we've been perched on the edge of our seats, trying to guess which of this trio of amoral backstabbing jerks will get the keys to their father's kingdom. Meanwhile, the wily old devil Logan has taken great delight in teasing us, pitting his offspring against each other in a kind of ornately gilded cage-fight.

From time to time, Logan has even made us — and them — think that, after all their trials and tribulations, none of the Roy kids will ultimately get to wear the crown. Judging by the economic research on family firms — and the quality of the candidates in this particular contest — that may well be the wisest decision he could make.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Since 2018, Greg Rosalsky has been a writer and reporter at NPR's Planet Money.