The phone rang.

My father didn’t call often. He was full of respect, the kind of fellow who didn’t want to put you out.

Making you answer the phone might interrupt something important.

What if you were doing something important? And he called? And you had to stop what you were doing? That would be terrible.

So, when I answered the phone and it was Dad, I knew this was important.

He launched right in: "Have you ever thought about becoming a stockbroker?"

I was 25, working in investor relations in New York, helping companies reach Wall Street. Dad had been a stockbroker since I was born. He was pretty good at it, but quiet about it.

The call was so out of the blue. I asked, "Why are you asking?" 

"Well, I’m planning to retire in a few years," he explained. "And rather than simply turning my accounts over to Bill here, I thought I could transfer them to you. It’s a hard business to break into, years of cold calling, but it could be pretty easy for you to take over my book of business. Would that interest you?"

I’d never thought much about becoming a stockbroker. My father had done admirably, but we’d never chatted about The Son Taking Over The Father’s Business. It was not an ambition of mine.

"Let me ask you a couple questions," I said. "First, do you like it? Do you like the work?"

"No," he answered quickly. "Not a day of it."

"Oh," I said. That confirmed my longtime suspicion about my father’s job satisfaction. "Well, then, my second question is: do you think I’d be good at it?"

"No," he said gently. "I don’t. I don’t think this is the sort of work you’d be any good at."

My father was not a critical man. He certainly judged my performance, but didn’t like to tell me what he thought. He was even awkwardly sparing with praise. (Giving you praise might interrupt something you were doing, something important.) So answering "no" to the second question was telling.

"Well, I’ve given your answers a lot of consideration," I said immediately, not needing to think about them for more than three seconds. "I’d like to thank you for this kind and generous offer, but I must decline."

Inheriting the Family Business
He’d made the call he had to make. He couldn’t just give his book of business to the fellow who had long sat next to him without offering it first to his son.

A man of an earlier generation, my father didn’t call my sisters with the same offer. (Maybe he figured they were really doing something important, something that shouldn’t be interrupted?)

I think my father thought I might be nearly as good as he was at the business. But, as the brokerage business became ever more technical, technological and institutional, I think he increasingly doubted his own ability. He didn’t want me jumping into the business when it was turning into a Big Business.

Moreover, I think my father simply didn’t want to have me inherit his life. He didn’t want the frustrations of his work life to be transferred to me. Some clients held him responsible for the occasional losing investment. That hurt his feelings.

He had once inherited his own father’s business — a furniture store — and it had been a nightmare. They had pioneered easy credit, but had not pioneered collections. My father had the indelicate job of shuttering the place. He didn’t want me to inherit his mess, even if it wasn’t a mess at all.

Whatever his motivations, the call was over. "That sounds good," he said. "I’ll start sending these accounts over to Bill."

I’ve always thought he was right to make the call. And right in determining its outcome.