Father and Son

Can a business partnership between parent and child ever work? For a lesson, consider the case of Edmund and Robert Hoffman.

There’s no business relationship more fraught with complication than one between a father and son. My brother tried working for my father once and lasted three months. I loved and admired my father enormously, but I wouldn’t have made it through the first afternoon. 

Edmund and Robert Hoffman—father and son—made it through 25 years. Their partnership was unusual in a lot of ways, but mostly it was unusual in that it existed at all. They built the fifth-largest Coca-Cola bottling operation in the U.S. by dint of persuasion (Edmund), smart dealing (Robert), and good banking relationships (both). Their strategy was simple: buy out small-town, family-run distributorships, install professional management, and consolidate production and delivery systems with their own. In 1998, they sold their company for $1.1 billion in stock and debt.

Their partnership ended 10 years ago when Edmund contracted Alzheimer’s. He died in June. Thus we may never know the glue that held the partnership together. But I have some ideas.

Personality is always a factor. Edmund was gregarious and filled with humor. Robert had a head for risk analysis. One operated on instinct and the other operated on facts, so together they fit like two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. But I think the main thing that held them together and made them so successful was that neither one of them cared much about business.

Marguerite Hoffman, Robert’s wife, tells the story of when she first met Robert. “I asked him what he did for a living. He replied, ‘I spend a lot of time doing nonprofit work. It’s kind of a family tradition. In my spare time I’m a Coca-Cola bottler.’” That’s the Robert I knew.

I first met Robert in the early 1970s when I was launching D Magazine. He was already famous as one of the three co-founders of National Lampoon, the humor magazine that launched the careers of Chevy Chase, P. J. O’Rourke, John Belushi, Bill Murray, and a host of others. He had quit the bright lights of Manhattan to return to Harvard for his MBA and then to come back to Dallas to work with his father. Naturally I turned to him for counsel. He was the only person in Dallas who had ever started a magazine. In the years following we traveled together a lot, to events like the Kentucky Derby and on art-buying trips to Soho. Never once did Robert ever utter a word about his business.  

As a young entrepreneur, business was my life. But it wasn’t Robert’s life. In those days I used my business to help define who I was. Robert already knew who he was. Business to Robert was only a way to make money. It wasn’t an end, only a means. The end was to enjoy the good life. That came from Edmund.

In making life their life’s work, Edmund and Robert were a lot more alike than they seemed. They relished the world around them. They loved problems. For example, until Robert, no one had ever figured out how Dallas could afford to beautify the Trinity River. Robert solved that problem by redefining it. Instead of beautification, he decided the major tasks were highway improvement, flood control, and environmental cleanup. By merely restating the terms of the project, Dallas became eligible for $900 million in federal funding. Once the work was finished, something would have to be done with the dirt—how about the beautiful parks we wanted? It didn’t take genius to figure that out, but nobody else ever had.

That’s the kind of thinking that made Edmund and Robert rich. That they gave their talents so freely to countless charities and civic organizations is what made their lives rich. That’s what I’ve come to understand about them. This father-and-son partnership was successful not because of a shared name, but because of a shared idea of what makes life worth living.

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