In Alabama, Proof that Even the Strongest Family Business Can Succumb

Ask French Forbes Jr. if he is related to the Forbes who owns the publishing empire, and he'll tell you that if there is a relationship, it's quite distant. "When Uncle Malcom died, I waited for that phone call about the will, but it never came," he deadpans.

If that sense of humor is a family trait, it might help explain why his family's Forbes Piano Co. of Birmingham, Ala., has lasted so long. And that longevity may help explain why the news of its closing triggered a surge of emotion in Birmingham and beyond, which was well documented in an article and slide show last week by The Birmingham News.

The recession, coming amid a decades-long downward trend in piano sales nationwide, contributed to the decision to close the family's 120-year-old retail store.

According to an industry journal, The Music Trades, piano sales in the United States have fallen from a peak of 282,000 units in 1978 to just 54,182 in 2008. An additional 122,850 digital pianos, a category that did not exist until recently, were sold in 2008. The Forbes were "victims of forces far beyond their control," says Music Trades editor Brian T. Majeski. "Piano sales have been trending down for the past three decades. The economic conditions of the past nine months only accelerated the decline."

But the decision to close the store didn't come until after the sudden illness and death in February of Emma Grace Forbes, the four-year-old daughter of French Forbes III and his wife. "The doctor says her stomach burst," Forbes III, who now runs the business, told The Birmingham News. "They rushed her to the hospital, and I got there 30 minutes after she went into surgery. Her heart stopped, and she remained on a respirator. Within a day and a half, she was gone."

The economic climate, Emma Grace's death, and his father's decision to retire, all contributed to the family's conclusion that a change was in order. "This was something we wanted to do," Forbes III tells Knowledge at Wharton.

But he adds that while the store will close, the family business will reconstitute itself as the Forbes Organ Co., which will serve churches in Alabama and Mississippi that have been longtime customers of the family piano business.

For more from Knowledge at Wharton about family business issues, see:

Family Business: Why Firms Do Well When Founders Are at the Helm

 How Family Firms Can Improve Their Long-run Survival

 Family Ties: Succession Seen Through a Successor's Eyes

 Many Family Firms Rely on a Largely Invisible CEO — Chief Emotional Officer