Richard Narva’s daughter asked him recently, “Why do you do the work you do, advising family firms; and why are you so passionate about it?” Here is the story he told her:

It starts in 1949, when I was three, watching my two immigrant grandfathers play gin rummy for “stores” instead of pennies in the back yard. Years later I would recall this apparently risky behavior with amusement, since each of them owned one store. By the middle fifties my father had returned from World War II and taken his father’s small chain of family shoe stores located in mid-sized New England cities where no shoe retailer had ever gone before: He took the family business, Morton’s Shoe Stores, Inc., into the first discount store in America to carry shoes. Think Avalon, the movie, and you have a really accurate depiction of life in our extended family.   Imagine a family business that started with one shoe store going public in 1966 when it had nearly 500 retail outlets. Imagine living next door to my very funny uncle, “Buddy Cohen,” who worked for the company founded by my grandfather and his brother and carried a business card of that read, “Donald H. [Buddy] Cohen, Son-in-law.

I recall many people asking my father, Morton [for whom the company was named] throughout the 1960’s and early 1970’s whether any of his four sons had yet entered his now highly successful family business. In what I believe was very rare behavior in an immigrant Jewish family, he always told them—and he meant it—that we were free to do whatever we wanted.

By 1975 when I had finished four years in the service and graduated law school, I became an attorney doing mergers and acquisition work at an elite corporate law firm in Boston [elite being defined by my father as a firm having offices higher up in the Boston skyscraper than even the firm that represented his company]. Then the call came in 1977 from my twin brother, who was doing some store design work for Morton’s, “Dad needs help. He can’t figure out what is going wrong.” With very little reflection, I left the large law firm and signed on as the first ever in-house general counsel at the company—a development that did not cheer the partner in the firm that had taken the company public.

As someone observed to me about my five year tenure at what became Morton Shoe Companies, Inc. after I reorganized it into a holding company with five operating subsidiaries: Richard, nothing that could go wrong on your watch failed to go wrong. For openers, the prime rate skyrocketed to 18%. Our lead bank was forced into liquidation while we were renegotiating our lines of credit. The investment banker who underwrote our publicly traded bonds violated enough laws that he ultimately went to prison, and our corporate law firm was cited for malpractice in its representation of our company by a federal judge.

I could not get my father and his two first cousins who were CEO, Chairman and Treasurer respectively to focus on the urgent measures we needed to undertake to meet the company’s external challenges. I was ultimately made President, but by then it was almost too late. Ultimately, I put the company in Chapter 11 reorganization; saved all 3000 jobs by selling off the five subsidiaries; turned down the presidency of one of our competitors that shortly thereafter followed us into Chapter 11; earned a bonus for my work leading the company during the Chapter 11 reorganization from the bankruptcy judge; and then took a year off to recover and reflect on what had happened to the company and to me.

At the end of that period, I realized that the Company had suffered from a failure to recognize [in the words of my wife and senior clinical advisor of our firm] that the family dramas being enacted on the stage of Morton Shoe Companies precluded the management and board of directors of the company from addressing critical—but solvable business issues—in a time frame that allowed for recovery from the industry and economic headwinds that affect our financial wellbeing. We were a family that loathed open argument—a family behavior that proved extremely unhelpful when what the business needed in the early 1980’s was urgent, robust debate on strategies to address the issues our firm confronted.

I admired greatly the values of my father’s family: He was a man beloved in his industry; profoundly decent and totally honorable. But neither his undergraduate education at The Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania nor his missions as a navigator/bombardier in the lead B-17 flying ahead of 1,000 other planes over Germany had prepared him for doing business in a hyperinflationary economy in an industry shifting irrevocably from domestic to global sourcing.

So I decided to help companies like Morton Shoe: Values driven companies led by owner/managers who care about all their stakeholders: their employees, their customers, the communities in which they are located—as well as their shareholders. In doing so, I hope I honor the memories of both my grandfathers and the businesses they founded, my father for all the jobs he created and the values he embodied, and the memories of my grandmothers and my mother for the families they nurtured, fed, and educated. As another observer of my career once quipped, “Perhaps, Richard, if your consulting firm existed when you were in the shoe business, you would still be in the shoe business.”