3 Family-Based Business Partnerships That Blew Up Spectacularly
People change, and friendships end. That’s nothing more than just an obvious fact of life. Whether they end in a burst of enmity or just fizzle is up to the participants themselves, but it’s rarer than it is common for a friendship to last the full length of a human life, and it makes the ones that do all the more valuable. A friendship ending might be emotionally awkward or painful, but one small consolation is that it doesn’t usually involve paperwork. For business partnerships built on friendships or family ties, however, it drives everything into a further stratosphere of pain and inconvenience.
Of course, any savvy person wouldn’t enter a business partnership without having a strong understanding and belief in the other parties, but sometimes conflict grows over time. One day you’re popping bottles of champagne to celebrate your new venture, and the next you’re both bruised and bleeding in an alley, poking at each other with broken beer bottles. Hopefully, metaphorically.
To that end, here are three business partnerships that ended on less than ideal terms…
Coney Island (The Keros Brothers)
No, not the carnival-housing space down at the end of the G line in Brooklyn. I’m not exactly sure who owns that, but I assume it’s either New York State or a very large man in a top hat with a predilection for cigars and black magic. I’m talking about the iconic Detroit restaurant chain, one that has spawned basically its own genre of restaurant and Detroit’s official hot dog configuration: loaded with chili, mustard and onions. It was cooked up on a cart by Greek immigrant Gust Keros back in 1917, and Detroit residents responded so positively to the messy delicacy that he was able to turn it into the brick-and-mortar location of American Coney Island that exists today.
Reveling in his beefy success, Keros decided to send the elevator back down and across the ocean to his brother Bill, and bring him to America to join in the chili dog business. However, instead of a delightful brotherly-love-based partnership that resulted in two-man hot-dog domination, in 1924, Bill opened his own, COMPETING Coney Island location… literally next door to Gust’s original. Opening a competing restaurant based around your brother’s (admittedly simple) signature recipe isn’t really considered highly cool in general, but being at least in a different part of town would make it sting a little less. Not to mention just from a business point-of-view, you’d think you might want to have a clientele that you don’t actively have to steal away or compete for from day one.
Instead, we got two next-door hot dog joints that, even physically, look like they’re jostling for position. To this day, they’re the source of acrimonious debate not only between the businesses but patrons, starting a feud similar to the great Pat’s vs. Geno’s cheesesteak debate of Philadelphia.
L.A. Dodgers (Frank & Jamie McCourt)
Ownership of a major sports team is hands-down the best investment you can make in the U.S. — if you’re already filthy rich enough to cover the barrier for entry. An MLB, NBA or NFL team, especially one in a big market, is pretty much a bulletproof money-printing machine. Even a craven rat like Dan Snyder, while doing everything humanly possible to cut a historic NFL franchise like Washington D.C.’s down to the business equivalent of a wheezing dinosaur dying in a tar pit, watched the value of the team grow from an initial $750 million investment to a likely sale value north of $7 billion. Marriage, on the other hand, is a notoriously less reliable institution, something that former L.A. Dodgers owner Frank McCourt will be happy to confirm.
McCourt bought the L.A. Dodgers in 2004 to the tune of $430 million. His wife, Jamie, would become the CEO of the team, the first female CEO in MLB history, shortly afterwards. What seemed like an impressive baseball power couple would be out of the business of baseball, and being a couple only five years later. After the Dodgers were eliminated from the playoffs, the bile that had clearly been bubbling under the surface came to a head, with Jamie being fired and then filing for divorce the next day.
And so began the division of assets, a process that’s like untangling a briar bush on the best of days. When one of those assets is a professional baseball team, it’s like trying to do origami with a flaming newspaper. The process went anything but well, with Jamie arguing to take control of half of the team, Frank arguing he had sole ownership, her settling for more than $100 million, then filing a NEW lawsuit arguing about the valuation of the team, and the whole ordeal eventually ending with the Dodgers filing for bankruptcy and the MLB reclaiming the team themselves.
Cellino & Barnes (Cellino and Barnes, Duh)
If you’re an occupant of a certain region of the country, you’ve no doubt had the twin countenances of lawyers Cellino & Barnes, along with their signature jingle and memorable phone number comprised entirely of 8s, burned into your memory. If you were, unfortunately, injured in a car accident, their effective advertising would have already let you know not to wait, and instead, to call 8. They were a law firm approaching cultural touchstone, a catchy name residing in the pantheon along the likes of Raymour & Flanigan and Johnson & Johnson.
So it’s not too surprising that when the iconic lawyer coupling announced a split, people followed the details with the fervor of a bitter celebrity breakup. To the joy of rubberneckers everywhere, bitter it was. Apparently, the two had been at odds for years, with the final straw being Barnes’ refusal to hire Cellino’s daughter, arguing that it was bald-faced nepotism. Before you crown him as an ethical figure, though, know that the firm had set his girlfriend up with a job for years. This breakup had everything: shouting matches, catty court documents, even its own play. Only then was it case closed.