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Vast family fortunes may be rare, but here is something even rarer: Family fortunes that last.
Whether due to spoiled heirs or investment blunders, the money is usually gone within a generation or two.
Not so with Cox Enterprises, the media giant chaired by Jim Kennedy, grandson of founder and former Ohio governor James Cox.
Founded in 1898, the firm – with tentacles in TV and cable, radio, broadband and newspapers – ranks #16 among America’s largest private companies, and Kennedy is the nation’s 42nd richest person, according to Forbes magazine. (Fun fact: His sister, Blair Parry-Okeden, is one of the richest women in Australia.)
Kennedy, 68, sat down with Reuters for our series “Life Lessons,” to chat about what he has learned from a lifetime in the family business.
Q: Your granddad was an impressive guy and founded the company, but died back in 1957 – did he have the chance to pass along any lessons to you?
A: Hard work pays off. He was only 28 when he started our company. Before that, he was a farmer and a teacher. He was a hard worker who gave 110 percent to every endeavor. He was never complacent, and was always thinking about what was next.
He was committed to his employees and the communities his company served. He was so committed that he asked his descendants to take care of them in his will.
Q: Who else was a major influence on you?
A: My mom. She was a fierce competitor, but she didn’t like show-offs. She taught me that everyone is equal, and you work hard for what you get in life. She also instilled in me the value of helping others. It is the right thing to do. These are life lessons that are still part of who I am today.
Q: Most family fortunes go away after a couple of generations – why is that, and how have you managed to avoid that trend?
A: It can’t just be about the money. It also has to be about doing good and being a contributor to society. We are extremely proud of our company’s products and services, but we’re even more proud of programs like the Cox Employee Relief Fund and Cox Conserves. These let us help employees in need, and lessen our impact on the environment. Our family rallies behind this because we want to leave the company and the world in a better place than we found it. Doing something good creates solidarity.
Q: Who do you hold up as a role model in life and business?
A: Ambassador Andrew Young said something to me many years ago, and it has really stuck with me. Businesses can feed more hungry, clothe more naked and cure more sick people than government ever can. Businesses move the world. He is a diplomat, but deep down, he has always been a pastor. He cares about people and that has given him a successful life.
Q: You support a number of philanthropic causes – how do you figure out where your dollars can have the most impact?
A: Rather than trying to support everything, find something that resonates with you personally and that you are passionate about. Three causes that are particularly important to me are education, healthcare and sustainability.
Q: Any money mistakes you made along the way, that you would like to have back?
A: If you have not made a mistake, you are doing something wrong. I try to create an environment where people are not afraid to bring crazy ideas to me. It is okay to fail once. Just don’t fail at the same thing twice.
Q: How would you define success?
A: I don’t look at success as how wealthy I am. To me, success is leaving the company and the environment in better shape for future generations.
Q: What money lessons would you like to pass down to the next Cox generation?
A: It is our family’s responsibility to preserve this company that my grandfather started. Investing is important. You need to invest dollars in the business, in people and in the community. Doing what is good for the community doesn’t have to be separate from growing the business.