As the head of a successful third-generation small family business I receive a steady stream of emails from would-be advisors. These messages are laced with menacing statistics about how almost all family leadership succession is doomed. This tired advice misses the mark, focusing on trusts and tax and not what really matters — ethics, education and adaptation. A focus on these issues has seen our business flourish while navigating succession change.
Invest in Integrity
Let’s start with ethics, which is just another name for values. My wife Gail and I have never had one set of values at work and one at home. My three sons have seen this consistency whether it was being honest and forthright at the dinner table or from behind our desks. In a family business, these values become a company culture that can endure any leadership change. We look for it in employees, customers and vendors and it’s a yardstick that always proves invaluable. This consistency has also helped reassure our staff and our customers as our sons have assumed company leadership. It also enforces good business practices, such as paying bills on time, being honest with customers and vendors and considering your word a binding agreement.
Educate, Don’t Indoctrinate
Our family business has never been a mandatory career choice for our sons. But an education, in whatever field or form, certainly was. None of our sons went to college with a view to join the family business. One has chosen not to work at Announcement Converters and we have always respected and supported that choice. Our son Jeff, who now heads the organization, spent time as far away as Australia working in unrelated fields after his time at Duke.
The Choice is Yours, The Tools Are Not
Our other son, Kenny, joined the business sometime after college at his own suggestion and continues to be involved. These two sons had many career options and came to the business at their own pace. The point being, that they chose their careers. This has freed them from resentment that seems all too common in family businesses. Importantly, it has also allowed them to bring fresh thinking and experience that has helped our business grow beyond any expectations.
A Tradition of Change
We have also worked hard to avoid any sacred cows at Announcement Converters. I have always loathed the, “we do it that way because we’ve always done it that way” logic. The question must always be: how can we do it? Few industries have changed more than the stationery business and we have needed to change with it. When Gail and I started in the early 1970s weekends were spent at a local library next to a park. I would spend the afternoon outside playing with our oldest who was just a toddler and Gail would comb the library’s volumes of Yellow Pages for leads. Today we mine the data of thousands of customers through ecommerce platforms and sophisticated inventory control processes introduced by Jeff.
Bigger Businesses Require Better Blueprints
Successful business evolution has been further fueled by a conscious and planned approach to shifting responsibilities throughout the life-cycle of our business. In the process we’ve moved from an organization flying from the seat of our pants to one with thoughtful managed growth.
Kin Need Collaborators
Throughout this shift, Announcement Converters has consistently nurtured thinking that questions current business practices. Fostering innovation not only avoids “founders syndrome,” it also makes sure we don’t look inward for all the answers. When we launched online efforts we knew we needed to find outside talent who knew their business as well as we know ours. We found a great partner in Rand Marketing. We continue this process of looking for the best and brightest collaborators to this day. We have even looked to advisors to help us formally structure our succession in the firm of Snyder and Snyder P.A. Unlike those I bemoaned, Snyder and Snyder (itself a family business) understands our focus is a long one.
At the end of the day all these strategies are common sense — something successful business founders tend to have. The secret, if there is one, is to maintain that common sense when it comes to family. When you get the recipe right there’s no more powerful succession plan than a family all pulling together and playing to each other’s strengths.