INDEPENDENTS REPORT: Transition resolution

For family-owned supermarkets, the beginning of a new year is naturally a time to contemplate transition. The new year will also likely bring about leadership changes in many companies as longtime managers, and perhaps family members, pursue new career opportunities promising more regular hours -- and underperforming associates may be asked to follow suit.

No doubt stacked neatly on the desks of storeowners across the country are sales projections and budgets for 2007, legal documents detailing proposed stock transfers to next-generation leadership, health insurance renewal contracts, and perhaps that new training syllabus outlining employee development initiatives scheduled in coming months.

Who leads?

But according to Vince Crew, founder of Naples, Fla.-based Reach Development Services, the process of identifying, grooming, and formally training new leaders must be on the storeowner's agenda not once a year, but every single day.

"Identifying future managers and leaders is a never-ending responsibility of the storeowner," says Crew, who works with businesses operating both in the United States and abroad. "As the upfront person in the company, you have to be looking out years ahead to determine what the future holds for your business, and who will take the business forward in your vision -- or outside of your vision."

He adds, "Keep in mind that what you determine is best for the future of your business may not coincide with the career plans or mindsets of those currently working with you, including some next-generation family members."

Crew says owners must first determine the willingness and the ability of leadership candidates. This holds particularly true when family members are being considered for leadership roles.

"There's a natural proclivity on behalf of some business owners to say, 'Oh, if that's my son or daughter, it's in their genes and they've inherited what it takes to run the family business,'" says Crew. "While they certainly may have benefited from seeing Mom or Dad in action in the store, the truth is that some may be working in the business because it's an easy alternative to going somewhere else."

The succession process really begins once the storeowner asks himself or herself what's best for the business, the family, the employees, and the owner.

"Interestingly, there's no right answer to this question, except for the one that's right for the owner," notes Crew. "The process has to begin with someone's best interest in mind, be it the company, the lifestyle of the owner, return on investment, or the future of the employees."

Family meeting

That often-emotional first conversation should take place not with the company's CPA or legal counsel, but with "willing and able" family members. Crew suggests a few great icebreakers:

--"As you all know and understand, I'm not going to be around forever. I'd like to have more time for myself, yet I'd like to take the business to the next level. I'd like to know what your interests are when it comes to the business."

--"Have you thought of the day when you might take over the business? Tell me what you're thinking."

--"How do you see yourself being a part of this family business in the future?"

"You must really understand where the kids' heads and hearts are," stresses Crew. "It's oftentimes impossible for an owner to accept that no one else, including the kids, feels the kind of passion and commitment to the business that he or she does. That could mean that it's time to search for leadership outside the family. Then again, it could indicate that it's time to sell the company and divvy up the money. Regardless, that family conversation must come first."

Furthermore, whether a family member or outside professional is chosen for the leadership position, Crew believes the company needs a written transition program, which it must then follow strictly.

"The grooming and transition doesn't take place in the upstairs office," he explains. "It's formal, informal, one time, multiple times, and overtime. It's about getting to know and work with vendors, customers, and employees. If you don't schedule and commit to these activities, especially in retail, they're likely not to happen."

Independent Retailing Editor Jane Olszeski Tortola can be reached at [email protected].
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