[Cover Story[ Succession Success

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Family transitions don’t have to be dramatic. Here are some real-world suggestions for transitioning your pest management business.

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November 16, 2009

As the gradual generational shift continues in the pest management industry from those pest management professionals who began building their businesses 30 or 40 years ago to the next generation, clearly strong leadership is emerging and building a solid foundation for the future. Pest Control Technology spoke with several individuals at family-owned companies where the transition has taken place successfully as well as companies now in the midst of this evolution of leadership. Read on as several well-known industry leaders share their thoughts for ensuring a smooth transition.

Encourage outside experience. For Bob Dold Jr., of Rose Pest Solutions, based in Northfield, Ill., it was not a matter of if he would lead the family business; it was a matter of when. After completing law school and working for a law firm in Chicago, he headed east to clerk for a Supreme Court Judge in New York. A position in Washington, D.C., offered him an opportunity to work on a campaign finance committee investigation. Eventually, he decided to go back to business school and began doing business development in a high-tech telecommunication startup with some of his classmates. With so much education and varied experience under his belt, Dold said the timing felt right to join his family at Rose Pest Solutions.

"From the time Bob came back into the business, he’s been very active in all of its aspects. He has such a great background — from his education to his general business experience — that when he returned, he was ready to go full blast at it. He’s 100 percent involved and I welcome that," said Bob Dold Sr. "Although I’m still actively involved, love the business and would like to continue to be involved, Bob was ready to plow in and take the ball and run with it."

When Ed Bradbury of Viking Pest Control, Bridgewater, N.J., first started his company in 1980, his first son, Ryan, was in kindergarten and second son, Dan, was just a toddler. Like many children in a family-owned pest control businesses, as they got older, they worked for Viking Pest Control during summers and on weekends. Eventually, they both went off to college and graduated.

"At that point, I didn’t want them coming into the business because I wanted them to work elsewhere and really experience life," says Bradbury. "I didn’t want our kids to wake up one day and wish they had taken another path. We felt it was important for them to look to the outside world so they could be more exposed, as well as to bring something back to the business — if and when they were ready."

Both sons returned to the family business around the same time, eight or nine years ago, each bringing different talents and strengths from their college educations and their outside experiences.

"You have to be patient when your children return to the business. I paid acute attention to which areas they might gravitate," says Bradbury. "I quickly realized Ryan could make an impact for Viking in sales and operations as well as managing employee relations. Dan was interested in marketing and advertising, so it was a great fit and the beginning of an easy transition for us."

During the last several years, Ryan and Dan have naturally fallen into distinct roles understood by everyone at the company. As the elder Bradbury slowly continues to ease up on day-to-day activities, he sees the company continuing to thrive. Ryan has now become involved with acquisitions while Dan focuses on developing new products and services.

"Since we keep growing, this will be a gradual transitioning, although I will probably continue to work here in some capacity. I enjoy coming to work each day and it is fun to see employees growing, developing and being rewarded by the company," Bradbury says. "We are fortunate to have some of the best employees around, combined with the new thought leadership of Ryan and Dan, the growth can only continue."

Plan the transition strategy. According to family business succession planning consultants at the Family Business Institute, only one-third of closely held business owners have a plan to sell, transfer or hand down their businesses in the future. And of those owners, many say their plans are unwritten and informal.

"My attorney and I presented a session on this at PestWorld a few years ago, and it amazed me how many people — many with very substantial businesses — had not addressed this yet. It’s something you don’t want to think about and it is challenging, but you have to deal with it," says Donnie Blake, Okolona Pest Control, Louisville, Ky. "It’s a very in-depth process from a financial and legal perspective, so you have to make sure those aspects are set in stone and everyone knows what’s going to happen. It was important for us to make sure power will be placed in areas where it will best benefit the business."

While the plan may be to transition to the next generation or perhaps to grow and sell the business instead, regardless of the path, leadership must create and communicate a plan. In addition, the planning process itself helps to ensure a smoother transition because it fosters ongoing communication and enhances trust.

When should a company begin planning a business succession strategy?

"The earlier you start planning, the better," says Ira Bryck, director of the Family Business Center at the University of Massachusetts — Amherst. "The best time to land a plane is before it even takes off," says Bryck.

According to Bryck, who does seminars on issues related to family business and facilitates discussions between family members, a good start is to set the goal — the end of the race — and then fill in all the important markers along the way. That provides a basic agenda to use when meeting with a team of expert advisors, which might include financial planners, attorneys and accountants.

"Then you can have a discussion with the next generation. Depending on what chapter of your life you are in, your children may need to take on some risk in the form of a loan, or they may need to learn more about risk so that when you are ready to pull back, they can be prepared," says Bryck. "These are not always easy discussions to have, so it’s important to commit to having formal discussions from time to time, and if you can’t do that, perhaps bringing a professional facilitator may help."

Bryck and others also suggest looking at what’s worked for other companies in the pest management industry as well as companies in similar industries.

"There are many organizations that can help planning to make sure it’s done properly. And while no two businesses are exactly alike, networking as much as possible and asking advice from other business owners you know and respect can help tremendously," says the younger Dold. "It can be as simple as gathering some others with similar business as an informal advisory board and capturing ideas on a flip chart."

For Jay and Matt Nixon of American Pest Management, Takoma Park, Md., the planning process with external advisors was the most challenging component of the transition from father to son.

"The most difficult part was getting the lawyers and financial people to agree on the legal transition of the company, much more so than the internal transition over time with me and my dad," says Matt, chief executive officer and majority owner of the company. "We had some summit meetings along the way, with six to 10 people in the room, and my dad and I always agreed. They all wanted to make us negotiate, but we didn’t want to," Matt Nixon recalls.

Today, Jay Nixon is still actively involved as director of government services, and president of the company and board.

"I know I owe him a lot of money for many years to come, but I am extremely lucky to be in this position and to have him as a dad," Matt Nixon adds.

Let it happen. When Donnie Blake served as president of the National Pest Management Association from 2003 to 2004, a demanding schedule often kept him away from his office. His daughter, Kassandra, was his liaison to the company while he traveled on behalf of NPMA.

"I’d heard from some NPMA past presidents that their business can drop off while they serve the term. Ours grew that year, which said to me that I didn’t necessarily need to be in on all of the day-to-day operations. So, each year, I’ve pulled back a little more," Blake explains. "Today I deal mostly with insurance, some of the legal and sales aspects, community service, and we recently launched a construction division, which is something I’ve always wanted to do."

Although Kassandra Blake-Mills had grown up at Okolona Pest Control, when she graduated from college in 2000, Kassandra dove in head first to learn more, sitting in on managers’ meetings and getting more involved in the business overall. Around the same time, Kassandra’s husband Kevin came on board to take on the sales and marketing responsibilities, and grew the sales force from one to four, in just five years.

"That allowed me to delegate what I considered to be mundane things, and now I’m much more of a delegator than I ever thought I could be," the elder Blake says. "Now I’ve pulled back so much that I get upset when they wait to discuss something with me rather than just making the decision."

Blake says he’s proud of how his stepping back has enabled his daughter to grow. And Kassandra agrees she’s developed professionally as well.

"My parents have a condominium in Florida and a few years’ back if someone would ask me what I would do if they left for two weeks, I thought I’d probably freak out," Blake-Mills says. "Now, they just got back from a trip and I’m wondering when they will leave again," she says, with a laugh.

For Bob Dold Sr., the change was easy to let happen and he welcomed the opportunity to have another person help manage the business.

"For some, it’s hard for people in my generation to relinquish that ability to spend money and make decisions, particularly when these people are entrepreneurs who have run their companies for the last 30 years or so," the elder Dold says. "While it may be hard to give up that power, let the younger person make some serious decisions and be there to step in if he or she is going in the wrong direction."

The younger Dold was ready to make serious decisions and move forward, so his father gave him the leeway and let his son take charge, knowing that he could step in at any time, although he didn’t have to.

"Bob knew where he wanted to go and he has a wonderful work ethic. I think he makes better decisions than I do sometimes. It was very easy to work together because there were certain things each of us gravitated to — we work more like partners," the elder Dold says.

Lead by example. Look no further than today’s thriving pest management companies to find an outstanding commitment to customers and a healthy work ethic — a solid foundation built by those that led the industry for the last three decades.

"For Okolona Pest Control, it’s all about customer service, and our company has grown by providing better service than anyone else in the market," says Blake. "Kassandra has grown up with that commitment, I think she understands what you’ve got to do to make sure customer is happy at all times."

According to Dan Bradbury, Viking Pest Control, his dad, Ed, serves as an excellent mentor, not necessarily because he gives his sons the answers or tells them what to do, but because he leads by example.

"My dad’s the kind of man who would work until eight or nine at night. He works hard and is devoted to his craft," Dan says. "I’ve inherited a good work ethic and how to take your profession seriously through his actions. Everybody here follows his example — give it 110 percent, do business with a smile and always give it your all."

Clearly, today’s emerging leaders lead by example as well. Take Kassandra Blake-Mills, who learned from an early age that there is no such thing as entitlement. Growing up as the boss’s daughter, she knew that when she was ready to take on more responsibility, she’d have to work harder than ever to earn the respect of others in the company, especially since most of the managers had known her since she was a small child.

"She works the hours and makes a 110-percent commitment to the business. She knows you can’t be a leader by coming in at 10 a.m. and leaving at 3 p.m.," her father says. "You have to be able to lead by respect – leaders give as much as anyone and they deserve what they are getting. If that’s not the case, they need to let someone else take over," he adds.

When Ryan Bradbury re-joined Viking Pest Control, he wanted to prove to everybody that he was working as hard as or harder than anyone else, and didn’t want to create a perception that things were handed to him because he is the boss’s son.

"I’m here early and stay late. I like to establish relationships and get to know everyone on a personal level. I try to work closely with people here so we are all on the same level," Ryan says. "I want people to treat me as they would anyone else and not to give me any special treatment."

Cultivate trust. According to family business consultant Ira Bryck, multiple issues can arise during the company evolution, especially when siblings go into management or ownership together. But it doesn’t have to be that way. And for Viking Pest Control, the transition has been nearly seamless.

"One of the most important aspects of working within a family business is to clearly define each role so there is no gray area in terms of responsibilities and job functions are clear. We have been fortunate to have good support systems so we continue to be successful and keep growing during the transition," Dan Bradbury says.

In addition, successful change will only take place in a culture of trust and mutual respect.

"If multiple siblings are headed toward ownership, there has to be respect for each others’ job functions and as my dad transitions the business to us, we need to work together," says Dan. "And while my brother Ryan and I may not agree about every campaign I run to market the company, he doesn’t get in my way. Ultimately, I trust Ryan to go forth with his plans and he trusts me to take care of mine."

Ryan Bradbury agrees.

"The keys to working with a sibling are to have a common respect for each other, establish the roles for each of you and offer guidance and counsel to each other. We communicate well so everyone knows where they stand and the employees know who to go to," says Ryan Bradbury. "If an issue does arise, we have those conversations behind closed doors."

And their father Ed couldn’t be more pleased.

"They work together well. I’m proud to say that not only are they co-workers and brothers, they are also good friends. They have a great relationship both inside and outside of work," the elder Bradbury says. "They consult with each other frequently and they are very good at working things out."

According to Bob Dold Jr., the reason his relationship with this father is so successful is because it’s also based on mutual respect.

"That is such a blessing. I get to go to work with my father everyday and I’m able to pick his brain about decades of industry knowledge. We have a very healthy amount of respect both ways, so our relationship works well," says the younger Dold. "The ‘Chief’ is great. He’s not going anywhere for the time being, and I welcome that involvement and support. This is the business he spent his life building. It’s part of his identity and I wouldn’t dare ask him to step aside. He loves the organization and the people around here love him."

Allow mistakes, embrace change. Matt Nixon of American Pest Management says his goal was to identify positive ways to impact the company and make it even better. At that time, the company focused almost strictly on commercial and government work. As such, Matt saw an exciting opportunity to grow the business by opening a residential division.

"I remember an employee once said to me that I would be the boss one day. I’ve always been in awe of my dad and I thought there was no way I could do it myself," Matt says. "My dad had no interest in residential work, but he was very supportive of me, so I was able to lend a hand to enhance the business."

Kassandra Blake Mills brought change to Okolona Pest Control, although she says it took some convincing.

"I felt very strongly that there was a better way to do our scheduling. I knew it would affect the entire company, but I felt it would be worth it in the long run," she explains. "Even though it was a big change, I ended up convincing everyone to let us try it. In the end, it’s worked out much better.

Ed Bradbury’s two sons also have new and exciting ideas about how to grow Viking Pest Control and he says it’s been interesting recognizing their talents and strengths and watching them grow.

"As part of the process, you need to give them the same understanding as you would anyone else, recognizing they are in a learning curve," Bradbury explains. "And while you have to hold them to high standards, you have to let them make some mistakes as well."

And as his sons continue to learn, their progress and individual growth has made it easier for Bradbury to part with some of his responsibilities.

During his career, Bob Dold Sr. has bought other small businesses where the children didn’t want to work with the father or the father wouldn’t give them any leeway, so the father ended up selling the business.

"It’s a parent’s dream to have a bright, capable child take over the business that the parents have worked on and loved for years," says Bob Dold, Sr. "Why would I spoil his desire to take over the business and run with it?"

Like other companies, for Rose Pest Solutions, it’s been a gradual transition.

"Obviously there are no two transitions that will be alike because it’s a very personal process involving different personalities. Some may put keys on table and walk out, while others may not empower the younger generation with the opportunities and knowledge," says the younger Dold. "My dad had been through this before and had some keen insights into what he saw as the process. He allowed me the opportunity to make decisions as well as mistakes. And he backed me and supported me along the way."

Network like crazy. When Matt Nixon graduated from school and returned to work at American Pest Management, he reached out to as many people as possible to expand his perspective.

"There was a point in time when I told myself that if I was planning to be in this business for the next 30 years, I’m going to do it right. I worked hard on networking both inside and outside of the industry to get other peoples’ perspectives to maybe do some things outside the sphere that currently existed," Matt says. "I visited other companies’ offices, joined networking and best practices groups, and talked with industry consultants. While my dad is a great mentor, I also felt it was important to get external advice."

The younger Bob Dold says the good news about the pest management industry is that its members are willing to share about their experiences — both good and bad.

"So reach out for help and seek counsel from as many as possible," he says. "We are in a heavily family-dominated industry; there is a ton of advice out there."

The author has been writing about the pest management industry for more than 15 years. She can be reached at cbrazell@giemedia.com