Nov 29, 2016

Succession Planning for Dealers

The importance of having a plan in place for the future of your business

Warning! This is a depressing and uncomfortable story.

A few years ago, Moti-Vitality had a client who was an extremely nice man. Nearly 50 years ago, while in his thirties, this gentleman started his company working out of the back of a pickup truck and had grown it to one of the largest water dealerships in his state. When we worked with him, he had nearly 40 employees.

On his staff was an alcoholic son who received a paycheck, but whom everyone hoped would stay away from the business because trouble, both internally and externally, ensued when he came around.

There was also a son-in-law who came to the office on a fairly regular basis who felt a sense of managerial entitlement simply because he was married to the owner’s daughter. And there was a non-family member service manager who was the first full-time employee the owner ever hired.

The atmosphere in this organization was tense as these three individuals fought for position in the organization.

The owner’s wife recently had passed away and the owner himself was in poor health. After spending some time with the owner and employees, it became apparent that we would not be able to help the company unless the owner could garner the courage and energy to hold the people he loved and cared about accountable. After offering some training and advice, we declined further involvement with the company.

Dealership in Crisis

Earlier this year at the Water Quality Assn. Convention & Exposition in Nashville, Tenn., I ran into one of the service technicians who had worked at that dealership at the time we visited it. I had heard that the owner recently passed away and the company was struggling, and this former employee filled in some of the details. The owner did not leave a succession plan or a will. Most of the 40 employees left almost immediately following the owner’s death and the son, son-in-law and daughter, and service manager were locked in an ongoing court battle over ownership of the company and its assets.

I was sad to hear this story because the owner was a genuinely kind and decent human being. But his efforts to be nice and non-confrontational and to try to please everyone ended up doing more harm than good to his family and employees.

I get it. Creating a succession plan means facing your own mortality, which can be uncomfortable at best. But the task of distributing appreciation also can be daunting. I cannot imagine how difficult this situation was for the owner. Here was a guy who grew his business by serving others. In his eyes, he owed so much to each of the three people I mentioned. He felt his business would not have grown without the loyalty of his service manager. He likely felt a tremendous amount of responsibility and guilt for the toxic life his alcoholic son was living, and his daughter and son-in-law also contributed to the business, especially while he was taking care of his wife during her battle with cancer. Trying to address these issues while he was mourning the loss of his wife and dealing with his own health issues likely would have seemed impossible.

Your Company’s Future

Again, this is a depressing and uncomfortable story. But it did not have to be and it does not have to be for you either. I assume if you are reading this, you have not yet passed into the hereafter, and while I am not a fortune teller, I feel pretty confident that you eventually will.

Unfortunately, even if it seems like it is far away, things can happen. Just ask Prince’s family, for example. If you have not considered what will happen to your company or your loved ones if a car crash or a sudden illness has an adverse effect on your ability to draw breath, then I urge you to do so. The task of putting together a succession plan may be difficult at any time, but it will be much more challenging if you are dealing with other life issues. Even if you already have a plan in writing, I encourage you to discuss these issues with the people you will trust to carry on your legacy. People can be beautiful, but when affected by loss—and sometimes a little entitlement and greed—they can ruin the memory of a lifetime of kindness in a battle for a piece of what is left. 

About the author

Kelly R. Thompson, MWS, CI, is president and founder of Moti-Vitality LLC. Thompson can be reached at [email protected].

expand_less