Precasters share advice for introducing family members into the business, particularly if it’s not their top career choice.
By Bridget McCrea
As the economy has improved, jobs data showed that the number of job openings in the U.S. (6.6 million in 2018) equaled the number of Americans who were actively looking for a job. With more than 10,000 baby boomers retiring every month, predictions are that we will soon be in a situation where there are more job openings than job seekers.1 These statistics should be incentive enough for family-run precast plants to start putting more effort into introducing new family members to the business.
There was never any question Andy Wieser would work for his family’s business, Wieser Concrete Products in Maiden Rock, Wis. It was started by his father, Joe Weiser, in 1965, and he’d been working for the company since he was in high school.
“I worked in all different facets of the business,” said Andy, company president and a third-generation precaster whose grandfather was also involved in the industry.
“I wasn’t interested in going to college, but I did go to technical school.”
At the time, the family business included a precast concrete plant, gravel pits/quarries and a farming operation.
“I spent time in all three and then settled into the precast business,” Andy said.
His brother Dan followed a similar career path, but his younger brother Mark had his sights set on earning a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville and becoming a registered professional engineer in the state of Wisconsin. While in college, Mark completed an internship and landed a part-time job with Westbrook Associated Engineers. He continued working at the firm after graduation until a colleague left to start a new engineering firm and offered him a job . At the same time, Wieser Concrete Products was starting a new plant in Portage, Wis., three hours away from the company’s headquarters in Maiden Rock.
The decision to not accept the job offer and come back to work for the family business was not an easy one, yet open communication between Andy and Mark helped visualize the many opportunities and benefits. In addition, the distance between the two plants was appealing for Mark, who was concerned about too much family oversight on the job. After some more convincing, Mark decided to give it a go.
“I didn’t come to run the company right away but started as an engineer,” Mark said. “Yet, when the new manager at the company quit after 6 months, it seemed like a logical transition to step in as manager.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Today, he’s vice president of the company.
“Mark and I manage the company between the two of us,” Andy said. “He’s still at our Portage location, and I think that separation has helped. We’re a lot alike and if we were side-by-side every day, one of us may not have stayed in the business.”
Bucking the trend
In a world where only one-third of family businesses last beyond the founder’s generation, and where just 12% ever make it to the third generation, the odds are stacked against precasters like Wieser Concrete.2 But the joke’s on them, said Andy, who – along with his two brothers – have since welcomed their own children into the business. The latter is a feat in and of itself, considering the challenges of recruiting and retaining millennials in manufacturing.
The owners of Gillespie Precast in Chestertown, Md., are well aware of the statistics, so much so that the company website proudly states, “Lasts for Generations.” A virtual unicorn in the business world, where the experts stop counting survival percentages at the fourth generation, this 98-year-old precast operation is in its own ZIP code on the family business front.
The company’s story began in 1922 on the farm of the great-great grandfather of the current management, brothers James and Todd Gillespie (fourth-generation ownership). James, CEO, said both of his sons are now in the business.
“I didn’t really have to do any convincing with them,” said James, who insisted that both sons worked outside of the business for a few years before making their decision to join the company. This experience not only helped them gain exposure, it also encouraged them to make their own decisions and not feel as if they were being forced to join the family company.
To precasters that need help convincing family members to come aboard, Gillespie said creating a warm, welcoming corporate culture that treats everyone like family can help. Ensuring young family members start working at the bottom is another good move, said Gillespie, whose sons both worked summers as high school students tying rebar and handling other manual tasks.
“There’s a rule around here that you pretty much have to be able to do everything,” he said.
Finally, encourage younger family members to explore their options while also explaining the opportunities that exist right in front of them.
“Talk to them about the benefits of one day being your own boss and the freedoms that come along with it,” said Gillespie, whose sons are both currently working in sales. He’s encouraged by the energy they bring to the company, and their enthusiasm over one day becoming its fifth generation of ownership.
“From the stories I’ve read, the first generation starts it, the second generation grows it, and the third generation takes it down the tubes,” Gillespie said. “In our case, every generation has grown past the previous generation, and we’re still doing that.”
Steps to success
As a family and small business coach, Don McCrea, Ph.D., has helped many companies develop their succession plans. Many of those plans involve family members, not all of whom are keen on joining the organizations that their parents and grandparents founded decades ago.
“I’m hearing that not as many young people are looking to go into the family business anymore,” said McCrea. “A lot of them just aren’t interested in taking on that responsibility.”
To break through that barrier, McCrea said current owners and leaders should carefully assess their companies’ needs. Ask yourself questions like: What role could this potential employee fulfill? What career growth opportunities do we have for him or her? Is this individual cut out for potential company leadership? And, how can this person further the company’s mission and help it grow?
Going a bit deeper, McCrea said the family bond itself also comes into play. If the relationship is solid, convincing younger family members to join the business may be easier than if the bond is shaky or uncertain.
If you’re dealing with the latter, McCrea said working on that bond is a good first step.
“Look at the whole process as a real bonding opportunity and get ready to have some open conversations about the family member’s prospects in the business,” said McCrea, who tells precasters to start this dialogue early in the young person’s life.
“The earlier you start, the more opportunity there will be for good relationship building between parents and children.”
As president of Concrete Sealants in Tipp City, Ohio, Howard Wingert is a second-generation owner who introduced the third generation to the business. A schoolteacher who spent his summers working at Concrete Sealants, Howard earned his law degree and realized he didn’t really want to be a lawyer.
When his father-in-law, Robert Haman, needed someone to oversee the company as business manager, Howard stepped up to the plate. At first, he saw it as a good interim opportunity to fill the void between his teaching and legal careers. That mindset changed once he got involved.
“I had a general understanding of how the entire operation worked and quickly transitioned to general operations manager,” said Howard.
Now president of the company, Howard introduced his son Jesse to the business early.
After earning his college degree, there was no question that Jesse was going to come back and work for his family’s business.
“He was 14 when he got his first job here,” Howard said. “He’s been around the business his whole life.”
For family members who need a bit more encouragement, Howard sees good, open communication as the key to success. For example, he says he talked to Jesse about the importance of never feeling entitled to a certain position or opportunity at the company, and the fact that as a family member he’d always be held to a higher performance standard.
“Anyone who is coming into a family business needs to know that they have to earn respect, and that the only way to do that is by working harder than everyone else,” Howard said. “I’ve been in this industry for 35 years, and I’ve seen business successions fail when the person coming in has an entitlement attitude. No one else can complain if they know that even a family member is working as much as they are.”
Bridget McCrea is a freelance writer who covers manufacturing and technology. She is a winner of the Florida Magazine Association’s Gold Award for best trade-technical feature statewide.