58: Handling Unexpected Succession – Kurt J. Lesker Company

by | Aug 10, 2021

Succession
Stories
Podcast

Business succession isn’t easy, especially when it’s unexpected. Listen in as three 3rd generation siblings share their personal and professional challenges of dealing with the death of their father, Kurt Lesker III, CEO of Kurt J. Lesker Company.  With support from their family and executive team, KJLC successfully transitioned to the next generation of leaders including Kurt Lesker IV, Kristin Lesker Eisel, and Jenna Lesker Lloyd.   

Listen in to learn more about:

  • Successful transition across different generations
  • The crucial role of family and business values in moving business forward amidst transition
  • Why it’s important to have frequent, open conversations on succession
  • The value of succession planning in safeguarding a business and its stakeholders

Stream the audio podcast

Watch the video interview

Episode Transcript:

Laurie Barkman:

Kurt J. Lesker Company was founded in 1954 from humble beginnings. Now over 400 employees, KJLC is a global manufacturer of vacuum technology solutions for clients like NASA. This conversation was with third generation leaders, three siblings – Kurt Lesker IV, Kristin Lesker Eisel, and Jenna Lesker Lloyd. In 2015, their father was diagnosed with cancer and passed away within just seven months. While the Lesker family had done some estate planning and held regular family meetings, they hadn’t done formal business succession planning. With support from their executive team, KJLC successfully transitioned to the next generation of leaders. Listen in as the Lesker family share their personal and professional challenges of dealing with unexpected death and succession.

Laurie Barkman:

Hey everyone, welcome to Succession Stories. This is going to be a lot of fun. I have three siblings who have joined me today from the Kurt J. Lesker company. There’s so much to talk about. There’s so much to learn. So Kurt, Kristin and Jenna, thank you, each of you, sincerely for being here today. I would love for each of you to just give a brief introduction, because I cannot do all three of you justice and we’ll learn a little bit more about the company in a little bit. So, Kristin, why don’t you go first?

Kristin Lesker Eisel:

Sure. Hi, thanks so much for having us on today. We’re really excited to talk about the business and our succession and hopefully we’ll have a great time. So I’m Kristin Lesker Eisel. I am the global HR manager at the business, I run everything around HR; safety, diversity, equity and inclusion, talent acquisition benefits, payroll, everything that really revolves around people. I’ve been at the business now for about 15 years. Prior to the business, I worked at a couple different places, and I also got my bachelor’s degree from Duquesne University for psychology and communications. I also hold my PHR right now. So I’m really excited and thanks for having us on today.

Laurie Barkman:

Absolutely. I should mention that you’re the oldest of the three siblings, which is why in the batting order you went first. 

Kristin Lesker Eisel:

I am the oldest of the three.

Laurie Barkman:

Next up would be the second born, which is Kurt. Kurt, you want to introduce yourself?

Kurt Lesker IV:

Thanks, Laurie, for having us on the show. Kurt Lesker, the middle child, sometimes called the Golden Child by my sister. I’m the president and CEO, I’ve been with the organization for 15 years. I got started actually, my first job was as a janitor as an intern, and worked my way up through industrial engineering, then running global quality. I moved over to Asia for three years, which was an awesome experience, went into sales, and then in 2015, became the president. So really excited to be here and talk a little bit with you.

Laurie Barkman:

Thanks, Kurt. Certainly last but not least, the youngest here is Jenna.

Jenna Lesker Lloyd:

Yeah, save the best for last.

Laurie Barkman:

[Laughs] That’s right.

Jenna Lesker Lloyd:

My name is Jenna Lesker Lloyd, I am the youngest of the three siblings. I have been working in the organization now for around nine years. I’m the Director of Finance and Strategy, I manage our finance department quality, sustainability, and strategic facilities. Through my backgrounds in finance, accounting – I’ve got my bachelor’s in finance, accounting, my masters in accounting and Information Analysis from Lehigh University, CPA – I love numbers, I could talk to you about Excel spreadsheets all day. I spent a bit of time in our UK office for about six months there working on operational excellence. I really have a passion for numbers and for quality. So happy to be here and excited to talk to you.

Laurie Barkman:

Awesome. You collectively are the third generation, which is nice, because there’s three of you, it makes it fun. We’ll talk more about your family in a second. This is a third generation business. You’ve had some transitions, we’re going to talk about that as well. Let’s just learn a little bit more about the company, so Jenna, what does the company do? How big is the company? Things like that.

Jenna Lesker Lloyd:

We’re a leader in the design and manufacturing of vacuum technology solutions for research and production applications, from the simplest of components and fittings to intricate vacuum chambers and precision computer controlled deposition systems. What does that mean? We like to say that we enable technology for a better world so our customers are going to be doing really interesting end to end applications, whether they’re doing research on the next OLED display, LED, or they’re working on the sensors in your vehicles. We provide them the tools and the capabilities to do this next level research to give us the next thin film battery, to give us a smart pill that you’re going to take and you’re going to consume and that your doctor will get information out. So that’s what we do. We are a global company. We’re headquartered here in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and we have offices as well, European headquarters, in Hastings, UK, and Shanghai, China. We’re about 420 employees strong and we’ve got some other offices throughout the US and throughout Europe and Asia.

Laurie Barkman:

Wow, that’s really incredible, and we want to learn more about that growth story, so you’re a global business, and a pretty technical company. I also want to just give a shout out to Kurt because he and I initially talked, I was going to interview him one on one and he said, “You know, I really would like to include my siblings,” so the idea for the three of you being with me today is really Curt and that says a lot, obviously, from what he thinks of you together as siblings and in this family business. I just wanted to share that with the audience and I know, both of you knew that, but I wanted to share that with you as well.

Jenna Lesker Lloyd:

We really like each other a lot. I think sometimes you hear about family businesses, and there could be a bit of a struggle working with your siblings, but we actually really like each other. I mean, we spend a lot of time at work together, but we spend a lot of time outside of work together, we just, we really enjoy each other.

Kristin Lesker Eisel:

Yeah, and we always really like to support one another and see each one excel and succeed so I think that’s probably been one of the most exciting things about working together, seeing each other in maybe a different light than a lot of people get to see their siblings. I watch my brother and sister excel every day, and they’re just so great at what they do, and so strong, and we really celebrate successes together. So, again, when Kurt asked us to do this we just really appreciated it, because he’s always looking for ways to help push us forward and we’re always looking for ways to help push him forward, too. So we definitely are excited about today.

Laurie Barkman:

Now, I know things aren’t always Kumbaya, and there’s conflict, because we’re people and so we may have some conversations about that. But on the people side, I thought, Kristin, not only because of your role in global HR, but also because you’ve worked in the company longer than your other two siblings so you have the benefit of that, if you could talk about the people side of this company, and just share a little bit about the people that you work with from the employee standpoint, and then also from the customers’. Who do you serve, and what do they do?

Kristin Lesker Eisel:

Our people are amazing. To me, we have a very unique culture and I think a lot of companies say that, but if you really were to talk to our team members, and you would ask them what they love about their job, “people” is always the number one answer. We really have a great culture, a family culture, we have our spirit values, which are sustainability, passion, integrity, respect, innovation, and team. Those are values that our people came up with, they were not values that were given from the top down. We did a grassroots effort to come up with those values so they’re not just on our wall, but they’re ingrained in who we are, and when we make decisions, when all of our people make decisions, we go back to our spirit values. 

We’ve been so lucky to have such amazing team members throughout the years that have stuck with us. We have a lot of team members that have been here a really long time. Our executive team has such a good mix of people who’ve been with the company for 30 years, people who’ve been with the company for five years. We’re so strong, and we keep getting stronger every single year and I think that they’re all really smart and intelligent and driven in their own right so we’re so lucky to have them.

Again, I always say if the people are happy, the customers are happy. So to me, as long as we keep doing the right thing for our team, and we keep this amazing culture that we have, it’s going to spread to our customers and I think that’s why we have such good relationships with our customers and relationship building is key to our success. When you look at who we’re partnering with, and the customers that we’re serving, as Jenna said, a lot of these customers, they are just moving technology forward, they’re changing the world and we want to be there to help change the world with them. We don’t want to just sell you something, we want to partner with you. We want to help you innovate.

When you say, “Hey, I can’t do this, help me figure out how to do it.” Our team, they want to do that, we’re ready to do it. When you look at, we serve again, optics, OLED, semiconductor, UHV a variety of different markets but really what they’re doing is they’re creating a cell phone, they’re creating a smartphone. So every time you look at your smartphone, think of us, we helped our customers do that. They’re creating flat screen TVs, when you walk into your house and you take off your really cool aviator sunglasses, guess what? That was done in a vacuum. Or, everyone’s washing their hands now; “Let’s wash our hands under a faucet.” That faucet didn’t happen without vacuum.

What’s really neat, I think, are things like cancer research, the innovation that’s happening in the medical world and space. You watch SpaceX put a rocket into space, our company vacuum, we helped to make that happen, the Mars rover landing. We have launch parties, we celebrate what our customers do so, to me, we’re just doing amazing things and it all comes down to the people. Technologies are only advanced with really smart and intelligent people. We happen to have a ton of those at our facility, and on our team, and then they help our customers enable the technology that really is changing our world today.

Laurie Barkman:

Now, I know things aren’t always Kumbaya, and there’s conflict, because we’re people and so we may have some conversations about that. But on the people side, I thought, Kristin, not only because of your role in global HR, but also because you’ve worked in the company longer than your other two siblings so you have the benefit of that. If you could talk about the people side of this company, and just share a little bit about the people that you work with from the employee standpoint, and then also from the customers’, who do you serve, and what do they do?

Kristin Lesker Eisel:

Right, so our people are amazing. To me, we have a very unique culture and I think a lot of companies say that, but if you really were to talk to our team members, and you would ask them what they love about their job, “people” is always the number one answer. We really have a great culture – a family culture – we have our spirit values, which are sustainability, passion, integrity, respect, innovation, and team. Those are values that our people came up with, they were not values that were given from the top down. We did a grassroots effort to come up with those values so they’re not just on our wall, but they’re ingrained in who we are and when we make decisions, when all of our people make decisions, we go back to our spirit values. 

We’ve been so lucky to have such amazing team members throughout the years that have stuck with us. We have a lot of team members that have been here a really long time. Our executive team has such a good mix of people who’ve been with the company for 30 years, people who’ve been with the company for five years. We’re so strong, and we keep getting stronger every single year and I think that they’re all really smart and intelligent and driven in their own right so we’re so lucky to have them.

I always say if the people are happy, the customers are happy so to me,, as long as we keep doing the right thing for our team, and we keep this amazing culture that we have, it’s going to spread to our customers and I think that’s why we have such good relationships with our customers and relationship building is key to our success. When you look at who we’re partnering with, and the customers that we’re serving, as Jenna said, a lot of these customers, they are just moving technology forward, they’re changing the world and we want to be there to help change the world with them. We don’t want to just sell you something; we want to partner with you. We want to help you innovate. When you say, “Hey, I can’t do this, help me figure out how to do it,” our team, they want to do it. We’re ready to do it. 

We serve again, optics, OLED, semiconductor, UHV, a variety of different markets but really what they’re doing is they’re creating a cell phone, they’re creating a smartphone. So every time you look at your smartphone, think of us, we helped our customers do that. They’re creating flat screen TVs, when you walk into your house and you take off your really cool aviator sunglasses, guess what? That was done in a vacuum or, everyone’s washing their hands, “Now let’s wash our hands under a faucet.” That faucet didn’t happen without vacuum. But what’s really neat, I think, are things like cancer research, the innovation that’s happening in the medical world and space. You watch SpaceX put a rocket into space, our company vacuum, we helped to make that happen, the Mars rover landing. We have launch parties, we celebrate what our customers do so, to me, we’re just doing amazing things and it all comes down to the people. Technologies are only advanced with really smart and intelligent people. We happen to have a ton of those at our facility, and on our team, and then they help our customers enable the technology that really is changing our world today.

Laurie Barkman:

Thanks for sharing that. Let’s switch over to Kurt because I know people are probably curious about the company’s history. We’ve learned about where you are today, which is a really interesting industry that you’re in and you’re serving really interesting customers. But I’m sure that when the company was founded, maybe the business was a little bit different, so why don’t you walk us through a little bit of a company history and Generation one, Gen two. We’ll talk a little bit more about how you guys as Gen three transitioned, but let’s start with the history.

Kurt Lesker IV:

Sure, Laurie. First, I’m listening to my sisters here talk. I feel lucky to be related to them. They’re very capable, young ladies and doing a heck of a job for us. The beginning of the company was very humble. People think of Kurt J. Lesker company – and I’m Kurt J. Lesker, the fourth, the company was started by the second – they think, “Wow, he must have had a big ego if he named the company after himself.” But what really happened was my grandfather, our grandfather, was laid off from his job. He was a sales representative and he was laid off and he didn’t know what he wanted to do next but he knew he wanted to be in control of his own destiny. So he said, “I’m gonna start my own company.” Went on to register his company. They said, “What’s the name of your company?” and he said, “I don’t know.” “Okay, well, what products are you going to sell?” He said, “I don’t know,” and they said, “Well, just name it after yourself, then you can sell whatever you want.” So that’s how the Kurt J Lesker company was born. 

Our grandfather was a true entrepreneur. I mean, he would do anything he could to try and make money, to serve customers. While we’re a vacuum technology company today, through our history, we’ve sold office furniture, we’ve sold tractors, we’ve sold chemistry equipment and what would happen is, he’d say, “Okay, we want to outfit our office with furniture,” and he’d go get a price on furniture. They said, “Here’s your price.” He said, “Well, what about if I’m a distributor?” They said, “Well, here’s your better price.” He said, “Okay, we’re now a distributor of hot office furniture, we’re going to start the Lesker office products division.” Then it’s born. Of course, over the years, thankfully, we focused in and we started divesting those other businesses. But if you look through the 60s to the space race to the development of computers, and televisions, vacuum technology really started to take center stage. The exciting thing for us today is just all the different applications that Jenna and Krista talked about. If you look at the history, being that this is about succession, Kurt the second, he was the first – I’m gonna say – the first 35 years of this business. We’re just scraping to get by every year, are we going to have enough money to pay people? Are we going to be profitable, make a little bit of money, lose a little bit of money? That was a real challenge – I think it is for a lot of companies that start up. In 1976 actually, before my father joined, our mother joined the company in 1976. She’s here three years before our father and she’s involved in the organization. Now she’ll go on to a 45 year career as the head of it, but she was doing everything as you typically wear many hats in a small company, anything she could help with whether it was writing board reports, whether it was sending out invoices to customers, she would do it. Three years later, our father joins the company as president in 1979. Two years after that his father moves out to California from Pittsburgh, and he becomes the chairman. My father’s president. My mother becomes the Vice President of it and my father has a sister and a brother and they’re also part owners. They’re on our board of directors. I think that as we get into our story with our parents, I don’t think they talked as much as a family about succession, and what that meant and what it would look like when somebody passed away, but they really did a great job working through this because a lot of companies don’t even survive the third generation. They did a great job when our grandfather passed away in 1999, they made sure that the company was stable, and that it had the right leadership team in place to be successful in the future. That’s generation one, generation two, and then we can get into generation two and generation three. Humble beginnings, but exciting how it’s progressed. 

Laurie Barkman:

Thanks for sharing that. Let me ask you a question about the G2 transitions. Was that a foregone conclusion that that your father was going to take over as president? Was that a smooth transition?

Kurt Lesker IV:

It was not. It was not a foregone conclusion, no, and there were some challenges through that transition. I think the communication was not as not as open as it could have been, and it did create some family conflict. That conflict lasted a little while but thankfully, it’s all been resolved. Thankfully, those difficult conversations have been had and we’ve gotten to a much better place as a larger family unit.

Laurie Barkman:

You mentioned earlier in the description, Jenna, of how big this company is today, so Kurt, do you know, back then, what the relative size was? Was it at about half the size of – I don’t know your revenues but just say – your employee size or some dimensionality just to compare?

Kurt Lesker IV:

The company started in 1954. In 1976, when our mother joined, the company is $2 million, it has 12 people so that kind of gives you an idea of how things have evolved. Now we have, as Jenna said, over 400 people. We’re much larger than that now and a big part of that has to do with our father’s vision. He had his MBA, but he did not focus on, “Okay, what is the return on investment? What’s my profitability?” His was more, “How are we going to be customer centric? How are we going to grow and become a global organization?” So he decided we need an office in the UK. We actually put an office in Budapest, Hungary before the wall came down, really early on, opened up an office in 2007 in China and there were a lot of difficult conversations back then, between generation one generation to the other board members saying, “We have to shut this down, we have to shut this down. It’s not profitable,” and he just kept on his vision, very committed to it, unwavering. We’re very thankful that he was because we couldn’t be who we are today without a lot of risk, and a lot of fortitude to see the vision of what we could become.

Jenna Lesker Lloyd:

What I would just add to the story, just to give it a little bit more context, as Kurt mentioned, he started out as a manufacturer’s Rep. Then it was a distributor, then it was a national distributor. Then it became a global distributor, then we started manufacturing, then we started building full deposition systems so we’ve taken these progressive steps at every point. We’ve grown our product offerings and our capabilities, but it definitely happened over time, taking risks and seeing how it went and typically those risks were well worth it.

Laurie Barkman:

That’s something common that you hear about with Gen one, building it, getting it off the ground, trying to figure out as you’re describing with Kurt II that he did a number of different things. He made some pivots, he was trying to figure out the market and where the growth opportunities were and then when your dad came into the business, who’s Kurt III, that he was trying to take it to that next level, he was taking it global, and it did have some risks, but then obviously had rewards. So we know his name. We haven’t mentioned your mom’s name, I think we should. Your mom’s name is?

Kurt Lesker IV:

Cindy Lesker.

Laurie Barkman:

She’s an important part of this story so I just want to acknowledge her there. She had joined the company, she was by his side for a lot of years, because she’s still part of the company today, correct?

Kristin Lesker Eisel:

Yeah. Actually, the interesting thing, Cindy’s [kind of] the unsung hero or the person in the background, and she’s always pretty comfortable with that, but she is currently our chair of the board, and she’s doing an excellent job. When our father passed away in 2015, she took on that role and she’s really been working great with the board, the executive team, to help continue to push the business forward. But the interesting thing about that story – that Kurt happened to leave out, and I’m happy to just jump in and correct that – was that our father Kurt III actually asked Cindy to come to the business and decide if that was the direction that they wanted to take the family. He really valued making sure that she was on board, and that she was ready to go because they were going to work together for the next 35 years in the business. What people don’t always realize is that every risk that he was taking, she was there behind him. Risk managing, well, he was pushing forward from a visionary standpoint, but yeah, Kirk does an excellent job of really going through that story. But Cindy definitely is a huge part of the company and really, she’s our guiding light, she’s there to help us through with everything and support us, which is awesome.

Laurie Barkman:

I read an article recently, I think that your company had on your blog, which acknowledged her contributions in the company and had a great photo of the three of you with her, and I know we thought about asking her to come on and, and maybe that’ll be another episode with the four of you. That could be fun but she’s here. She’s here with us in spirit, and so is your father. Let’s switch to talk about Kurt III. He did pass away and Kristin, you talked about that. 2015. I’m gonna go back to Kurt because I think Kurt for you and your transition here as we talk about from G2 to G3 you’re a key part of this story, and your personal experience and obviously, Kristin and Jen, I’d love for you guys to chime in as well about your feelings and this time. But Kurt, just take us back to what was happening in 2015.

Kurt Lesker IV:

In 2015 for me, I was the vice president of sales, and I had just recently become the vice president of sales. I was in Shanghai on a business trip and I remember getting a phone call from my father. This is in the middle of my night so I’m wondering, “Okay, what’s going on here?” He said, “I need to talk to you.” He told me that he had cancer, sarcoma, soft tissue cancer, and that he didn’t know much else. I just said, “Hey, I have something I need to, we need to figure this out.” I said, “Okay, you want me to come back?” He said, “No, no, no.” He was very clear, “There’s nothing you can do. Stay there.” So I finished my business trip, came home and it was really the next seven months; he passed away in October.

The next seven months were very challenging for the family. I think we all expected because he was such a larger than life figure that he was going to live forever, that somehow he was going to beat this. There’s no way that that could take him. He did everything he could and we did everything we could to try and get past it. But unfortunately, he succumbed in October. But through that time, we had business meetings in his hospital room. He was very connected to the business throughout. We talked a lot about things. As a family we had set up – I say – we set ourselves up for success years prior. I mean, five plus years prior, having monthly family planning meetings, putting in place a succession plan, putting in places in a state plan, so that in the event something would happen, it wouldn’t be chaos and really credit to my family and our leadership team, our executive team and our board of directors. They were very supportive when the time came, and it looked like it was getting near the end. We talked about then, transitioning me early to the role as president and CEO. probably would have been a couple years since then, but making that transition early. I didn’t want to do that without the support of my family, the Board of Directors and the leadership team. Thankfully, they were all very supportive of it, and have been ever since so that was really, really important for me. I think when you’re taking on a role like that, there’s definitely things that go through your mind. Now am I ready for this? Is this right? Am I the right person for this? When you have people around you that are building you up, it definitely helps you to feel confident as well.

Laurie Barkman:

How old were you then?

Kurt Lesker IV:

I knew you were gonna ask me difficult questions.

[Laughter]

I think I was 32 at the time.

Laurie Barkman:

How about for you, Kristin?

Kristin Lesker Eisel:

I was 35.

Laurie Barkman:

Jenna?

Jenna Lesker Lloyd:

Well, that makes me 29.

Laurie Barkman:

So you were all pretty young at the time to lose your dad and I’m so sorry that you lost him and that he left you at a relatively early young age himself, and Cindy too. The whole family. How you adjusted and how the company adjusted, I think, is really so compelling because so many companies do struggle. It was a relatively short amount of time. You said seven months from when he was diagnosed to when he died but you had been proactive. There was some planning, you had governance, there was a board that had been talking about succession. It wasn’t an easy thing by any stretch but Kurt, they had been talking to you about development,  and that one day the vision was for you to take over, but would you ever have imagined at 32, you’d be running this company?

Kurt Lesker IV:

No, I didn’t think at 32 I’d be in that position and if you knew our Father, I didn’t think even when I became president, that he was still going to have his hands and everything. I remember talking to him as it was getting closer to the end. We both were joking around with each other and I said, “Hey, Dad, here’s a good thing. You’re not going to be in my hair, you’re not going to be second guessing every decision that I make,” and he’s like, “Yeah, that’s a big benefit of this.” And we also said, he’s had such a great career, and there were no regrets. There are no regrets. I think Jen and Kris would agree. It’s not like there’s anything left unsaid. I’m actually very thankful that we had seven months to work through that transition. Because we got to say everything, we got to talk through the whole situation. At the end, he always said, “I want to work,” he wanted to work until he died. His father worked until – he wanted to do the same thing and he did, but he just thought it’d be much later. We all thought of you much later in life. 

Jenna Lesker Lloyd:

The one thing I would add to the Succession Story – were we really focused a lot on the family succession – but the reason the business succeeded throughout that was because of our executive management team. We have, I would say, the best executive management team in the industry. When Kurt III was focusing on his cancer and focusing on getting better the business didn’t skip a beat because we just have such strong leadership and we are running a business. Everything didn’t have to go through Kurt. It wasn’t a one man show. He built a business with excellent leadership and it was one of the things that I was just very proud of that he did in the business; he created a real business with a real leadership team.

Laurie Barkman:

Kristin, what are your memories from that time?

Kristin Lesker Eisel:

It was definitely difficult. On a personal side, I have and had three kids at the time, I was trying to manage work, personal and the business and trying to spend as much time as I could with my father, but for me, I agree completely, there were no regrets. If he would have passed away in a week, he would have left us in a really great spot. He was really thoughtful about having family planning meetings, and getting us to work through what people always think you’re going to work through after they’re gone. Really, everything you need to work through is when people are here, because a lot of the things that happen is your emotions become very heightened when this happens, everybody deals with death in a different way so he knew that because he had gone through that, and he wanted us to be able to come together and mold together to be successful as a family and as a business and so for me, the toughest thing was just losing him and not having him there anymore but I felt so confident with Kurt going into the CEO role, I still do. Kurt has always been successful. He’s really been able to connect with people and he’s just a great leader and I’m happy to have him as my boss. Believe me, there are times where I can really give them a hard time.

Laurie Barkman:

Don’t you just want to go up to them and give them a nuggie sometimes?

Kristin Lesker Eisel:

Oh, we have our moments but overall, I worked with my father for 10 years and I am so thankful for that. He really taught me how to connect with people. We called him a chameleon. He could adapt, he could adjust, he could connect with anyone on any level at any time and people loved him for that, and they should have because it was genuine, he just wanted to be kind, joyfull, and create a fun environment. Kurt is the same way but what Kurt, I think really brings to the table, it’s a little different.  As we’re moving into the next generation is this idea of diversity, equity and inclusion. Kurt is such a champion of this in our business, and his own life. I think that he really allows for everyone to move up and be successful and I know that Jenna, and I, and some others have worked with him along the way on that, but he does an excellent job and so in 2015, like Jenna said, our leadership team was on point, they were running the business, they were doing amazing things, Kurt was ready in my mind to be the CEO, even if in his mind he may have had some doubts here and there or just trying to get in the mindset, but I think everyone knew he could do it and if you look at how our business has grown from 2015 till now, you can tell that he did, and he continues to do it. It was tough but our father and mother really set us up for success and luckily, the three of us really do communicate and care about each other and we want to see the business move forward as well.

Laurie Barkman:

It was not an easy time, I’m sure and there’s always challenges. You guys are making it sound like you were able to work through those challenges really well. You’re a strong family and that foundation was great. I talk to other family business leaders on this show, where they don’t want to be in the same room for Thanksgiving dinner, they don’t want to be talking business on a Friday night and that strikes me that your family culture is different than that. But again, I’m sure just rewinding in that time and thereafter, there were challenges. Whether it was challenges with the family or challenges within the business customer communications, what have you. I was just curious just to go around, and maybe Jenna we’ll start with you. What do you recall from that time? You were 29 and you were probably newer to the company, but what are your memories from that time? Is there something that was pretty challenging that you had to deal with?

Jenna Lesker Lloyd:

Yes, so I was getting married in 2015. I got married in September of 2015 so for me, it was a bit challenging in that it was supposed to be the happiest point in my life and it also was a really difficult point in my life. I was lucky to have an amazing maid of honor and my sister, and my mother and my brother, who all just came around and just made sure that it was special for me and a really joyous occasion. But that was extremely difficult. I still have trouble – when you go to another wedding, and you see the daughter-father dance, it always gets me a little bit. That was a very difficult thing for me just because it’s such a momentous occasion and our father was the life of the party and so for me, the hardest things are the big events, the big, fun, exciting events, those are the times where I miss him the most because it’s like, “Oh, he would have made this better,” and unfortunately, he wasn’t able to physically join my wedding because he was in the hospital room and so it was a bit of a challenge but really, I’m going to go back to my comment before on the work front. I really had a lot of confidence in our management team and they really helped, I think, me and helped our whole family be able to focus on our father during that time.

Laurie Barkman:

Kristin, how about for you?

Kristin Lesker Eisel:

For me, the challenges were more personal. Like I said, I have three children, my oldest, actually has a special need so I was working through just having three young kids also diving into the medical side of what was going on with our father. We didn’t tell people for a couple months, because he was so adamant that he was going to get better and that we were just kind of waiting until we were on the other side. 

He was in the hospital, people didn’t know it. We were working from the hospital, we would go sit by his bedside, do work. I can remember having business meetings there just working through it with him. I guess the hardest part was I never actually thought he was going to be gone. He just had such a good attitude about it and I didn’t know exactly how to work that through with my kids but in the end, it all worked out and I did my best, but it was hard to see my sister go through what she was going through with the wedding. My dad watched it. Luckily, he talked about technology. My brother in law held the phone up. The whole time she was getting married, and he watched it via Skype, the hospital let them bring in a big screen TV, and his brother and his sister were right there next door. That was pretty awesome but yeah, I’d say the challenge was definitely more on the personal side. On the business side, we feel confident, we really felt confident that no matter what happened, we were going to be okay and with Kurt being the vice president of sales, and us already having so many amazing executives, a lot of those relationships were already there. 

Laurie Barkman:

Kurt, let’s have you answer this in terms of challenges. I know you addressed this a little bit before. How did you build that confidence that, “Hey, I got the baton. Now I can do this.”

Kurt Lesker IV:

Just like what Kristin said, it’s a big personal challenge when you lose your best friend, your mentor, your father. That is not easy to overcome. On the business front, as I knew that was going to happen, that time was going to happen and I was put into the role I had worked for four of our vice presidents throughout my career so I had built relationships with them and I knew them as my manager, and my leaders and mentors over that time. So each one of those executives I went to and I said, “Look, I understand. Kurt has been this wonderful visionary leader. If it’s too much for you, and you want to go do something else, I totally get that. I just want to know where you stand,” and each one of them thankfully said, “Kurt, if you’re in I’m in.” I said, “All right. Well, I’m in,” and getting that commitment, one by one, to the future where we’re headed and I was very clear with them, I said, “I don’t have all the answers, the training wheels are off for all of us. There’s no one to go to,” because Kurt is one of those people you can go to and no matter how bad it was, or what the issue was, he would provide a pretty good solution or path forward. I said, “I don’t have all the answers, but we have the answers collectively. We can work through anything,” and that’s really what we’ve done and we’ve added on some additional leaders from the outside, who are just phenomenal. They’ve worked right in. I think the key thing when you’re trying to build a strong executive team and a family business, there can’t be family on one side and then executive team on the other side. It’s one group so we three here are part of that executive team but I want non-family executives to feel exactly the same and treated the same as a family member who’s an executive. That’s really important so that they know that they’re part of the company family, and we try and make it an overall corporate family.

Laurie Barkman:

That’s a good segue to the next thing I wanted to talk about which is values. I worked in a third generation company and values were really important to the family and you could tell that over their 120 year history that had spilled over into the company culture, it was definitely part of it. I would guess that your spirit values, which Kristin had mentioned, come from employees, but maybe they’re influenced by the culture of your family over the generations so I wanted to ask a couple questions about that and have you guys each take a perspective on it. Kurt, let’s start with you and talk about the pandemic because it’s not easy to have gone through and we’re still going through as a society and business community and I wonder, though, about your company values, your spirit values, how that has helped the company and your people and your customers get through this challenging time?

Kurt Lesker IV:

The pandemic has definitely been a challenging time unlike anything ever that I have seen. Very early on, we set up something we call our Incident Command team so as part of our disaster recovery protocol, we have a group of key executives across the commercial side, the IT facilities operations, and we were meeting weekly then we were meeting every single day, sometimes Saturdays, Sundays trying to set up the right protocols, trying to set up cleaning, masks, social distancing and through that I think all companies have had to make difficult decisions; people on site people off site, what the policy when someone’s on quarantine for COVID? Are they going to get paid or they’re not going to get paid? Every decision we’ve made through this pandemic, we’ve put up against the spirit values, is this in line with our values? Are we doing the right thing for our team members? I think through that, it has really allowed both the leaders and also just all of our team members to have more trust in the company and more trust in solidification of those values to say, “Yes, this is a company that I want to work for and work with,” because even when sales dropped 50%, which which happened to us the first couple months of the pandemic, we didn’t just say, “Okay, 50% drop in sales, now we’re gonna have to lay off a bunch of people.” Our whole objective was, “Let’s keep this team together, and let’s do it in a positive way.”

Laurie Barkman:

How about your memories from this time, Kristin?

Kristin Lesker Eisel:

Well, I ran and still do as the head of the ICT and it was challenging. It was very challenging. I spent a lot of time researching, looking into things but my goal, just like everyone else’s was to keep people employed, keep them safe, and continue to move the business forward. I can remember when they put down the lockdown, and we thought we were going to have to close our doors, and I remember getting together on the weekend with the executive team, and really just going back and forth on, ‘What are we going to do?’ and realizing that we were an essential business, and we had many customers who needed us and who were asking and making sure we were staying open. We were lucky we were able to stay open through that time, we were lucky to be in essential business, we were lucky to keep all of our team members employed, with health care paychecks coming in the door, but it definitely was challenging and those values, like I said, every decision we made, we would reference them, we would talk about them. Is this in line with our spirit values? Are we doing the right thing with our spirit values? You don’t know the story of the spirit values and it is a longer story but in the end, we were trying to come up with maybe an acronym, and we had SP IRI and Jenna and I were with our father down in our conference room. Everyone had left. We were coming back the next day to finalize the values and we were looking at them and saying, “Jenna, acronym. You’re a better speller than me, help me out,” and so she started looking at the values and she started wordsmithing, and she goes, “Well, you know, if there was a T on here, it would be spirit.”

At that moment in time, my father stood up and there he goes, “Yes!” He goes, “I have kept my mouth shut for the past year. I’ve let everyone talk about their values and what they mean to them and why they mean it to them.” He goes, “But T, tteam, that’s my value. I’m picking the last value – it’s team.” That is how spirit came together and that was who he was and that is who we are so that’s what got us through the pandemic. It was that T; it was that team. That’s what got us through and to me, while it’s been tough on everyone, I think there are a lot of silver linings that are coming out of this that people will realize when they look back, and for me keeping the team together was definitely one of those.

Laurie Barkman:

That’s an awesome story about your dad. Anyone watching this video on YouTube’s gonna see how expressive you were when you talked about your dad, raising your hands in the air like he did. That’s awesome. 

Kristin Lesker Eisel:

He was screaming and he was so excited. 

Laurie Barkman:

He was so excited, and the timing was good too for him and Jenna, what are your thoughts?

Jenna Lesker Lloyd:

Well, Kurt and Kristin, that’s such a good time talking about the values and how we transition as a company. I’m going to take a little bit of a personal side here, which is, I had a child in December of 2019. My first day back from maternity leave was March 16. I come into the office and I’m excited. I’m talking, “Everyone, hey, it’s so good to be back. I missed you.” At the end of the day, I’m like, “Okay, so everyone’s gonna take their stuff home with them. We’re gonna be at home for two weeks to reduce the curve, but then we’ll get back into it.” So I came right back into this fresh off of maternity leave at home with a newborn. Not long after that, my husband is an entrepreneur, he works in real estate – they shut down real estate so we’re just adapting. That was one of the biggest things that I’ve learned over this period is about being adaptable and watching myself and others just be adaptable. I know I found silver linings with not having to maybe take a shower every day and get yourself up pretty and go to work and the hour commute, so what am I doing while I’m up at 4am or 6am, on a call with our UK office or with our China office. Through this pandemic, we were implementing a new earpiece system so I think that this technology such as Zoom, or Microsoft Teams, has really allowed for our global company to feel even more global than it already felt. I feel talking to a counterpart in our UK office versus talking to a counterpart in our US office when you’re working from home it’s exactly the same. That’s been a really interesting aspect of the pandemic is how we’ve actually come I think, in a lot of ways, closer and more together as a team, through technology, and through embracing this technology so I found those silver lines. I do miss being in the office, and I’m in the office today. I miss seeing my colleagues. I’ve definitely missed those aspects of it but when you’re put to the test with something like a pandemic, it’s great to be adaptable, and to try to find those benefits where they are.

Laurie Barkman:

Definitely. If this – Oh, sorry. Go ahead, Kurt.

Kurt Lesker IV:

I just wanted to add, if I could add one thing, Kristin said she had the incident command team. I tell you, Kristin was phenomenal throughout this pandemic. She just took on – it’s probably taken years off of her life, but she has taken on so much. Always non-stop worrying about team members’ safety, worrying about how the person is going to get paid, how they are going to be able to take care of their family. It’s been tremendous to watch. I’m so thankful to have her on board, Kristin and our general counsel, her name’s Stacey Beall, they have gone above and beyond that. I told Kris, I said, “This is actually the year of Kristin,” because it really changed perception. Kristin had a flexible arrangement before where she would work in the office some days a week and at home some days a week. I saw that as like, “Oh, that’s a great benefit of working from home.” In some ways in my mind, it was easier to work from home. Having now seen what it’s like working from home and seeing people on video now. you get a really good look into their lives, the challenges they deal with, the background noise, the family members. There’s so many polls on people’s time, that it’s totally changed my perception of people that are working from home or working from the office. Thankfully, even though we had to set about half of our employees off site last year, we haven’t missed a beat and that’s been great and so just a big thank you to Kristin.

Laurie Barkman:

Kudos to you guys and I love how you’re even just recognizing each other. There’s probably people listening, they’re like, “God damn, I can’t even have a good conversation with my brother in law over a beer and they’re in business.” It’s so highly functional. This is amazing. I’m going to tee up a question to you guys and give you each a second to think about it. If this podcast was a message in a bottle, and there’s something that you would say to the next generation who’s not yet leading the company, what would that be?

Kurt Lesker IV:

I could start to give them time to think. My message would really be that don’t wait to have the conversations that need to be had. Don’t wait. It’s never too early to start talking about succession and the what if because you don’t know when those what ifs are going to happen. Sometimes the conversations that are – maybe that there’s a lot of anxiety around having them – once you have them, once you get those issues out in the open, once you start talking about them, that’s when you find very creative and unique solutions and there’s a lot of great expertise. There’s a lot of people out there that specialize in this. Consultants, advisors, talk to them, and have the conversations. They’ve seen a lot of this before and so for us, that was really a big boost and it is today as we’re going through our next round of estate planning, succession planning. There’s great resources out there, if you’re just willing to put yourself out there and maybe be a little bit vulnerable as to, “Here’s our situation, here’s some of the challenges we’re dealing with.” People want to help.

Laurie Barkman:

Yeah, so you’d be looking for that help and be open to it and have those tough conversations more proactively. Jenna, how about for you?

Jenna Lesker Lloyd:

What I would say is that you have to put your family first – the relationships that you have with your siblings, or your parents. Hopefully, my son’s gonna listen to this and be nice to me, but you have to put those first, those are more important than anything else and you’ve just got to care about the human side. You can get into the business, and you start talking business and you can start to be very logical about things but you’ve got to the human side, it’s so important. Through everything, you only have one family, you’ve got to take care of them, you’ve got to love them and then that’s the most important thing.

Laurie Barkman:

Thank you. Kristin?

Kristin Lesker Eisel:

For me, all those things they said I agree with, but definitely the communication, and just being able to understand that you have weaknesses, and so to the others in your family, and if you dwell on those, you’re never going to move forward. You really need to think about people’s strengths and how to push them forward and help them succeed because at the end of the day, you only have one life, you only have one family and if you have the opportunity to be in business with those same people, you can make it successful, but it’s all about how you approach it. I can tell you that I worked with my dad, like I said for 10 years hand in hand, he was my boss, for nine of the 10 years, my direct boss and mentor and there were days that he made me crazy, but when I look back on it, his strengths, what I learned, the opportunity that I had spend that time with him was amazing. People who get into business with their families, if it’s all about tit for tat, who gets this, who gets that, you’re never going to look back on it and feel great. You need to come together as a team and you need to look at people’s strengths and you need to help them be successful. Sometimes that comes with really hard conversations but if you don’t do that communication, if you don’t have those hard conversations, if you’re not honest, and you don’t look at yourself in the mirror, then you will never move forward. Because just like any great leader, if you don’t learn, if you don’t educate yourself, you don’t learn how to change, you will stay stagnant. If you look at any great leader out there, they continue to educate themselves, they look at their weaknesses, they take advice from others, and they make adjustments and so you have to do the same thing when it comes to your family members. They’re just as important as anyone else’s advice you’re going to get moving forward to be successful.

Laurie Barkman:

I always ask my guests if they have a favorite quote, which starts to signal the end of the episode so I’m going to do that with each of you to share something about leadership or entrepreneurship, if you have a favorite quote. Jenna, let’s start with you.

Jenna Lesker Lloyd:

What always comes to mind is actually my father’s quote, which is work hard, play hard and I know, it’s not just his quote. A lot of people use that one but that is the philosophy of how we built this business and how we continue to drive this business. You’ve got to have fun. Life is short, you’ve got to love what you do, and you’ve got to have fun while you’re doing so work your ass off, but have a great time too and that’s what I would say.

Laurie Barkman:

Okay, and Kristin?

Kristin Lesker Eisel:

For me, I like it when they say leaders create leaders, not followers and I think that what you find is that people who are really great leaders, they make sure and mentor others to be really amazing leaders because the only way to move forward is to replace yourself so that’s something that I really value.

Laurie Barkman:

Kurt, how about yours?

Kurt Lesker IV:

I go back to Teddy Roosevelt and his quote about the man or woman in the arena and then it’s not the critic on the sidelines. It’s not their opinion that matters. It’s the person who’s daring greatly, who’s courageous, who’s getting kicked and knocked down and getting backed up and continues to go. When you look at any entrepreneur, and certainly our business and our family story, it sounds very positive, and you hear a lot of great things but over 67 years, there have been so many tough setbacks, things, points where it’s like, Can we go on? Can we get through this? We just find ways, and we find ways together and at the end of the day, I don’t think it matters so much what you do, whether you love what you’re doing or not. For me it has to do with who you’re doing it with and how you’re doing it. For us, with our family, with our executive team and our awesome organization, and doing it with our spirit values in mind. That’s been tremendous for us.

Laurie Barkman:

An open question for any of you or all of you would be, if there’s anything I didn’t ask you about that you wanted to share. What would that be?

Kurt Lesker IV:

One thing that I’d just like to share for a minute, because I think it’s so important, and you did mention it, but just our mother and her importance in this whole story. So yes, our father was the visionary leader but for me, I can speak for myself, the person that gave me confidence, the person that built me up throughout my life to be successful, and the person who really made sure that well, she was killing herself in the business, but also that I would have a birthday cake as soon as I woke up, it was my mother. She’s just been this awesome force for good and she’s so passionate about sustainability and making positive changes, that she’s gotten us to where we are today. She’s been a big part of that and she’s also going to be a big part of our future and helping us with the future direction and implementing a number of great sustainability initiatives. 

Kristin Lesker Eisel:

The one thing that I would also say, and I know, this is about succession planning being Succession Stories is, and I know, we touched on this a little bit, but we really did spend many years going through planning and estate planning, succession planning. As mother, father and the three of us, we spent a lot of time on that so when we’re talking today about how easy the transition was, it came up 10-15 years of us really meeting a couple times a year talking outside consultants, having emotional discussions, there was a lot that went into it and I think that again, we were really lucky but the only reason that we were really lucky is because we started planning well in advance. If you don’t, it’s not always going to be like that so like Kurt and Jenna have said, and you said, utilize your outside resources, and get a plan together, even if it’s not a perfect plan, get a plan because a plan is better than no plan and I think that’s really important for people to know.

Laurie Barkman:

Absolutely. Jenna, your thoughts?

Jenna Lesker Lloyd:

What I would add is, I think we talked a lot about what we did as a family and one of the pieces maybe we left out was these great resources that we’ve had, through business advisors, and through forums. Myself, Kurt and Kristen are each at least in one business forum, where we’re working with other family business owners and we are talking about a lot of the trials and tribulations that we deal with, that are unique to family businesses, and those forums and the advice that we’re getting from those individuals has just been so critical to our success and are succession planning. I know my father was in a forum and that’s how he got the idea and the push to really start our family planning meetings so I think for your listeners, I would say if you’re trying to figure out how to get started, it definitely doesn’t need to be all on you. Join an organization for your industry or your family business organization and meet with other people. Find out what they’re doing, find out what went well and find out what did not go well, because those are all really critical so I think a big thanks to anyone who’s in my forums and my brother and sister’s forums and my parents’ forms because they’ve definitely helped us be successful.

Laurie Barkman:

You’ve all had so much support, which you can just tell it’s really had its benefit for all of you guys. I’m sorry, were you gonna say something?

Kurt Lesker IV:

I just completely agree, on the forum conversation.

Laurie Barkman:

On that note, if there’s people listening that want to connect with you, or find your company, Kurt, what’s the best way for them to find you online?

Kurt Lesker IV:

Sure, you can go to our website, www.lesker.com and you can find us on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram. I think I speak for the three of us, we’d love for you to connect with us personally, or connect with the organization.

Laurie Barkman:

Perfect. It’s been a real pleasure Kurt, Kristen, and Jenna to talk with all of you. Thank you so much for spending your time with me. It’s really inspiring to see all of you together and how you really value each other so thanks so much for being here.

Kristin Lesker Eisel:

Thanks for having us.

Jenna Lesker Lloyd:

Thank you.

Kurt Lesker IV:

Thank you, Laurie. This has been a really fun experience. I highly appreciate the offer. 

Connect with us

Ready To Take the Next Step?

We’ll guide you through the process. Schedule an initial call today.

Sign Up For SmallDotBig Updates

Get updates on insights, events & more

More Succession Stories Episodes

64: NextGen Growth By Acquisition – Ben Grossman

64: NextGen Growth By Acquisition – Ben Grossman

How acquisitions fuel growth at a multi-generational company. Laurie Barkman talks with Ben Grossman, Co-President of the Grossman Marketing Group, a fourth generation business. With sustainability as a key priority, they employ acquisition strategies as a platform for expansion. Listen in as they discuss their approach to M&A, including how they source deals, build strong trust based relationships with sellers, and integrate those companies into their organization without losing what makes them special and unique. A great episode for NextGen leaders and anyone on the buy-side of deals.

63: Human Side of M&A Deals | Jennifer Fondrevay

63: Human Side of M&A Deals | Jennifer Fondrevay

Did you know that 80% of mergers and acquisitions fail? An often overlooked yet critical aspect of M&A deals and transitions is the people factor. Listen in as Laurie Barkman talks with Jennifer Fondrevay, Founder of Day1 Ready, on planning for expected challenges and the emotional aspects of business transition for a newly merged organization.

64: NextGen Growth By Acquisition – Ben Grossman

64: NextGen Growth By Acquisition – Ben Grossman

How acquisitions fuel growth at a multi-generational company. Laurie Barkman talks with Ben Grossman, Co-President of the Grossman Marketing Group, a fourth generation business. With sustainability as a key priority, they employ acquisition strategies as a platform for expansion. Listen in as they discuss their approach to M&A, including how they source deals, build strong trust based relationships with sellers, and integrate those companies into their organization without losing what makes them special and unique. A great episode for NextGen leaders and anyone on the buy-side of deals.

63: Human Side of M&A Deals | Jennifer Fondrevay

63: Human Side of M&A Deals | Jennifer Fondrevay

Did you know that 80% of mergers and acquisitions fail? An often overlooked yet critical aspect of M&A deals and transitions is the people factor. Listen in as Laurie Barkman talks with Jennifer Fondrevay, Founder of Day1 Ready, on planning for expected challenges and the emotional aspects of business transition for a newly merged organization.

Ready To Take the Next Step?

We'll guide you through the process. Schedule an initial call today.