65: Moving Succession and Innovation Forward | Tricia Staible, Robinson Fans

by | Oct 3, 2021

Succession
Stories
Podcast

Tricia Staible raised her hand to join the family business, Robinson Fans, and eventually became its sixth generation President. Tricia joined Laurie Barkman to discuss the importance of diversification for long-term growth, and how a culture of curiosity promotes innovation in a manufacturing environment. 

While the company has grown and expanded with an acquisition, there was a time when its prospects weren’t as bright. This ties well with Tricia’s favorite quote about staying in the ring and moving forward despite the downsides that come your way.

Listen in to learn more about:

  • Driving innovation in a manufacturing environment
  • Finding stability even in the midst of crisis
  • Adapting a mature business while protecting its legacy
  • Incorporating core values into your business strategy 

Show Links:

Robinson Fans website

Robinson Fans LinkedIn

Laurie Barkman on LinkedIn

Podcast website: SuccessionStories.com

The Succession Stories podcast is hosted by Laurie Barkman, Founder of SmallDotBig. We’ll help you maximize business value, plan your exit transition, and get rewarded for all of your hard work.

Transcript:

Laurie Barkman:

Robinson Fans is a sixth generation,125-year old company which makes industrial fans that weigh as much as an 18-wheeler. Tricia Staible took over from her father as President when she was just 36. She helped move the succession discussion forward by raising her hand to join the family business, continuing the long line of strong women leaders. We talked about how their culture of curiosity promotes innovation in a manufacturing environment, and how Tricia’s background as a lawyer helped her learn the technical side of the family business. While the company has grown and expanded with an acquisition, there was a time when its prospects weren’t as bright. Tricia talked about the importance of innovation and diversification for long-term growth. It ties well with her favorite quote about staying in the ring and moving forward despite the downsides that come your way. 

Laurie Barkman:

Tricia Staible, welcome to Succession Stories. I’m really excited to talk to you today.

Tricia Staible:

Good morning. Thank you. I’m excited to be here. Thanks for the opportunity.

Laurie Barkman:

Oh, of course. We met because of YPO Pittsburgh. You’re a current member, I’m a former member, and I’ve interviewed a number of YPO folks on this show. I’m just so delighted, we’ve been connected. We talked ahead of time, and one of the things that I find so fascinating about you, and your story is – a couple things. One, you are a sixth generation member of your family, you’re helping to run your family’s business, and two, you’re a woman leader in manufacturing, which is also pretty, pretty unique these days. You’re beating the odds in a number of ways. I’d love to dive in and start with you. Why don’t you tell me a little bit about who you are, your background and the company?

Tricia Staible:

Sure. Well, I was originally born in Zelienople, Pennsylvania, which is a cute little town that I happen to be very proud of. It is where this family business is headquartered. My grandfather was the patriarch of our family, of the company, of the community, and I always looked up to him and wanted to spend as much time as possible with him. But then my family moved to Utah, because my father was working in the business, and he wanted to build a Western branch of our manufacturing business, so that’s what we did. We moved to Salt Lake City and basically started the facility there. 

While in Salt Lake City, I caught the bug for, let’s say, mock trial and the legal profession a bit, in that I seem to be a natural at arguing for better or worse. I also had this ongoing interest, both because of my grandfather with the business and my other grandfather, both of them have served in World War Two, one actually landed on the beaches of Normandy, he was part of a grand one, he did all the big battles, he helped to liberate some of the concentration camps. So I had kind of an odd early interest in the Holocaust and in genocide more broadly.

When I went to undergrad, I had the opportunity in my freshman year to study at the United Nations for a short period of time, and it was there that suddenly I realized, if I became a lawyer, I can make an impact in this world of international human rights and genocide more specifically, so that’s what I ended up doing. I ended up becoming a lawyer, I attended law school in DC at American University, and then I went to a law firm that had a female managing partner, and also had a giant international human rights pro bono practice, at least in comparison with any other of the firms. For me, it was important to be at a firm where I could still kind of play out my heartbeat, while learning all of the nuts and bolts of how to be an attorney. 

While I was at the firm, our family started going through a transition, if you will, how to pass it on to the next generation and how to make sure the business could continue, and so I helped to navigate some of that deal type work while at the law firm. At the same time, I was part of a big trial in another part of the practice at the law firm. Once that trial ended, I had the opportunity to kind of pick my head up and say, “Alright, is this what I want to keep doing?”

We had co counsel with a law firm in DC, and they said, “If this is the type of work you want to keep doing, move back to DC, interview with our firm, let’s see if we can make that happen,” and I realized that I really was arguing with everyone in my life, even maybe at times it wasn’t appropriate, and I just felt like maybe instead of continuing with that path, I should pour myself into building a team or being part of a team that invests in a community as well.

So that’s why I then reached out to my family and said, “You’re in the midst of transition. I’d like to continue helping. Is there any position available that I could interview for?” They brought in an outside resource to interview me and to make sure I was very serious about this opportunity and actually knew what I was getting into; I don’t know that I did. But I made it through that, and I joined the company actually in the Utah office for the first four years, acting both as legal counsel and marketing manager. 

Laurie Barkman:

How long ago was that? 

Tricia Staible:

Oh, gosh, like 13 years. 

Laurie Barkman:

So you’ve been at the company now for 13, your first four years we’re in Utah. So you didn’t necessarily think that you’re going to join the family business? It wasn’t part of your original plan?

Tricia Staible:

No. I blame it on the fact that I had this deep love for my grandfather and admiration of everything he had achieved, and then my father, the same way. So I think that was what drew me more than, “Hey, I want to be in industrial fan manufacturing.” [Laughs]

Laurie Barkman:

[Laughs] Robinson Fans, let’s talk about the company. So this is a family name – Robinson. When was the company founded? Let’s go back in time a little bit.

Tricia Staible:

We count from 1892. That’s when my great great, great grandfather and my great, great, great grandfather, together, bought and started this company. They had been engineers at a coal mine, and saw a need to design and develop the first coal mine ventilation fan. So we jokingly say we saved the Canaries, because they pulled the methane out of there.

Laurie Barkman:

[Laughs] Oh, right. I think I noticed on your company’s website and the history that it might have been your, I don’t know how to say, it would be Gen one, or Gen two, went to Cornell for mechanical engineering. That’s where I went, and my sister, and so we have a strong family tie to Cornell. Just thought I’d mention that it’s kind of fun. Tell me about your dad. So your dad is still in the company. So he’s Gen five.

Tricia Staible:

He actually is a son in law. So he is Gen five, but he’s married in. My grandfather, and my great uncle had split the company 50-50. Actually, my grandfather, and my great grandmother worked really hard to bring all of the ownership back into that type of ownership, which when you talk through succession challenges, that’s certainly one of them. They had sold stock far and wide, in order to pay off debts or what have you. Post depression type era. So we brought all of that ownership back. Two families or two sides of the family are now in it. My grandfather’s side, his three daughters. One of the stunning things to me is all three daughters’ husbands came in to work at the family business, and worked together here in Zelienople, in this office for a very long time, and didn’t kill each other, which is stunning to me. 

Laurie Barkman:

And had Thanksgiving dinners and Christmas and didn’t kill each other – that is an achievement. None of the women worked for the company?

Tricia Staible:

They would do summer jobs. That sort of thing. My mom now I believe is the corporate secretary – her official title. But no, none of them worked full time for a long stretch, I should say, but my great grandmother did. I should say, I come from a long line of strong women. My great grandmother really was the force that brought the company back to health and she had my grandfather help her with that. But my great grandfather was part of the business, and I think in the official kind of titled role, but evidently had some sort of mental health issue and so that’s when she stepped in and said, “Okay, I’ll make sure this runs.” Her brothers, I guess were trying to use the company as a resource from which to fund other interests. Is that a polite way of saying it?

Laurie Barkman:

Said sagely. We won’t probe too far there. We’re imagining what those might be. 

Tricia Staible:

Yeah. I think I’ve gotten far afield on the family history question that you asked. Yeah, dad is part of that fifth generation which ended up being all three daughters and all three sons in law’s along with my great uncle’s two children. 

Laurie Barkman:

Let’s switch gears a little bit. Let’s talk about you coming into the company, leading into your new role, because you mentioned when you entered were on the law side and marketing side. What was the reaction to you coming into the business and then after four years stepping into the role as President? How did that happen, and what were some of the challenges that you faced?

Tricia Staible:

I think I was protected from some of the reactions since I was in Utah, and I would just come back to Pennsylvania once a quarter or so. One of the things I did as I came into the business was really try to reach out to those within my age group that seemed to be hard workers and knew the business way better than I. 

I knew I had a background in the legal field, but I had no idea what I was doing when it comes to industrial fans; the technology of them, the manufacturing of them. Being in the Utah office really helped because it’s a smaller office, so I was able to go out into the shop, learn how to weld, and have the guys teach me how you put together the fans. My cousin, who’s the only other member of my generation working in the business right now actually started from ground floor up so he knew all of the construction type basics and the manufacturing and production components. I had to figure out a way to catch up, if you will. On the engineering side, somewhat, fortuitously, we had a fan catastrophically fail a few months after I joined the business.

Laurie Barkman:

At a client site?

Tricia Staible:

Yes, and what ends up happening is that customers choke the fan in order to decrease the airflow. When they do that, they can cause certain functions to start within that fan enclosure that stress the fan or cause it to fatigue and then fly apart. Never a great situation. Some designs are more particular to that or are more sensitive to those things than others. 

Laurie Barkman:

What kinds of settings are your fans? We probably should just talk about that for a second. Are we visualizing these huge fans in a manufacturing facility maybe, or?

Tricia Staible:

Yeah, so they’re industrial process fans, which means first pulling the methane out of the coal mines, but now moving air and particulates through the steel manufacturing process, the cement manufacturing process, food production, pharmaceuticals, petroleum refining, really any large industrial process. So the shell cracker plant that’s nearby, that kind of a facility.

Laurie Barkman:

Okay, so when you say catastrophic, this could mean safety hazards for anyone around the fan, because there’s no movement of the air or particulates or also, because the components of the fan are very sharp and large and can fly around. 

Tricia Staible:

Yeah, exactly. 

Laurie Barkman:

Not a good situation. 

Tricia Staible:

In the ensuing attempt at negotiation, we wanted to work with the customer. Unfortunately, our insurance company did not want us to work with the customer. We found out later, that’s because the insurance group as a whole had gotten together somewhat recently, and decided that they wanted to change the law in terms of what general liability policies covered versus other types of policies, and they decided our case was a prime target or candidate. That meant we fought two legal battles, but they were highly technical in that we had to get into the real engineering and different forcing functions that were at work within that fan, which meant I spent a lot of time with our engineers, which meant I gained all this knowledge in a short period of time. So I said it was fortuitous, and I really do see it that way, both because the legal result ended up being good, and also because I got the benefit of all that kind of condensed learning.

Laurie Barkman:

Wow. Yeah, you’re right. I mean, it’s a terrible situation, but fortuitous in the way that you could really get hands on in a technical way, and gain a lot of credibility. Not only because it was the nature of the work, but also such a high visibility and high impact situation for the company and in the two lawsuits, you have a law background, and it just sort of fit. Do you think that helped catapult you forward from this internal support when you were then getting tapped on the shoulder to say, “Hey, we’d like to promote you to President.”

Tricia Staible:

I think it helped. I had a few more steps in between. I moved back to Pennsylvania about nine years ago, and I think I started as VP of sales and marketing, and then I moved to executive VP and then president. There were a lot of relationships still to be built in key positions here in Pennsylvania. I think it’s hard as a family member, anytime you come into a family business, because everybody expects you to be like all of the other family members. Generally, in the worst ways, they’ve seen those other family members so you get kind of lumped into the not so pleasant characteristics. It took a lot of time, I think, to convince people that I wasn’t here to use the business to fund outside interests, and that I was going to lead in a way that was different from the leaders before me. 

Laurie Barkman:

What’s been different? How have you helped make your mark? Certainly, this is a 125 year old company, six generations so it’s not as if you’re starting from scratch here and at the same time you want to protect the legacy and represent it well. But then I’m sure you also want to make a difference, carving out some new territory, some new strategies, and what do you bring to the table? Let’s talk about that. How did you do that? Or what are you working on?

Tricia Staible:

I would say culturally, one of the big things for me was, I had to come into this with humility and from the perspective of I bring a certain set of skills, but I don’t bring all the skills that we need in order for this whole organization to succeed. So if that’s my perspective, I really want that similar perspective from others, so that everybody brings what they have to the table and then in working together, we go further, if you will. 

My grandfather was very hierarchical. My father is not but also did not necessarily shift the structure. I came in and decided I really wanted to shift that structure if it meant that in order to learn every component, I needed to work in every position. Sometimes it looked like I just moved offices all around the building and throughout the shop floor. Hey, whatever it took in order to build all of those relationships so that I had resources, and teammates to talk to when I had any sort of question that I felt like, I had enough knowledge that I could ask the right questions of them in any situation. So that’s the cultural component. 

Then in terms of the business strategy, all of the best laid plans can sometimes get waylaid by a good pandemic. But it also helped in some ways, because I think, strategically, I wanted us to be more balanced between aftermarket service, that sort of thing, more of the higher profit margin type work and then the new fan application, which we have chosen so far, to continue all of our manufacturing in the United States. We sell internationally, but the big equipment, the big, new, fancy, shiny equipment that we sell, is harder to ship internationally in a competitive way so we do a lot of that within North, Central and South America. 

To do that well, for us, it makes sense to have spread manufacturing, because it allows us to be fast on the aftermarket and emergency supply side, and also set up strategically for better shipping or transportation from those different facilities as well. So that’s been the business strategy and then also adding key components. So one of the first things I did when I became president was to acquire a company which at first looked like a really poor decision.

Laurie Barkman:

Why so?

Tricia Staible:

Well, we thought it was an ongoing business and then realized, “No, we just bought assets and now we’ve got to build a new business.”

Laurie Barkman:

Why was that, do you think?

Tricia Staible:

It was owned by a large public company and they had assured us that they had plenty of work to keep feeding that, and they’d been doing some onesie twosie work for other folks in that local area but because of the shift in the economy at the time, their work dried up. 

Laurie Barkman:

Do you still have this division in your company?

Tricia Staible:

We do, and they’ve been outpacing the rest of us in the last year and a half, thank goodness.

Laurie Barkman:

So it ended up being a good investment.

Tricia Staible:

It did.

Laurie Barkman:

Let’s talk about strategy. One of the things I’m fascinated with is legacy companies, very traditional or mature businesses that are dealing with transitions, whether it’s transitions of leadership, or transitions of the market. COVID put a lot of pressure on to really think about their operations, their processes. We had to shore up our safety and our financial balance sheets for a while, but then, as we were talking, we’re on the other side of it, with the benefit of hindsight. Now, as you look back to the last year/year and a half, what do you think are some of the strategic challenges that you faced, and how do you think it’s made your company better, and how have your values helped shape your strategy along the way?

Tricia Staible:

I think one of the things that we have had in place, at least as long as I’ve been here is this idea of teamwork. So this company that we acquired in 2016, I mentioned, has had orders going through the roof. Because we see ourselves as a team, as a whole, what we actually ended up doing was shifting their work and subbing it to what previously had been the real giant legacy company, in order to keep everybody working. We also had to navigate moving people around during the midst of COVID so that they could get to that facility, learn the work, and then bring that knowledge back, so that was important for us. I think what’s becoming apparent is that as we move forward, one of the resources we all need is labor. I think we’ve built an attractive team, and thankfully, that’s allowed us to add people at a time where it’s really hard to find people. That’s not to say it’s sufficient. We’re looking at other creative ways to add capacity as well, because you need to, but we’ve made sure that everybody here knows, they come first. 

I think, too, we’ve always created a culture of curiosity. I have mentioned, I ask a lot of questions and that’s really picked up here. Lots of people ask lots of questions, which is fantastic, because I think when you ask a lot of questions, you have the opportunity to find new solutions and we’ve watched that happen, too. So we’ve added technology that allows us greater efficiency in certain places too, and allows us not to be as concerned about some of the knowledge transfer as we were, if that makes sense.

Laurie Barkman:

Gotcha. What do you think about innovation? Here’s a 125 year old company, you can’t keep doing things the way you’ve been doing them. What would you point to in your company as something either you’re currently doing or you’re thinking of doing that you’d say, “Here’s an innovation, something we’re really focused on and working on to help make sure that our company is here for another 125 years,”?

Tricia Staible:

One of the things we’ve done, we provide testing for the fans and we had previously created our own test duct and then basically went to our Industry Association and said, “See? We’re doing testing better and look, this needs to be approved.” We’re getting all the data in a way that makes sense for our type of fans and we’ve been an ABA approved lab for all of that time. 

What’s fun is that in the last, say a year and a half, two years, we’ve actually changed the way we test. We started noticing that there were differences between the results we were getting and the results the association was getting so we dug into that. We corrected the way the association was doing it. We showed them a few factors that they didn’t realize were playing a role and then we used to have to take, I want to say 48 different points of data and we’re now getting that to one point of data just because we’ve changed the way we’re collecting it. So it’s a small thing on the scale of things, but it’s one area where we continue to ask questions, and we’re trying to do that across the board and in other walks as well.

Laurie Barkman:

Awesome. Well, as we round down our episode here, I’m going to ask you for quick answers. 

Tricia Staible:

Sure.

Laurie Barkman:

I call it the Fast Five, there might be six, but whatever.

Tricia Staible:

Okay.

Laurie Barkman:

What is something about you that I would be surprised to know?

Tricia Staible:

When I was younger I wanted to be a farmer’s wife and have 16 children. So I went to Amish farm camp. [Laughs]

Laurie Barkman:

[Laughs] Okay.

Tricia Staible:

Missed the mark, but oh, well.

Laurie Barkman:

If you could travel back in time, who would you have dinner with and why?

Tricia Staible:

This is such a tough one. I’m going to go with Elie Wiesel for now, because I would love to hear more of his life story.

Laurie Barkman:

How do you pay it forward?

Tricia Staible:

I think there are lots of ways. Whether it’s just anyone who comes across my path, and I try to invest in them and their progress, or it’s contributing to different nonprofits and being part of those sorts of things, or it’s being active in the community, because it’s a lot of fun, and you can contribute a lot in a short period of time.

Laurie Barkman:

Do you have a favorite quote?

Tricia Staible:

I do. It’s a long one, though. It’s the Teddy Roosevelt, ‘It’s not the critic who counts,” quote, I don’t know if others have used that.

Laurie Barkman:

A couple of people have said it, yeah.

Tricia Staible:

Yeah, definitely.

Laurie Barkman:

Why is that important to you? 

Tricia Staible:

Because you take a lot of shots when you’re in the lead, and just the reminder that it’s worth staying in the ring and continuing at it is an important one for me, especially lately.

Laurie Barkman:

Is there anything that you’d like to mention that I didn’t ask you about?

Tricia Staible:

It’s fun because you and I have talked a little bit about exploring other ways to make sure my type of business, whether it’s my family business, in particular, have the opportunity to continue to operate the way that we have and succeed in the future here in this country. I happen to see our country is really the best for economic opportunity and I want to make sure that that continues. So recently, I’ve been exploring different ways within the political realm to make sure that continues as well, pay it forward, make sure it continues for those who come after us.

Laurie Barkman:

Well, if you do decide anything, you’ll have to come back on the show, and we’ll talk more about that. 

Tricia Staible:

Well, thank you. Yeah. I’d love to.

Laurie Barkman:

If people want to connect with you, Tricia, what’s the best way for them to find you, or Robinson Fans online?

Tricia Staible:

Sure. Robinson fans online as RobinsonFans.com. We are on LinkedIn. We’re on Twitter. I don’t believe that we have a Facebook page yet, but the other two tend to be where we interact. We also have Robinson Service as a separate company on both of those. I think probably the best way to interact with me would be my email, which is tricia.staible@robinsonfans.com.

Laurie Barkman:

Awesome. Tricia, thank you so much for coming on. It’s great to talk to you today. 

Tricia Staible:

Absolutely. You too. Have a good one.

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