99: Succession of Culture After Tragedy Strikes, Jennifer Ake Marriott

by | Jul 25, 2022

Succession
Stories
Podcast

99: Succession of Culture After Tragedy Strikes, Jennifer Ake Marriott

by | Jul 25, 2022

How do you handle unexpected tragedy when an owner passes away? Jennifer Ake Marriott is the second generation President of Ake Environmental, a company founded by her father. She is also the CEO of Redmond Waltz, the first non-family leader of the privately held company.

Jenn joins host Laurie Barkman to share her experience with two companies that went through unexpected succession, what helped the companies move forward, and what derailed progress. This episode will help you think about business continuity and how to mitigate risks of an unexpected transition.

Listen in to learn more about:

  • Recovering from loss in a family business
  • Involving employees in the succession process
  • Handling changes in company culture
  • How small businesses can benefit from strategic plans 
  • Reducing disruption with process documentation
  • Why it’s important to have conversations around succession planning

Show Links:

jmarriott@redmondwaltz.com

https://redmondwaltz.com/

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Transcript:

Laurie Barkman:

Welcome to Succession Stories! I’m Laurie Barkman. As an exit value planning and M&A advisor, I call myself The Business Transition Sherpa. This podcast guides entrepreneurs from transition to transaction- from building value in your business to letting go. 

What do I do when I’m not hosting a podcast? I work with owners to maximize business value with my firm, SmallDotBig. And as a Certified Mergers and Acquisitions Advisor with Stony Hill, I guide you through the complex process of selling your company.

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Intro:

Jennifer Ake Marriott is the second generation President of Ake Environmental, a company founded by her father. She is also the CEO of Redmond Waltz, serving as the first non-family leader of the privately held company. Jenn joined me to talk about an important topic: how to handle the unexpected tragedy when an owner passes away. Jennifer shares her experience with two companies that went through unexpected succession, her insights as to what helped the companies move forward, and what derailed progress. We also discussed what you can do today to mitigate risks like documenting key processes and strategic planning. Nobody’s expecting a tragedy to happen or for succession to happen as a result of a death. Perhaps this episode will help you think about business continuity and how to mitigate risks of an unexpected transition. Enjoy my conversation about the succession of culture after tragedy strikes with Jennifer Ake Marriott.

Laurie Barkman:

Jennifer Ake Marriott, thank you so much for joining me today on Succession Stories. People often ask me how I find my guests so I thought I’d start with that little story of how you and I met recently in Cleveland, Ohio. I was a guest speaker in your Vistage group hosted by Christy Lyras and we had a great workshop. At the end of it, you said, “I would love to tell the story about the companies I work with,” so I’ll just tee it up briefly, as a way to introduce you and as a way to introduce this topic. You are the CEO of a company and a president of another company, and these two, as I mentioned in the introduction of the show, these two businesses had a tragedy. You’ve been involved to support both businesses after the tragedy, before and after in one of them, and we’re going to talk about the tragedy, but I’m going to tee up the concept of why you and I got connected for today and why we think this is an important topic for the audience, and that is because sometimes in businesses, things happen that we don’t control. This particular story, it’s about death, it’s about unexpected death, and it’s sad, but as a business, we need to move forward, and so in the perspective of business transition, contingency planning, and thinking about future exit, it really ties in well with the show. I’m so excited you’re here, and thank you in advance for sharing your story.

Jennifer Ake Marriott:

Oh, well, I’m really pleased to be here, and I so appreciate being asked. I’m very excited to talk about this.

Laurie Barkman:

Let’s start with the companies. I think if you share a little bit about the first company, which is a family business, AKE Environmental, tell us a little bit about the company, and how you came into it, and then we’ll get into the tragedy that you faced.

Jennifer Ake Marriott:

AKE Environmental was started by my dad Sam in 1970 and he was predating the EPA, but he saw this need that local health departments needed people that were going to do analysis of drinking water and wastewater so he started this business to do that. His father was an engineer that worked in that area as a public engineer and so he had a sort of working knowledge of that sort of industry so he started the company. Then the EPA is formed and suddenly now there is a legal need for the services of people to operate drinking water facilities and wastewater facilities and do the analysis, so that’s the beginning of the business. 

Eventually, it grew to include a lot of other services that are sort of related, that were very heavy equipment oriented, that had to do with construction, and trucking, all kinds of stuff but that was the genesis of the business and my dad’s business partner was his little sister and I began working for the company in a formal way. I mean, the reality is in a family business, you always work there. You’re just there, but in a formal way, about 2000-2001. I came in to do marketing. 

The company had been really successful, almost in spite of itself, because it was this built in, you have to have it. This is a legal requirement and it’s such a niche service, that there’s just not a lot of people that do it so my dad never really advertised, they never really did anything like that and he decided that, “This website thing is new. Maybe we should have a website, maybe we should have marketing, maybe our sales process should be something other than just answering the phone,” so I came in and I was doing stuff on the side as a part time job and I sort of was parked in the office next to my aunt. My dad was the sales guy. He was the brand ambassador, the client person. He’s an entrepreneur, sees opportunity everywhere, a total optimist. My aunt, she was the administrator aside, she was everything else and to a large degree, she was kind of the ballast in the company that sort of kept things grounded so if my dad was the fuel, she was the motor and that’s kind of how they worked. 

I worked next to her, and got to know generally what she was doing. I knew what she was responsible for, for sure and so then,we had this event, in 2002, and I just happened to be there. My aunt left work on a Friday, and died Saturday morning at age 50. She had had heart problems her whole life, the family chose not to do an autopsy to find out what really happened. That’s assuming that’s what happened to her, but certainly she didn’t leave Friday thinking that she wasn’t going to be back so if you can imagine your desk on a Friday afternoon, what it looks like. That’s what her desk looked like and so that’s kind of the role that I ended up stepping into, because there was just nobody else.

Laurie Barkman:

Well, let me just pause there and just say, I’m so sorry to hear about that tragedy. I know it’s some time ago and your family has had time to heal. How old were you? Roughly?

Jennifer Ake Marriott:

I was 31.

Laurie Barkman:

You were in your 30s. Your dad was older than his sister, right?

Jennifer Ake Marriott:

Yeah, several years older.

Laurie Barkman:

He was in his mid 50s and what a shock. How many employees were in the company at the time?

Jennifer Ake Marriott:

Around 25. Classic small business size, I guess. Yeah, there were about 25 employees and we had a lot of different service lines and so there were some people that were highly specific, and then other people that could kind of cross over into a lot of different things. 

Laurie Barkman:

So she goes home on Friday, everybody’s thinking that okay, see you Monday, right? We all say that “see you Monday”. She never returned. There’s shock and grief and mourning that happens in any business, not just a family business, but this was your family, did the company shut down? What happened in the weeks following?

Jennifer Ake Marriott:

We did shut down on the day of her funeral but the reality is, because the services that we provide, some of the services that our core service line is providing EPA required inspections, that’s a legal requirement and there are legal time constraints on when that can be done and it has to be non-consecutive, or non-consecutive days when it’s done and for a certain amount of time. The EPA doesn’t care if you’re sick, or if something happens, it just has to be done so there were people that we figured it out somehow, I don’t really remember how but, we certainly took a pause out of respect for my aunt but there was also just sort of a chaotic busyness that went on of like, “Oh, my God, we gotta figure this out” and it was a payroll week and she did payroll. I mean, it was like, you had to figure that out, too.

Laurie Barkman:

Payroll needed to be run and the business needed to run EPA regulations. We got to do business as usual. Oh, my goodness, I can’t even imagine the shock and how you come back into that situation. What did your dad do, if you put yourself back in his shoes at that time, if you can remember. What did he go through and pick up the pieces so to speak, how did he start moving forward in a way that gave the business continuity and what was your role in that?

Jennifer Ake Marriott:

Thinking back, he hovered. He was highly attentive to everyone he was grieving in a way that only he seemed to…he was in constant motion. I remember that. There was just a lot of fear of, “What am I going to do? I don’t know what she did. She just handled things,” but also that emotional part of it of his little sister. It’s so funny you asked that, this is an obvious question that I should probably know the answer to, and I don’t exactly know, other than he was really concerned. I think he knew that we were going to figure out a way out of it, because that is inherently who he is. He’s like a “there’s a solution to every problem” kind of person but the how of it was totally unknown and the grief almost got put to the side, I think, in a large degree, because there were clearly people in the company wondering, and this is not a bad thing, but, “What’s going to happen to me? What’s going to happen to my job?” And so those things needed to be attended to. It was a very fraught moment and I think that instinctively, he did the right thing, which was being highly visible and showing up and communicating, checking in with people. It’s a small business, we had long time employees, so everybody was grieving. It wasn’t easy, it was hard, really hard.  

Laurie Barkman:

I can’t even imagine. Here you are, you’re 30, you’ve come in as a marketing role and you know marketing, because you’re in the marketing role, right? That’s what brought you in, and that’s what you’re doing. What did he ask you to do? How could you help him? How did you help him?

Jennifer Ake Marriott:

He didn’t even know what to ask me to do. The first problem was payroll. That was the immediate thing, we got to get checks out to people. I had some bookkeeping experience so I could figure out some of that stuff but it was really a research project in so many ways, in that everything that was on her desk, I studied every Post-It, I kept those Post-Its, I kept her desk pad, I kept everything for at least two years. Every piece of mail that came in. I didn’t have a context for a lot of things. I didn’t know how important one thing was compared to another thing, necessarily, some things you do, but some things I didn’t, and it’s one of the issues that happens in a closely held family business is that there aren’t committed written processes or there isn’t a documentation for some of the activity that goes on, because you’re talking about it all the time and you see these people all the time and so it doesn’t feel necessary, feels redundant, and you don’t have time for that anyway, because you’re wearing five other hats. 

Coming in, on the backside of that, and not having a roadmap for really anything, it was a real learning process, and then trying to interpret what she was doing within something. It’s challenging. We got through it, and also to allow yourself a little grace, you don’t know everything, balls will be dropped, you just hope that they’re not the big ones and chances are, they’re not going to be because the big ones are really obvious. It’s the little things that, “Oh, I’m the one that orders the letterhead? Oh, and we’re out?” It’s a small business so she was doing a lot of stuff and yeah, you figure it out, you just figure it out.

Laurie Barkman:

So there’s the immediacy of it, “Oh, my gosh, we gotta get payroll,” and then there’s this transitional period, and then there’s the longer term. If we flash forward to other people getting involved, did you hire someone to replace the roles? You said she wore five hats. How did you end up doing it? How did you end up documenting the roles that she played on the agenda, splitting them into roles that other people would handle? Did you end up taking on some of those things or outsourcing? How did you end up doing it?

Jennifer Ake Marriott:

Some of those things did have to be split off. We have a lab, an in house lab that runs analyses. Her background was in biology. She was in charge of the lab. She was filling in doing analysis if lab techs were out. I don’t have that background. I don’t know any of that stuff so there were some pretty immediate promotions that happened in the lab but that was pretty much it. It was really up to me to kind of figure things out and the thing that I learned that I didn’t know is that if my father was the fuel and my aunt was the the engine, she was also acting as a considerable break, and that she had constructed her role. It was wide in scope, but it was limited in time, she worked about 20 hours a week and she volunteered a lot. 

She was active in her kids’ school, she had built the life that she wanted for herself and so she was a limiting factor on a lot of my dad’s ideas and things that he wanted to do but I am my father’s daughter, so I step into this role, and I immediately see opportunity and like, “Oh, my God, why are we not doing this? Why are we not doing that? We could do this,” and I got very excited and my dad got very excited, because suddenly it’s like, “Oh, things are possible.” I didn’t realize that, and it is so important. I think in succession, especially in small business, we tend to think of succession in terms of a job, or a role. We really got to think about the succession of the culture and what I didn’t realize is that the culture, the people within the business that we’re working there,they both are formed by and inform the culture that exists and weirdly, no one was that hot for things to change, or to do more, or to be bigger. 

My dad and I were, nobody else, not so much. Things were going well, “What are we doing this for?” Add on to that, I’m the daughter, I’m a kid, I’m whatever, there was I was put into this leadership position, and it didn’t matter. I segwayed into his leadership position, it didn’t matter like how often I was right or that I was right at all. I had no credibility and people were not that into where I was leading them and there were a lot of challenges along the way that I just didn’t perceive at all and I was too inexperienced to know that this is a really important component. That succession is not just about who’s going to do that job. It’s about understanding that, especially in a leadership role, it’s about the company as a whole and who’s in it and looking back, had we had conversations with key people early on, and brought them in to what the plan was, I think things could have been a lot different. At least we would have known sooner that we were going to have issues. We didn’t do that, it didn’t occur to us to do that.

Laurie Barkman:

Was it more sudden? Was it within the first year, first six months, or three months?

Jennifer Ake Marriott:

First couple years. The first year to two years, I was still just doing my marketing stuff and I was filling in the task responsibility gap that my aunt had left behind. About two, three years in and my dad wanted to make my role official and permanent and so I became vice president. That was probably the first sort of like inkling, some of the people, not all the people I know, it’s not everybody, but there were a few key people that were they were my dad’s people, that they were not ready to have anybody else be in charge, other than my dad and my dad started taking a step back so that I can take step forward and that was, it was awful. It was really emotional. It was challenging. It just was really, really hard. We made a lot of mistakes in that way and so it was a transition over the years to the total leadership position and to becoming president didn’t happen until, I want to say 2007 but, it sort of went in this incremental way that seemed very natural and slow. 

Laurie Barkman:

Yeah, it was over a period of years. It was over time, and thank you for sharing this. It has come up on the show a couple of other times. When I do ask people about how they came into the company and if they’re a next gen like yourself, whether they’re second or third, etc. And everybody’s story is a little bit different and I can appreciate when things go well, that’s awesome and I can appreciate when things don’t go well, we learn so much when things don’t necessarily go the way we would have liked. If you were going to put yourself back with your dad that time, what do you think could have made a difference with his people? Don’t try to paraphrase what you said, yeah, they were long term employees that maybe he had hired? Do you think there would have been anything that you guys could have done differently to help them? Or do you think that no matter what you would have done, they just saw things the way they saw things?

Jennifer Ake Marriott:

I think looking back, had we brought some of those key people in, and I think that that’s really important. Recognize who are the people that are making your company go now, and just understand that if it’s going to go after you’re gone, you need them also and if they are not part of getting there, you’re not doing anybody any favors and I think that had we early on, brought in those key people and just had a meeting, even one meeting might have made a difference to just talk about, “Here’s what’s going on, here’s what we’re going to do, here’s the plan, how does everybody feel?” Because ultimately, their feelings, their perception of how things are going, is incredibly important. I got sandbagged in so many different ways, because people were resistant, that had I been able, or had the opportunity to enroll them in a different idea, empower them in a different idea, who knows what would have been different?

Eventually, those people are not here anymore. You learn that lesson, too, that is sort of like, “Well, there’s a couple of ways I can fix this culture,” but if the culture, the culture needed to change, it was going to change, and there were some people that were resistant to change, and eventually, they were just gone. I don’t know, I think in retrospect, that could have happened sooner, perhaps I could have, I would have–an older version of me would have tried less, I think, for a shorter period of time but I think definitely those initial conversations to get people in, and just to give them a degree of awareness of what the plan is, where they figure into the plan, and how you got there giving them some context as to, “I’m not there in a leadership role, just because I’m his kid.” My credentials go a little deeper than that.

It’s funny, years later, when I came to my next company, somebody said to me, “You’re the first non-family member to run this business,” and I said, “Well, that’s really interesting to me. Tell me, why does that feel important to you?” I said, “Because I’m in a family business and to me, I feel like, who knows more about the company, we talk about it at Christmas and Thanksgiving. I’ve been in this my whole life,” and he’s like, he didn’t really have a great answer, but it made me realize, like, Yeah, the thing that we think is family, people that are in family businesses, the outside world is not looking at you like that, they’re looking at you, and you do have an advantage, but they’re looking at you as having more of an advantage than maybe you do.

Laurie Barkman:

Interesting. The way you phrased it too was, I think, insightful. Succession of the culture, that has come up in conversation on the show a number of times, that it isn’t necessarily about one person, but it’s about the vision of the company and how you pull people forward. You obviously went through a lot of change with Ake Environmental, the company, you’re still involved with it. You’re still involved in it and you’re wearing two hats. You mentioned this other company and of course, I mentioned it in your introduction so let’s switch gears and let’s talk about Redmond Waltz. How did you come into Redmond Waltz? It comes back to Vistage in your connection message but let’s share how you came into Redmond Waltz, why your learnings from your experience with Ake Environmental, were related to that and share a little bit about the company if you will.

Jennifer Ake Marriott:

Sure. Reverend Waltz is another family business owned by the Wagner family. It started in 1946. It’s an electric motor repair business, so if you think of the large size AC DC motors that you would find in a steel mill or a forging plant or metal stamper, manufacturing processes writ large. They’re in downtown Cleveland. They’ve been there since well, since the beginning, since 1946 and their owner, Lorry Wagner is somebody that I knew through Vistage. He was a friend in Vistage, although I knew him in his role as he was the president of another company called LEEDCo. 

LEEDCo was this organization that was creating a pilot project but it was for offshore windLake Erie. It was a huge, huge project and he was leading that incredibly complicated, difficult work. Really challenging. It was a kind of thing where it’s like the deadline’s Friday for this 500 page submission to the Department of Energy for this, that and the other, designing a grid. It’s like, complicated, complicated. 

In the spring of 2013, his wife died very suddenly and it was one of these terrible stories that we hear about where she had some symptoms of, I think, some back pain, and sort of put it to the side, chalked it up to any number of things and finally, it got persistent enough that she went to get it checked out and it turned out that she had cancer and within like, six weeks, she had died so it was very sudden, in fact, so sudden that the employees when I spoke to them later, many of them only found out that she had had cancer, that she had cancer, like the week before she died, so when she died, it was really, really shocking. 

So, Lorry, my friend, his wife dies and I did what you do with your business friends, your business colleagues, and I sent a note that said, ‘let me know if there’s anything I can do,’ and I don’t know what exactly I was offering to do. In my mind, is it like a phone call? Am I making copies? Like, I don’t know what I thought that was gonna look like but anyway, he got back to me at some point, I don’t know if it was immediately, sort of fuzzy on the timeline of things but he got back to me and he said that he needed somebody to run his family’s business and I didn’t really know much about it and so we got together, and we talked about it and here was this company that did industrial services, where the owner dies and they had gone through financial difficulty, my own family business 2008 to 2010 were really rough years for our company, so I’d been there, had gone through a lot of financial difficulties, owner dies, everything sort of lined up, like all the experiences were like, “Oh, yeah, well, I already did that. I know how to do this,” and so we had some more discussions about it, and through those discussions, I sort of decided, like, “Well, let me take a look.” This was the thing that was…charmed seems like too small of a word for this, but I was just enchanted by the fact that the boss dies, and people just kept coming to work. I found this to be incredible. 

If there was ever a time to jump ship, of your financially struggling company that you work for and everybody knew the financial struggles, nobody would fault you for walking out the door but nobody did. They were still there. They were still working and Lorry was doing his best to kind of manage this from afar but he had these totally consuming other things besides the fact of grieving and all of that stuff, high school aged children, it was really awful and so somebody really needed to be in charge and he knew that it was struggling, he didn’t know, to the degree that it was struggling. At the time, in the beginning, he sort of felt like, “I need somebody to close it up, fix it up. I don’t really know. I don’t know what’s there. It’s too emotional and I don’t want to look at it really,” so I said, “Okay, well, let me take a look,” and I stepped in, and I just went there like a couple times a week for like a month and dug around and talked to people and saw that it was struggling. It was a lot worse than he thought it was, but it was saveable. The math worked. There wasn’t a reason why this couldn’t go, and I told him that, and so we came to a decision. I started coming in part time, kept my role as president at my own company, and was coming there on a part time basis and then eventually segwayed into becoming CEO and that’s kind of where we are now.

Laurie Barkman:

Amazing. If we pull on the thread of succession of culture, learning what you learned from your family business, now you’re stepping into this other company that had a crisis, right? How did the first experience help you in that first year as you thought about succession of culture?

Jennifer Ake Marriott:

Well, there’s one thing that’s a big difference and Redmond was I mean, the wolves were at the door. This was not a great situation. In a lot of ways that made it so much easier because people were on board that something wasn’t working and maybe people are usually generally good with change, as long as it’s out there and it’s not like, “Oh, me,” but for the most part, they didn’t know what needed to change, but they knew what was happening wasn’t working so they were a little bit more open, there was that. That is one difference. At Ake things were going well, so I was sort of upsetting the status quo at that point but the difference that I made between each was first of all, I was introduced differently. I came in, and because I was introduced by the owner of the company that had a lot of credibility, had credibility with everyone and he introduced me as the new leader and I wasn’t related, I suddenly had more credibility than I think maybe even his wife did. His wife came in there and I think that there were certain things that she was maybe never given latitude to do.

There was also inherently, we know this is a do over, it’s a new person and man, is there power in the do over, you get to just wipe the slate clean. What I wanted to do, though, and what I saw as important was the thing that also didn’t happen at my company was really talking to people, understanding their perception of what was going on, understanding what they knew their role to be, and then also getting to hear the mythology because there are the facts and then there are the facts, as everybody knows them and that mythology, whatever the story was, the company story was really important that I know that because, if that’s the wisdom, if that’s what everybody thinks, that’s got to be addressed at some point so I needed to understand that. 

I also want to understand why people were there, this is struggling company, you know, and the idea of people saying, well, it’s a job, and it’s like, yeah, there’s lots of jobs, why here and understanding what that was, you know, it was it takes time, you got to be able to if you’re invested in changing a culture, and I knew immediately, that’s what it was, because the math could work. So it was the culture that wasn’t working. I knew immediately that’s what had to be done. If that’s what has to be done, then first, let me respect it enough to take the time to see where we are, and how we got there because businesses don’t fail overnight. This was one of those situations where one choice is made and it leads to this succession of ever narrowing choices and the narrower it gets, the worse they are and in so many ways, I would say that Redmond in a lot of ways, they are there, it worked. Hats off, it worked but now how do we go for it, so just understanding that, hearing people’s stories, understanding what they understood their role to be what they thought was wrong, where they thought the wrong turns where things are really important to get to the bottom of and trying to decipher what needs to be fixed and then understanding those key people that if I didn’t have those key people invested in what I was doing, if they didn’t want to be on my side, didn’t matter how talented I was, or how smart I was, are all the things I knew to do. It just wasn’t going to matter so investing the time to research and get to know people. Having that respect for the organization, I think, is really important. That was the first step.

Laurie Barkman:

Really important, and I’d call that the listening tour. Listening, asking good questions, and really trying to understand what could be different? How did we get to that point, right? I reflect back to the workshop where we met and if you remember, I had the flip chart and I wrote up the word transition on the flip chart and I asked everyone in the room, we went around the room a few times, we had probably 30 words up there. What comes to mind when I say the word transition, and not surprisingly, in your session, like many, the word change comes up. 

One of the most recent episodes I did was with Deena Chochinov, she’s a therapist, and she works at family businesses and so she’s episode 96 and one of the things she said about the difference in her head and her mind of change versus transition, is that change is an action oriented thing and it happens and we take action on it and she said transition, let’s call that more from the head and the hands and she said transition for her is more about from the heart and it and it happens over time and so here we have two situations where there was change, there was a death, right there was an immediate change in action and the first example that of your case study that you shared here with Ake Environmental, the transition did happen over time with you rising into your into your role as Vice President then as president over time. In this situation, the business transition in and of itself with Redmond Waltz, and its decline, it wasn’t a thriving business and then plus they had this dramatic change in leadership so in both cases though there was a change, and then there was a transition and it seems to me that because of your experience with the one, you were really helpful in the other and it didn’t matter if you were a family business member or not. You were the leader that they needed at that time. Right place, right time to help them get through and on the path to a successful sustainable transition. It was a turnaround, right? This was like they had a lot of debt. The creditors when you said the wolves were knocking, you’re talking about the creditors, right? 

Jennifer Ake Marriott:

Oh, yeah. I mean, in a literal sense. There were almost no vendor relationships. We were cash on delivery for everything which, yeah, it was a rough spot. It was tough. It was very tough.

Laurie Barkman:

How many years now has it been since you joined Redmond Waltz?

Jennifer Ake Marriott:

It’ll be nine years this year. Officially, I think it’s like when I actually signed a contract was in 2014 but I first went there in September of 2013.

Laurie Barkman:

Amazing, and we can presume that business has been turned around. It’s a healthy business and you’ve helped it grow?

Jennifer Ake Marriott:

Yeah, we’ve grown, we’ve almost tripled, we actually have fewer employees but revenue has tripled, we’re profitable. All that debt, especially the scariest ones–if you think of agencies that would have personal leverage over you–those are out of the picture so it went from being a really sad place to a very happy place.

Laurie Barkman:

A thriving place and a credit to you and your leadership team. I know, that’s not an easy thing. hindsight is 2020 and I think you have so many lessons learned here to share for the audience. If we were going to summarize some and say to the audience, this episode, just high level, what is it about? It’s about de-risking the business, right? If we want to kind of summarize it that way, and the risks that you’ve identified with contingency planning, with documenting, there’s so many things, I’m sure you could say, as recommendations, but what would be some of the top things you would recommend a business owner should do immediately, you know, in the next 30 days, 90 days, what should they do to de risk the business, given your experience?

Jennifer Ake Marriott:

I think that and especially for small businesses, because in small businesses, there are not a lot of layers, or there’s no layer. It’s like two layers. They don’t have, like a larger business, when they start to have succession, they can think that they’re going to pull Jenkins, from Indianapolis is going to come down HQ or whatever it is making up for it but for small business, thinking in those terms, there’s a bunch of things that would have helped, one would be you even having like a one page strategic plan. Something like that would have been incredibly helpful for me. 

I think in both companies it would have been helpful, it would have helped me to understand what I was stepping into, in a small business, especially if it’s a family business, or a closely held business, like I said, these kinds of like a strategic point, you’re talking all the time or who are you having that plan with yourself? It seems sort of like this redundant task but even if it doesn’t totally get followed, it at least gives someone the idea of, “Here’s what I’m thinking about. Here’s what I’m striving for. The SWOT analysis.” Oh, man, if I could have understood the weaknesses, or the threats, that my aunt 20 years in the business perceived, it would have saved me a ton of time, it would have saved me a ton of time to not have to discover that on my own. 

I’d say the second thing is just start having that conversation. If something were to happen to you, who’s the owner? That should obviously already be spelled out somewhere in your corporate documents but if that person is not already inside the business, even if they are inside the business, who are the key people in your company that you need right now and you’re going to need on the backside? I think bringing those people in, having those conversations once a year even to just say, “By the way, if something were to happen to me, this is what’s going to happen.” Something happening to me might not be that you die, could be just incapacitated so that kind of thing is really important. I think that having that plan to just lay it out for people and then the last thing I would say, would be, a lot of small businesses have what I used to refer to as the oral tradition, just everything is spoken, nothing is really documented. As much documentation as as possible, yes, the strategic plan, but also little things like on your accounting, on your monthly notes, maybe make notes for those big purchases, or those things that are sort of out of the norm,just being a little bit more distributed, leave breadcrumbs, tell the story so that if somebody’s walking in, they know what was happening, those things I think, are really important in the face of disaster that you can do right now, right away.

Laurie Barkman:

That’s great, great insight. I really appreciate how you’ve shared your story. I know it’s probably hard for people to think about–we do say that every one of us is going to leave our business one day and so many of us are thinking, “Oh, yeah, it’s down the road,” but we don’t control everything, and the five Ds of the what businesses can face in terms of business transition, these are derailleurs, the five Ds, death being one of them, and so we’ve been able to focus on that today and I really do appreciate you coming on and sharing your story. I ask all of my guests, if they have a favorite quote, or anything that inspires them, what’s something that you think about?

Jennifer Ake Marriott:

I do have a favorite quote, which is the Winston Churchill quote, of when you’re going through, hell keep going. That’s a motivating thing for me that I know that when things seem really bleak, or when things have seemed really bleak, taking action, just not stopping, not allowing myself any kind of paralysis. That keeps the momentum going of solving a problem but I will say that in both businesses, something that we say all the time, and it’s a mantra, it’s really important to all of us here and especially important to me, and that is that we are big on happiness, my happiness, and your happiness. If you’re not happy at this job, there’s no way I’m going to be happy, we are dependent upon each other bBut just to recognize a full time job is 2080 hours a year, it’s a lot of time, and it’s a lot of time to spend someplace that you don’t love, or that is mediocre or that is draining you psychically and to recognize that, that if you’re going to spend that much time somewhere, you better love it. You should minimally like it, but you should love it. Not necessarily love every task, but love the experience and I think that keeping people aware of that that’s part of this, yes, making money but who wants to be miserable making money? I don’t know. It’s just not worth it. It’s not worth it. Those are the things that get said a lot at my company and you can count on Churchill for a lot of different things. A lot of different inspiring quotes for sure.

Laurie Barkman:

Yeah, for sure. Jenn, if people want to get in touch with you, what’s the best way to do that?

Jennifer Ake Marriott:

Email is probably the best way. J Marriott, two r’s two t’s just like the hotel, at Redmond Waltz. 

Laurie Barkman:

Awesome. Thanks again for sharing your stories and insights and being with me today on Succession Stories. 

Jennifer Ake Marriott:

Thank you, Laurie. I appreciate it.

Laurie Barkman:

Listeners, thank you so much for tuning in. You can always catch Succession Stories on any of your favorite podcast players or YouTube. Don’t forget to like and subscribe to the show! If you want to maximize the value of your business and plan for future transition, reach out to me for a complimentary assessment at meetlauriebarkman.com. Tune in next week for more insights from transition to transaction. Until then…here’s to your success.

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