When Family-Business Owners Don’t Want to Retire

This is a great article by Clare Ansberry in the Wall St Journal.  7 in 10 baby boomers plan to work past the age of 65, where do their children fit in? “At what point does the senior generation reap the reward of all their work? When do they retire?” Often, he says, the answer is “never.” – David Harland, Managing Director of FINH

Carl Staible, 69, is chief executive and the fifth generation of his family to run Robinson Fans, which makes industrial fans that weigh as much as an 18-wheeler, in a small town in Pennsylvania.

Tricia Staible, his 36-year-old daughter representing the sixth generation, is president.

They have different temperaments and management styles. She is impatient. He is measured. She favors teams and an open-air cubicle. He occupies the office of his late father-in-law, who ran the company for 40 years, and is more comfortable with traditional chains of command.

He has no plans to retire.

She says it is ticklish trying to figure how they both can remain relevant and avoid stepping on each other’s toes. “The hard part is, he has a legacy at Robinson,” says Ms. Staible. “It isn’t that I don’t value what he has done, I want to do things differently.”

In the 125 years since Robinson was founded by an immigrant from England and his son, the company has navigated the Depression, a few recessions and many booms and busts in industrial America.

Yet what Mr. Staible marvels at most is that it survived the tussles between generations about who would run the company, how and when. “It is a miracle, really,” says Mr. Staible.

Almost seven in 10 baby boomers plan to work past the age of 65. That means a lot of family businesses are dealing with parents who aren’t ready to retire, and their children who aren’t sure when and if they will ever run the show on their own.

“This is an age-old question in family business,” says Wayne Rivers, president and co-founder of the consulting firm Family Business Institute. “At what point does the senior generation reap the reward of all their work? When do they retire?” Often, he says, the answer is never.

It can be especially difficult when their identity is entwined in the business, as is frequently the case when the parent is the founder, he says. But it happens in subsequent generations, too. He recalls one third-generation son whose dad let him run 75% of the business, but the son never knew on any given day what 25% dad was going to run. The dad wintered in Florida but would come home to see the son had settled in his old office, or had fired one of his dad’s valued lieutenants, and then erupt.

Tom Hubler, a consultant in Minneapolis, thinks more family businesses are grappling with this tension because baby boomers are reaching or have reached prime retirement age. “Baby boomers have a tremendous work ethic,” Mr. Hubler says.

They gained expertise over decades through daily interactions with customers, vendors and employees. Their offspring, as bright as they are, don’t have that experience. It is hard to turn things over until they are comfortable the children know what they are doing.

Robinson Fans is remarkable in at least two ways. First, it’s 125 years old, and second, it’s in its sixth generation. Most companies don’t last beyond 20 years, and only 3% of family-owned businesses make it to the fourth generation, according to the Family Business Institute.

For more than a century, Robinson has been a fixture in the small town of Zelienople, population 3,800, about 30 miles north of Pittsburgh. Many of the family’s neighbors and fellow church members worked here, as did their parents and grandparents, building fans that helped power locomotives and allowed commodity giants to dig the world’s deepest mines. The narrow hallway outside of Mr. Staible’s office is lined with photos of employees like Roy McWithey, who was honored at the company’s 1988 Christmas party for his 56 years of service. For decades, watches have been presented to 25-year employees. Workers receive a Thanksgiving turkey and gather with their families in a local park for an annual summer picnic.

A family affair

Mr. Staible, who calls himself a SLOB—Son-in-Law Of the Boss—joined the company in 1979 after marrying Nancy, the daughter of then-president James Henderson. The couple met in Denver, where Nancy was working as a physician assistant and where Carl was born and raised and was working in electrical sales. He knew nothing about fans. Having lived out West, with its wide expanse, mountains and blue skies, he was apprehensive about moving to Zelienople, known historically for coal and its annual Horse Trading festival. “It took getting used to this gray dome,” he says.

It was also intimidating. His father-in-law was a brilliant engineer, and domineering. When Mr. Staible proposed opening a facility out West, the answer was no. He persevered for 10 years before getting a yes—and experienced what younger generations face when suggesting something new. Eventually, the Staible family bought others out and is now majority owner.

Tricia Staible, a lawyer, was working at a firm in Utah that helped structure the sale. While she enjoyed being at the firm, she was drawn to the tightknit culture of the family business. Then 28, she began working in Robinson’s Utah facility, learning about fans and rotor dynamics, something that would have been harder doing in Zelienople. “Everyone would be watching me here,” she says.

Four years later, Mr. Staible, then 65 and thinking down the road about succession, said she should move to Zelienople to be closer to the main operations. “On one hand, I was ready for new adventure,” says Ms. Staible, who was named vice president of sales and general counsel. “On the other hand, I only packed what I could fit into my car because I wasn’t convinced it would be a long-term deal.”

Immediately, their differences emerged. “The younger folk all have more enthusiasm and are more willing to risk,” says Mr. Staible. “It does create a little tension there.”

When asked if she followed in her father’s footsteps after she arrived, he answers for her: “No.”

“That’s not my M.O.,” says Ms. Staible.

More of a collaborator, she initiated a team management structure. She didn’t have the decades of experience to be a top-down manager and isn’t comfortable with that style, either. Her father was wary. A consultant had proposed adopting a team structure years earlier, but it didn’t catch on. “It was too big of a change for our people at that time,” Mr. Staible says, adding, “I suppose you can say we’re still wondering.”

His daughter says, “We’re still working to implement it for sure.” She has heard people say that the company is changing more rapidly now that she is here. Some people are comfortable with that and others aren’t, or they may be confused about whom they report to.

As CEO, he is in charge of long-term strategy. Now president, she runs the daily operations, technically reporting to him. Still, it is hard to draw the lines.

When they bought a new business in Florida, which is part of a long-term strategy but also included many operational questions, like who would run it and who would train them, Mr. Staible got more involved in helping it get up and running. Sometimes they step on each other’s toes, relaying the same information to their chief financial officer.

“Who does what every day and how both of us can still feel that we are adding value to what we are doing is the tricky part,” says Ms. Staible. It can mean anything, such as who talks to the customers, the vendors and the suppliers.

For Mr. Staible, the big tension is the hesitation of older generations to move into something different, something that he experienced as the younger generation with his father-in-law and sees himself doing in responding to his daughter.

When asked if she would like to expand overseas, Ms. Staible says, “Perhaps eventually.”

“After I’m gone,” says her father. He says, “The younger generation wants to try new things and rather than the older generation jumping on board and riding it, the younger generation has to prod and encourage and even sometimes fight to get that through.”

Part of it might be protecting turf, he says, but another is concern about moving quickly into higher-risk areas. “Older generations have the experience and hopefully the wisdom to say, ‘Slow down,’ ” he says.

A big acquisition

A case in point: Soon after being named president by a succession committee made up of independent board members, Ms. Staible wanted to buy a fabrication shop in Florida that had been one of their vendors, and that served some of the same industries, but with different products, such as piping and tanks. She saw it as a relatively safe way to diversify.

“She was very enthusiastic from the very beginning and I was—let’s just say less enthusiastic,” Mr. Staible says. It meant having to borrow money, and while not a huge amount, it was still borrowing and venturing into a new line of business, and would require someone to run it.

“I wasn’t saying stop, but I was saying let’s go slowly,” he says.

She presented the idea to the board, which includes both her parents. The board had many concerns and laid out criteria that needed to be met. Mr. Staible and his wife, Nancy, who is secretary of the board, went down to see the property and assets and were encouraged. The proposal went through several iterations, says Mr. Staible, and was accepted.

It was Robinson’s first acquisition of another company’s assets, and Ms. Staible’s first move as president. “It is going well,” her father says. “It has great upside potential.”

They meet weekly to talk about pressing business issues, such as the progress with the new acquisition, additions to the executive committee and long-term strategy. Ms. Staible wants to expand the company but also feels the importance of preserving the family legacy, and offering opportunity for workers.

As family, it is hard to separate emotions and not take things personally, especially when their styles are so different, with Ms. Staible being quick to make a decision and Mr. Staible being one to ponder, and both getting frustrated with each other.

“I’m often in the middle,” says Nancy Staible, as was her mother before her. “Those things you need to air with someone else.”

The message is always, she says, “Family comes first before the business.”

Mr. Staible is not ready to retire and doesn’t have a set date to do so. “It is something I think about and apparently a lot of other people do, too. They ask me, ‘When you are going to retire? Aren’t you retiring yet?’ ”

He doesn’t have any hobbies that are so compelling that he wants to do them every day, although he likes to golf and hike and take longer vacations. Like his father-in-law, he sees himself as a steward who is charged with preserving the company and its opportunities for the next generation.

When asked if he worries about what would happen if he leaves, he says, “Maybe,” adding that he himself didn’t always make great choices.

“I don’t want to push him out,” says Ms. Staible. “I want him here as long as he wants to be there. It is just always, ‘How do we make sure our roles coalesce and don’t cause issues?’ ”

Ms. Ansberry is chief of The Wall Street Journal’s Pittsburgh bureau and writes the paper’s Turning Points column.

Corrections and Amplifications
The Staible family is now majority owner of Robinson Fans. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Carl Staible was sole owner. (May 1, 2017)