“Loyd, thank you for coming to see me. Please sit down,” Mr. John Doe, the elderly but fit gentleman, offered as we settled into his office. Settling back into his chair, he continued. “My accountant attended one of your succession planning seminars and suggested we talk. We have three dealerships. I have a son who is pretending to run our stores. I also have a daughter and a son-in-law who work here. I own 35% but 51% of the voting stock. I don’t know what to do,” he continued apparently relieved to have someone to speak to. “My son will not listen to me. And unfortunately he is the only capable family member. I doubt he works 40 hours a week; he says he works from home. I know he trains for marathons, coaches his son’s baseball team and never misses a school meeting. Meanwhile, the businesses underperform. When I threaten to fire him he just smiles and says do what you have to do. My son-in-law wants me to appoint him the Dealer but he’s had some issues with drugs,” he offered with a conciliatory shrug of the shoulders.
“Holy crap, Batman!” responded Dr. Merlot, my alter ego, in an attempt to lighten the dialogue. “That’s a load. The stores must be really struggling.”
“They are not performing,” responded Mr. Doe assertively. “We are just lucky the manufacturers aren’t busting our chops.”
“My sympathy, Mr. Doe,” Doc responded. “How old are you?”
“76,” he responded without hesitation. “I feel great and love this business”, he added defensively.
“Of course,” Doc responded. “And how old is your son?”
“He’s 51. After college he worked in the computer industry until he was 30 and began working in the family business. He worked his way through the departments and was a great GSM. When he became GM our troubles began. The last five years have really been frustrating. I might as well be talking to a wall. I simply expect my managers—and especially my family and my successors—to make the same commitment that I do.” Then looking over to me he reiterated, “I am sure you have dealt with this before Mr. Rawls, can you help me?”
“We would be pleased to give you our best Mr. Doe,” I responded appreciatively. “However, you should be aware that succession planning can be significantly more challenging for a 76 year old. We just don’t have the runway that we may need to create the changes you are seeking.”
“Runway! What do you mean by runway? Mr. Doe responded. Talk straight! I don’t appreciate your silly language.” Before I could answer he continued, “Do you think I am going to die or become senile? Think of me as a 56 year old, and we’ll do fine.”
He was right. We had dealt with this before, and I had a suspicion the situation was going to be difficult. We proceeded with the engagement and over the next 60 days we interviewed family members, key managers, bankers and advisors as well as analyzed documents and financial statements. We subsequently returned to share our assessment.
“As we have been discussing this morning, your estate documents appear to be in good shape only needing a few refinements. Your shareholder’s agreements also need refinement as there is no means for you to call stock and no stipulated terms of purchase to preclude lose/lose negotiations. Now moving on to our next topic, performance is better than we anticipated from your initial description of your son’s behavior. In fact, relatively speaking your stores are doing good. No doubt there is room for improvement, but your son appears to be a good operator and a capable successor. We are impressed with his stewardship attitude.”
“Mr. Rawls, good is not acceptable, Mr. Doe responded. When I was running these stores we were number one in our district. And I take issue with Stewardship, I would accept soft and distracted!”
I took a moment to gather myself recognizing that I was apparently dealing with a bully. “Interesting perspective, Mr. Doe. Everyone wants to be great but would you agree that good is not bad?”
“Get this!” he immediately blasted with his finger pointing at me, “Good is another word for mediocre. We are not performing and I am angry! You are here to move my son up or out. What’s your plan?”
Then Dr Merlot jumped back in to rescue me from this tyrant. “Moving on to our next subject… Mr. Doe, organizational harmony is not good. Your daughter and son-in-law are not happy, and I don’t think anyone could reconcile their resentment of having to report to your son. Furthermore, about half of the managers are loyal to you, predictably agree with your feelings about your son and take issue with about everyone your son has hired. Those loyal to your son apparently ignore you and express hope you will retire before your son quits, because they know they would be history. If there was just a little unity and harmony, this could be a great dealership.”
“Let’s not mince words here, Mr. Doe replied. My son is not an acceptable successor. He does not know how to work. He ignores me and has no drive to be great. Everyone he has hired is overpaid and he does not hold anyone accountable. All he wants to do is play with that computer screen he takes with him everywhere!” Taking a moment to compose himself, Mr. Doe then—with both arms extended with invitation—pleaded, “I am willing to pay you handsomely to teach him what it takes to make these stores number one again or convince him to quit and sell me back his stock.”
Both Dr. Merlot and I just sat there staring at him for a moment. I then turned to the Doc just as he was turning to me and asked mostly with my lips, “Are you thinking what I am thinking?” Doc nodded in regretful agreement. I then started to gather my presentation notes and put them back in my briefcase as Doc did the same.
“Oh, did I say something that upset you?” inquired Mr. Doe sarcastically. “Are you not up for the challenge? I thought you guys would address any issue that is a contingency to success?”
I was trying to keep my cool. Looking back at him with a forced smile I responded, “We take our brand promise seriously but we are off to a bad start here. I think we need to come back another day.”
“If you don’t have any recommendations for me now, I would not plan on another visit. I would also not plan on a check to follow that invoice you handed me. I have the impression you cannot handle this job.”
I kept my focus on gathering my things hoping that Doc would do the same and we could leave without further issue. I was wrong. Dr. Merlot just had to open his mouth. “What is apparent is that you cannot handle opinions that don’t agree with yours!” injected the Doctor, apparently at his limit. “Since we are not coming back Loyd, may I fulfill our other brand promise, To Tell The Truth?” Motioning to me to hold up he sat back down on the edge of his seat as I continued to stand behind my chair anticipating a very short discussion.
“The only problem with the succession of these stores is that there is a 76 year old, control freak who attempts to treat his 51 year old son like a 13 year old. In spite of your dictatorial, critical management style, your son is a good operator and a qualified successor. With you and your cronies looking to pull the rug at every opportunity, I would say he’s doing pretty well. If you don’t believe me, just listen to the manufacturers. You are too jealous of his success through anything but an 80 hour week that you don’t hear them saying he’s a good operator and acceptable successor. Trust me; if they did not like him you would have real problems. If you and your naysayers would get out of his way, productivity would increase, expenses would go down. Then,” he asserted slapping his desk, “you would have your coveted greatness.”
Mr. Doe jumped back from the honesty but quickly recovered and was ready to start his rebuttal when Doc stood up with a halting hand, “Stop! Please listen to someone for once in your life and we will then leave you to the comfort of your own opinion.” Doc leaned forward, now nose to nose with Mr. Doe. “Your son has made two decisions you should know about. The first and most important is that he is not going to choose the business over his family. Good is fine with him if that gives him time to be a dad; something he missed dearly as your son. Second, he is not going to quit. We could find him a job in about 10 seconds, but he will continue to take you lip whippings while not revealing that you don’t have a clue regarding contemporary business and the franchisers who out of respect are just waiting for you to die at your desk. My advice to you sir is you thank God for your son, go home and find something that interests you besides fantasizing about changing your son. You are bad example of growing old gracefully. Good day, sir.”
Doc stood up, grabbed his briefcase and motioned towards the door and followed me out of Mr. Doe’s office offering “That felt good! May have been worth the loss of a check.”