Bill Yoh and his brothers are third generation owners of Day & Zimmerman, a company that just celebrate 120 years this past year. Five members of the family are involved in the business between the third and fourth generations. Having taken over for his father, who was at one time the only family member involved, there wasn't a need for a lot of governance. With the business mix now a third of what it was back then, it's nearly three times the size, so more structure was needed.
"When my siblings and I bought out our father, there were five of us that owned a company with 16,000 employees," Yoh said at the Philadelphia Smart Business Dealmakers Conference. "We had an average age of about 32 at the time. We put a lot of governance in place, a lot of functions, lot of processes, a lot of things for top management to understand that they were critical to running the business, and retention strategies and growth strategies and alignment strategies. We've augmented that governance periodically over the years — and now we can say, over the decades. And we over time, we also built a master plan that just gave us an idea of all the things we could do from a family business perspective, but that doesn't mean you have to do them all at once. It's just nice to know what's our near-term priorities, medium-term and long-term, is how we bucket it. Some of the boxes move from bucket to bucket periodically, but that's really helped us know what we're focusing on now, what we should be focused on in the future."
Evaluating the next generation and what the future holds for them, he says, is both a huge opportunity and a huge point of failure for family businesses.
"The number of failures by generation increases exponentially," he says.
So, one of things that his family talks a lot about is stickiness — how to make the business sticky with the family. The first tenet of that is knowing that the family's No. 1 priority is a healthy, growing business.
"That always has to come first," he says. "What's best for the family is a healthy and growing business. And so everything we do is always geared toward that."
To that end, the family works a lot on exposure and experience, encouraging family members to work in the business during summers off of school, or instance. And they've created a family employment policy that helps make the policies that guide that well-known.
"We work intentionally on relationship-building between the families, between the generations," he says. "What we found with that, what works much better, is when the reasons for coming together are more organic or more family related as opposed to, you're all in this room looking at a PowerPoint because you're shareholders. It's much better when it's around weddings or different events or different kinds of things like that where we can build those relationships."
He says the family also wants to make sure that people have freedom and don't feel compelled to have to come into the business.
"We don't require that you have to be in the business to own stock. We put a voting trust in place.... The whole idea is that the control of the business is still with the family members that are most intimately involved with the business," he says. "But that doesn't preclude people who have other skills or other passions or other interests from continuing to pursue those things."
All the different aspects of governance are scaffolding the family put in place when it was needed.
"A lot of families will talk about family councils or family offices or foundations or things like that," Yoh says. "We understand, in time, those things will matter. But we're not at the point in our size or plan, journey, for those things yet. So, just because they may be best practices doesn't mean that they're best practices right now. We try and be thoughtful about how we go into those kinds of things and where they might come up."
He also talks with the next generation about the wealth created by the family business. He says collectively and individually, as ownership families, they each work with their children around growing up with money and the value of a dollar.
"It's inevitable that there are certain exposures, and certain lifestyle things, education opportunities and things that kids will have," he says. "But how do you have kids A) understand the value of a dollar but B) not run away from the fact that they are where they are. One of the things that my wife and I have stressed with our children is, you are in a different place than most people. So, let's call that what it is and let's act our way into that, and let's have conversations about what that might look like in terms of the difference you can make in the world, whether you choose to be part of Day & Zimmerman or not."