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Smooth transition

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Tom and Paul Jones offer ideas to discuss when creating a succession plan.

Matt LaWell | January 14, 2011

LandArt Cos. has grown into a design/build and maintenance company with a retail garden center.

Tom Jones will be the first person to tell you that he and his brother Paul aren’t getting any younger. Tom is 60 now and more than a lifetime removed from the young man who purchased LandArt Cos. back in 1974 – when it was still known as the Wisconsin Tree Expert Co. Paul is 65 with sons older today than when either he or Tom started at LandArt in the ’70s.

They know they won’t live forever and, like the leaders of so many businesses in so many industries, they know they need a succession plan to ensure LandArt isn’t just sold to the highest bidder.

“We started really talking about it probably three or four years ago,” Tom says. “Our banker is a good source of information on some of the ideas, and we’ve talked with some people who do this for a living. We’ve been kicking some ideas around, but nothing has really jumped out exactly and screamed that this is exactly how we have to do it. We’re just trying to get those ideas formulated in our heads: How do we keep the company going without just putting it up for auction?”

Here are some of their thoughts on how to go about the process – and what you might want to consider when the day, month or year arrives when you realize you want to walk away and leave your business in good hands.

Bring your employees on board early during the process. One option is to hire, train and incentivize a new and younger class of entrepreneurs to help ease the transition. This is one option Tom and Paul are considering as they start to phase out bit by bit. “We feel that an excellent way to reward talent and performance, and secure the future of the business, is by creating an equity position for interested and qualified employees at every level,” Paul says. “With founding ownerships maintaining a consistent message of dependability, community service, customer relations and access to capital, a younger company can be recreated without threatening existing relationships.”

Make sure your customers are aware of the changes well in advance. In 1974, when “Old” Ed Blackford gave control of the business to Tom and his business partner at the time, Roy Egelhoff, he wrote a sincere and succinct letter to his customers. “It is indeed a pleasure to introduce them to you, because they are young, with the vigor and stamina necessary for tree landscape work,” Old Ed wrote then. “Let me say that I take personal interest in seeing that each of my customers has complete satisfaction and gains a fruitful new interest in his home and business grounds.” No matter your plan for customer service and relations, this remains an important step in the transition of any succession plan.

Find a comfortable speed. If you ask Paul, entrepreneurship is like a relay race. The best relay teams – on the track, in the pool, in business, in life – never slow down or even, really, speed up all that much. No, they maintain a constant speed. The first leg of the relay is starting the business, the second is growing the business during its maturation years and the third is eventually handing it off, just like the relay baton, to the next generation. “It never ends,” Paul says, “and improves over time.”

Tom and Paul have not found the perfect plan – or speed – yet. But they are looking, which is more than many of their contemporaries and competitors can say. They know they want to do this. “We still haven’t hit the bull’s-eye with a dart,” Tom says. “We’re going to try to get it done this winter.”

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