Dealing with the card you're dealt

Dealing with the card you're dealt

Succession was always the plan, but life has other ideas. When a stroke took founder Steve Pattie away from his business, sons Jonas and Brian acted on a plan.

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May 6, 2016
Kristen Hampshire

During meetings geared around succession planning, The Pattie Group’s founder Steve Pattie would play a game called The Dead Card. In mid-conversation, one person would toss a card in front of a family member or even a manager that said “Death.” Then, the group had to figure out a catastrophic action plan.

“I remember we’d look at each other when the card was thrown in front of my father and think, ‘What are we going to do?” says Jonas Pattie, Steve’s oldest son.

About seven years ago, the Pattie family began planning an ownership transition of the Novelty, Ohio, company. Jonas, now president, and Brian Pattie, executive vice president, had worked in the business since they were old enough to ride alongside their dad, a green industry veteran and esteemed entrepreneur. 

“My dad started the business with a lawn mower when he was just a boy and over time his passion, excitement, vision and growing knowledge drove, and built The Pattie Group into the successful landscape design/build and maintenance company it is today,” Jonas Pattie says. 

His mom, Linda Pattie, a landscape designer, would sit at the kitchen table and draw designs in the early years. “Brian and I were toted along to job sites, client presentations and nurseries,” Pattie says. “It’s hard for the business to not get into your system.”

The plan was to gradually transition ownership to the two brothers. “But that path got a violent shove at the end of 2012,” Pattie says.

A card was tossed on the table. The day after Christmas, Steve Pattie was rushed to the hospital following a stroke.  The Pattie family had to immediately press go on a strategic plan while managing the care of their beloved father.

“Life changes in an instant,” Pattie says.

One moment, Steve and his boys are sharing a moment of celebration and sigh of relief after another successful year and the next, they are standing in a hospital room.  After four long, hard years of the doldrums beginning with cutting staff from 110 to 60 in the 2008 recession, Steve and Jonas each sold $2 million in new design/build business for 2012. There was no doubt the rough time had taken a toll on everyone. “There were times when we weren’t sure how we were going to make payroll in a couple of days,” Pattie says. “It got rough.”

Selling $4 million in design/build work, and another $3 million in maintenance jobs deserved more than a pat on the back. “It was like a cruel joke,” Pattie says. His father’s stroke came practically the second after he had time to exhale from a successful year. 

That second, the Patties were forced to respond. “As the sons of the owner, you have several obligations,” Pattie says. “One is to protect your dad and make sure he is getting the care he needs, and two is to keep the company going.”

 
Executing the plan
For two months following the stroke, the Patties did not share the news with anyone outside of family and a couple of key managers. Employees didn’t know. They thought Steve went to Florida that winter as he always did.
 
Because there were so many unanswered questions regarding the long-term effects of the stroke, the best strategy was to wait and see.
 
What did not wait was acting on the company’s strategic plan, which had been a work in progress along with the succession planning. “Fortunately, we just started working off that plan,” Pattie says. They referred to their catastrophic action plan first. “Dad is down. Don’t know how bad. Who are we calling first? We contacted lawyers, our CPA, family – a whole list,” Pattie says. “All of their phone numbers were right there in our action plan. It was bang, bang, bang.”
 
Preparation for the worst-case scenario helped steer the Patties’ decisions quickly. Jonas took over the role of president, leading sales for the design/build division as he had in the past. Except now he knew he’d eventually have to find someone to help him replace $2 million in sales, the share his father sold in 2012. Brian moved into overseeing operations, a role he was already assuming. Together with the management team, the brothers navigated the business into the 2013 season.
 
“We had a seasoned management team who had been with us a long time,” Pattie says. “They were comfortable with Brian and me, and we told them we would we didn’t know when or if Dad would be back. We needed to prepare to move forward without his valuable presence.” 
 
Steve’s return remained an unanswered question throughout 2013.
 
“The team banded together,” Pattie says of crewmembers’ reaction to the news. “They all had, and still have, an incredible respect for my dad. He taught them much of what they know. He hired them. He took care of them from a financial standpoint. So getting everyone to pull together was easy because they are good people.”
 
Of course, the stress of shifting into ownership gear so suddenly was real for the Pattie brothers. Thankfully, they had hired a new accounting manager the previous year, who had cleaned up financials that were not properly tended to by the predecessor. “We could stop worrying about financials all the time and start focusing on how we were going to replace the sales and keep the business running,” Pattie says.
 
Their dad’s care, above all, was the greatest challenge. Second was focusing on goals and suddenly being “on stage” to lead the business. “As the owner’s sons, you are in a glass fish bowl,” Pattie relates. “Employees surely wonder, ‘Are they as good as their dad? Are they committed? Do they know what they need to know?’ When you are standing in the batter’s box, there is some nervousness; you don’t want to let them or you father down.”
 
But overriding those feelings was the sheer demand to get the work done, and to sell. Also, the brothers had to ensure the business did not interfere with their dad’s recovery. “We turned off his phone and email for some time,” Pattie says. Of course, those decisions came with some pushback by Steve. “It’s not easy to tell your dad and company owner you’re taking away his phone or email. But in that moment, you’re trying to do what is best for him.”

Growing support
Replacing sales was a top priority, and a mission Pattie had to move on immediately in 2013. He had one employee in mind to promote into design/build sales – a project manager who joined The Pattie Group the previous season turned out to be a great asset.
 
“When you hire an A player, they reveal themselves almost immediately,” Pattie says. “They don’t take six months to shine. You feel it instantly.”
 
So Pattie asked him soon after the hire where he wanted to be working in the company. What were his goals? “He said, ‘I’d love to get into sales,’” Pattie says. “I put that into the back of my head and when my dad had a stroke, I tapped him for the position.”
 
This was a tough decision. Pattie would be taking a key employee from Brian’s team, moving him out of the field and into a sales role. “We, as a company, had never made a move like that,” Pattie says. “It was unprecedented.”
 
But it was necessary.
 
“I had to fight for that move,” Pattie says. “I said, ‘I understand this will sting, but if we don’t have projects to install you don’t need the field staff. If I don’t have someone on the front end helping me sell the work, we will not be talking about all the cool projects we are doing.’”
 
Brian understood, though the strategy would leave him without a dedicated, star project manager during that vulnerable year. 
 
The project manager finished obligations in that division, still overseeing some work while selling new design/build business. That year, he sold nearly $800,000 in five months. Then in 2014, he sold $1.2 million and last year he sold $1.4 million. 
 
Pattie jokingly told his sales counterpart, “You made me look like a genius! I didn’t expect it to work this well.”
 
But, in fact, Pattie had conducted a personality test to be sure his premonition that the employee would be a fit in sales was correct. And he had watched his performance in the field.
 
“We are slow to hire,” Pattie says. “We take our time. We take a good look at the whole person. We have a system and we are also good judges of character.”
 
Pattie refers back to one of his dad’s favorite pieces of advice: Don’t be afraid to hire people who are better than you.
 
“Brian and I have done that well,” Pattie says. “And, we say all the time: We’re not going to be the ones who stand in the way of us being a better company. We’ll move out of the way for someone who can do it better.”
 
Leading the next chapter
This collaborative, open-minded way of managing the business has helped The Pattie Group transition during a painful time, personally. “We don’t pretend to know everything,” Pattie says. “And because we don’t know all of the answers, we always want to hear what people think. I also want to know how others will work through a problem.”
 
The Patties stay away from any been-there-done-that managing. There’s no finger pointing. No one says, “Go do this.” 
“We are constantly throwing problems on the table and getting feedback,” Pattie says. 
 
In mid-2014, Steve came back into the business in an advisory role. The brothers always turned to their dad for insight on various issues. Steve is a sounding board, one with vast experience. That said, he was still healing and had been out of the daily operations for more than a season. 
 
Meanwhile, The Pattie Group had gone through a visioning process in the spring of 2013. Over time, the field staff had evolved and so had the administrative staff. “It is a whole different place today because during the course of three years, you bring in new people and you have no choice but to form the business around your strengths and weaknesses.”
 
But this past year, amidst a buyout and hard work to have a great year, The Pattie Group tragically endured the passing of three employees at different times (not on the job). “We’ve been in business for nearly 50 years, and never once had an active employee passed away. Last year we lost three in seven months,” says Pattie, adding that one 15-year project manager bravely fought cancer for five years. The team was incredibly sad and deeply impacted by the losses. 
 
Still, they all managed to maintain focus and the tough times bonded the team closer together. The Pattie Group came off of a record sales year in 2015, with revenues of $9.4 million, $5.1 million of which was design/build. This year, the staff will grow to about 95 employees. 
 
We have climbed completely out of that hole,” Pattie says of the 2008 crash. “Last year, we were at more than 10 percent profit across the board. It’s fun when you can look across the company and say, ‘We hit our maintenance goals, commercial goals, design and construction goals. Everything is clicking on all cylinders.”
 
In January of 2016, Jonas and Brian Pattie officially became the second generation owners of The Pattie Group. Steve’s recovery was gradual and successful, and today he is mentoring and coaching other green industry entrepreneurs, and serving as an NALP Trailblazer, a group of industry leaders who help others with their businesses.  But, a stroke changes one’s life. “This isn’t the way we expected things to go,” Pattie says of the transition. “Dad prepared us well for the unexpected and we’re thankful to still have him around.”
 
His imprint is forever on the business, but the sons now own the next chapters. 
 
Pattie says with genuine admiration, “We would never be where we are today if our father hadn’t taught us so much."