Stepping Back, Not Stepping Down

A couple of years ago, Dave Carson decided to transition out of his leadership role at Chem Group, a specialty chemical processing company he had built from the ground up. It was time to reap the rewards of his hard work and get a bit more balance in his life. But he definitely wasn't ready to retire. Like most successful entrepreneurs, Dave couldn't imagine going from 100 miles an hour to zero and he definitely wasn't ready to relinquish control of his “baby” – the company he had lovingly grown from a small startup into a multimillion-dollar enterprise.

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So he turned to ORG, and they offered him a happy medium: they enabled him to step back from day-to-day management and enjoy life more – while still keeping enough skin in the game to play a meaningful role at the company he had created.

With ORG’s involvement, Dave held on to his CEO and Chairman titles, but passed a big chunk of his daily responsibilities to a newly hired president, Tom Waldman. Now, instead of being in charge of all direction and decisions, and having all senior management report directly to him, many of those responsibilities have now been shifted to Tom. Dave's role is now focused on company goals, strategy, sales and customer relationships. It's been a multi-year transition, not a sudden departure, which is giving everyone time to get used to the new structure.

The new role takes Dave out of the “weeds” of day-to-day operations and lets him do what he really loves – strategic, big-picture stuff. Plus, the relationship with ORG has enabled him to get some liquidity while remaining active in the company, so he can spend more time in sunny Florida while supporting the company's transition to new leadership.

Stepping back without stepping down is an appealing idea
A lot of business owners like the idea of enjoying the rewards of their work without relinquishing their role. And coming out of a major pandemic, many have also realized that they may want to step back a little and get additional support in running the business. If you're a CEO thinking about working less, focusing your efforts on a specific part of the company, or finding ways to grow it without staking everything you have, an approach like Dave’s could work for you. Here's a quick list of things to think about if you're looking to shift gears.

1. Figure out what's keeping you from stepping back.
You’ve built your business and established your foothold in the industry over many years. The idea of relinquishing control can be scary. So is figuring out who will be able to do your job as well as you. Who knows the business like you do? Who will be able to maintain your legacy? A lot of owners think that if they sell, it means losing control. But it's really not that absolute. There is plenty of room to stay involved and meaningfully contribute.

2. Think about what you want your role to look like.
Owners often get bogged down in the day-to-day so much that they forget which part of the job it is they truly love. Take some time to do an honest assessment of what excites you. Is it sales? Strategy? Being the face of the company? Keeping up customer relationships? You can delegate your other duties to someone else – maybe even two or three people. So if you're the COO or CFO by default, but it's not your passion, give it to someone who loves it, and focus on what you truly enjoy.

3. Get the right people in place well ahead of time.
Start grooming and mentoring potential successors sooner rather than later. Decide on your future CFO/CTO/COO, especially if those are all roles you're playing now. Mitigate your risk by ensuring your values are aligned with theirs. And if you don't have any candidates in mind, a well-connected private equity firm like ORG can help you with executive search and transition.

4. Empower your successors.
Let them do their jobs (even if those jobs used to be yours). If you want to reduce your responsibilities, hand over some of the reins to the folks you've entrusted to make decisions. It's also important that all your employees know that those successors are empowered, otherwise they'll keep coming to you and undermining the effectiveness of the people you put in place to lead.

5. Don't look at stepping back as an “all or nothing proposition.”
When you work with a relationship-based private equity partner, transition can be as gradual as you need it to be. Each company does things a little differently, but these are three common routes:

a. Moving to a different (smaller) role. Keep running the company for the next one to two years, mentoring successors, working with a private equity partner to set goals, putting processes in place and preparing your employees for the upcoming transition – until you're 100% comfortable passing the torch. Then step into an alternate role or sit at the board level.
b. Gradually approaching retirement. Your plan is to be out in three to five years, but you also want to ensure the company is set up for continued success. With the help of a private equity firm, this phased retirement approach makes it possible to step away once certain goals have been achieved.
c. Taking on a partner to fuel growth. This is popular with owners who want to take another bite at the apple, take their company to a new level, then retire. It allows you to keep your current leadership role, but get some liquidity by taking on a private equity partner to help you take advantage of growth opportunities. You'll likely need to stay on at least a year with the new buyers, but could choose to exit completely at that point if you wish.
 
Here’s what Dave Carson’s transition to a less day-to-day and more strategic role looked like:

“The first three to six months were all about getting Tom (the new president) up to speed on how the company functions and included a lot of discussion of historical processes, markets and growth objectives,” he says. “Next, we created a committed strategy to define the roles and determine how the company will be run. We got guidance and agreement from ORG, and together we created a global objective for what we would achieve – and a solid process to help us get there.”

These days, Dave is loving his new role, and was especially glad to have the support of Tom and his partners at Owner Resource Group to navigate these unprecedented times. He gets to focus on the work he loves: being the face of the company, determining strategy and focusing on big-picture goals. But he’s also been spending time in Florida, finally finding that balance he's always heard about.

Whatever succession looks like to you, ORG can help. Whether you're looking to grow the company, step back as a leader or retire outright, we can help you do that on your terms – while maintaining the legacy you spent your whole career building. Talk to us today about what's possible.
 


Melissa-Sprinkle-ORGMelissa Sprinkle is a Principal at Owner Resource Group (ORG), partnering with business owners since 2009. She is fortunate to meet with hundreds of companies each year to learn about their unique goals and invest in their future growth. Outside of work, Melissa enjoys traveling, getting outdoors with her husband and three daughters, and winding down with a nice glass of cabernet.