Business transition from the passenger seat

Every business transition has two sides: those who are staying, and those who are moving on. Often the transition has contractual requirements that help determine the future state of the company in order to assure stability and growth for all parties involved. But what can't be written into a contract is the essence of the cultural changes that will inevitably occur.

At Corbin Design, we engaged in an ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan) transition. As a medium-sized graphic design firm, we wanted to make sure that Jeff Corbin, our founder, was able to leave the firm with a buyout that acknowledged the risks he took to build the firm, and his dedication to us, his staff, through the years. As continuing owners, we wanted to be sure that the company would continue beyond the tenure of "the guy who hung the shingle;" often not an easy task in the realm of graphic design. The rules surrounding ESOPs made the financial part of the transition relatively easy.

More difficult by far was the cultural transition. As a former designer and now president of the company, I had developed an "in the trenches" rapport with the rest of the staff that gradually needed to change. Additionally, as the ESOP was rolled out, we essentially had two people running the firm: Jeff, with his decision-making authority, and me, the new president, looking to lay the groundwork for changes that would become part of the "new" Corbin Design.

One of Jeff's goals was to help us move slowly from a sole proprietorship to a management team, made up of individuals with a variety of experience within the firm. Over several years, he gradually gave more responsibility to us for decision-making, so that when he stepped out we were fully capable of running the firm. This proactive approach was the foundation of our current, and continuing, success.

Having gone through it, we wanted to offer some tips for making the transition successfully:

1. Communication is the key

Even though I'd been here for 14 years, having decision-making authority shift from the firm's founder to a relative newcomer was difficult for everyone. Ideas that I felt I was simply sharing with the firm were seen as new policy directions. Looking back, I should have communicated the intent behind these messages more clearly to staff.

2. Be decisive

Early on in the transition, the management team was criticized for being indecisive, while we felt we were being proactive and inclusive by gathering input from team members. You have newfound authority to make decisions. Sometimes you need to "just do it."

3. Make any needed changes quickly, and make them stick

There are undoubtedly some nagging issues that have to be resolved: better communication tools, maybe a new staff Intranet, upgrades to technology, even something as simple as painting a wall or a more relaxed dress code-your staff needs to know that things will change, and that those changes will be beneficial.

4. Grow faster than your firm

Now that you (or your management team) is in charge, take the extra time for personal and professional growth that will prepare you for leadership. Join professional trade or mentoring organizations; serve on boards that help you hone your skills; speak at conferences and increase your visibility in your profession. At Corbin, the management team has a weekly breakfast meeting to discuss outstanding issues; it's an open meeting, meaning that any staff member who wishes can attend to discuss any outstanding issues.

5. Develop a network of peers

We have been a member of the Association of Professional Design Firms since 1993. Jeff Corbin served as president of the APDF for two years; I personally served on the board for four years. During this time, I developed and continue to cultivate a nationwide group of peers who have experienced this same transition. Nothing is more important than being able to bounce ideas off of those who've been through it before.

Finally, understand that you're a different person than the one who's come before. You will introduce a different management style and personality, even some ideas that the previous owner(s) might not have envisioned. It's your job now to set the future direction of the firm, and you have what it takes to do this. Take the wheel with both hands and drive the firm forward with confidence!BN

Mark VanderKlipp is President of Corbin Design.