Surviving business struggles in the aftermarket

Management Lucas Deal July 29, 2014

This is Part III of Truck Parts & Service’s three-part special report on aftermarket family businesses. For an introduction, CLICK HERE.

Joyful as it can be, leading a family business is not without challenges.

If pride in a job well done is one of the biggest selling points, the stress of the job might be the biggest deterrent.

Knowing you are responsible for an operation your family started can be a significant weight.

“There’s always a burden of responsibility. That’s never going to change,” says Andy Robblee, president, Six Robblees. “Now things are on my watch, and we better not let the ship go down.”

Claude-André Pouliot says that’s why he’s worked so hard to build Macpek’s leadership team. By entrusting responsibilities to a management team, he’s empowered the group to lead their respective departments and minimized the daily stress piled on him and his brother.

“Not having a one man team is very important,” he says. “It takes some pressure off of your shoulders and really benefits the business.”

Navigating a rapidly changing business landscape is another major test.

While all businesses go through change, large corporations with deep pockets are typically better suited to handle full-scale operational changes and purchase expensive new products or services.

Joe Ward says big changes move at a slower pace at First Call Truck Parts.

But being cautious is different than stubborn, and Ward says he’s always willing to invest back into his business to help it grow. He might not be able to do that as fast as a larger operation, but that doesn’t stop him.

“We are always trying to get better,” he says.

Business competition also provides its fair share of issues.

In addition to its multitude of family businesses, the aftermarket also is home to large corporate distributors. These businesses have grown rapidly in the last five years, and as their footprint grows, so too does their impact on the market.

That’s something all distributors, family run or not, must accept. And while larger independent distributors have more resources to contend with these companies, that doesn’t mean they are impervious to the competition.

“I think it’s going to become harder and harder to maintain family businesses,” says Dave Settles, president, Weldon Truck Parts. “I think there will be pressure to get better and more efficient, and not every family business is built for that.”

Ward says that’s a battle he faces every day.

“A second location is such a game changer,” he says. “There are some clear advantages, but I don’t want us to try and expand and run too thin.

“I think we can continue to succeed staying within our circle, within our region, and doing a good job serving our customers.”

Looking ahead and finding a successor isn’t a simple task, either.

When asked, “What is the biggest challenge in leading a family business?” respondents to the Truck Parts & Service survey overwhelmingly said finding new employees and determining a successor is their biggest headache.

We have “no one to fall back on,” said one respondent. We need to “find younger employees to replace us Baby Boomers in all facets of the business,” said another.

Two respondents noted simply “succession planning,” and another said, “We have to find our next leader.”

Even family businesses like Weldon Parts and Point Spring & Driveshaft, where a next generation is in place, have concerns about the future.

“With the way the industry is changing, they are going to have a bigger job than we did,” says Settles of his two children, Sara and Nathan, who are already working in the business. “All we can do is be fair to them, and try to give them more responsibility as they [become] ready for it.”

The best succession plans are the most expansive, adds Sean Ryan.

“I think anyone who is in a key role in a business should be part of a succession plan,” he says, noting it only takes one unfortunate accident to throw a business into chaos. “You hate to think about it but it’s true. And if something does happen and you’re not prepared, you’ll be lost.”

More than a century after his grandfather and great uncles opened their bike repair shop, Robblee says he has no misconceptions about the life cycles of family businesses.

“I’ve been blessed to be put into this position. This opportunity was a gift given to me,” he says. “But there are a lot of family businesses out there; some only last 10 years while others are 100. They don’t live forever.”

“It would be fantastic if one day my children would want to take over this business … But if they don’t want to that’s OK. All I can do is make sure this business is in the best possible position for the next generation.”