How We've Kept Our Company Running for Six Generations

Last Updated Jul 30, 2010 7:50 PM EDT

By Tim Hussey, President, Hussey Seating, North Berwick, Maine
Most family businesses that fail fall apart somewhere around the second and third generations. If a business can make it to the fourth generation, its odds of success go way up. We're in our sixth generation, and we've made a huge commitment to continuing the legacy.

We've had our share of challenges along the way. We started out making plowshares in 1835. We later switched to iron staircases and fire escapes, and then to chairlift towers and diving boards before we finally landed on retractable bleachers in the 1950s. Bleachers are what finally launched us onto the international stage and have kept us there -- we posted revenues of more than $65 million in 2009.

We've passed the company down from generation to generation five times since we started. A few times it was challenging handing off between generations, but we've developed a few ways to smooth the transfer.

How to maintain family values
All eight of us from my generation -- my three siblings, four cousins and I -- worked in the business as teenagers. I worked on machines in the factory; my brothers did maintenance.

Working for the company gave us a real sense of the identity of the company and the legacy that we're responsible for upholding. Still, we were all encouraged to get professional experience outside the company before choosing whether to come back. That wasn't the case for my grandfather or my father and my uncle -- they didn't have a choice. Today two of us work for the business, though five of us have worked here professionally at one time or another.

As the family gets bigger, it gets harder to keep everyone feeling like they're a part of the company. So in the last five years we've added a family reunion component to the annual owners' meeting. We help educate the next generation about the history and values of the business through trivia contests about our family history -- we call it the Hussey Olympics. We try to keep it fun, but it's a great way to teach them about our history and values. It's all about getting that into the blood early on -- honesty and the integrity of doing the right thing -- and realizing that we're part of something that's unique.

Keeping an outsider majority on the board
Another problem with an ever-growing family of owners is reconciling differences of opinion. Since 1967, we've had a board of directors that includes four highly qualified outside directors and three family members. We set it up that way -- maintaining a majority of board members from outside the family -- because we wanted to make sure it was independent and stood above any family issues.

The board has weighed in a number of times to settle internal disagreements, mostly on strategic decisions. But they've also played an integral role in helping smooth the succession between generations.

For example, in the mid-90s I took over from my father. We owned a company in England that hadn't been performing well at all, and when I took over I wanted to close down the business. My father, on the other hand, was very invested personally and emotionally in the British company and wanted to give it another chance.

Having a majority-independent board took the emotion out of this decision. The external directors decided their positions impartially and objectively -- they didn't have all the baggage that's inevitable with a father and son. In the end we closed down the business -- and it didn't develop into a real conflict between my dad and me.

Choosing to persevere
Involving younger generations and maintaining an independent board are two big reasons for our success. But there's another component that's harder to describe -- a little magic in the culture of the family and the business.

Previous generations persevered despite incredible odds. A fire in 1895 almost ended the company, as did the Great Depression, along with a bout of too much debt in the '80s that had most people telling my father and uncle to liquidate the business. But in every case earlier generations buckled down and kept pushing forward. If they managed to do that time and again, how can my generation be the one that gives up?

The weight of six generations' worth of success is on our shoulders -- that builds up a lot of momentum. We promote a culture of integrity and honesty in each successive generation. It's good for business, but it also helps foster an appreciation for the hard work of our ancestors. Maintaining that culture requires constant work, but it's why we're still around after 175 years.

Tim Hussey graduated from Colby College in 1978 and received an MBA from Cornell University in 1982. He lives in Kennebunk, Maine with his wife Marcia and their children Hannah, Philip and Olivia.
-- As told to Peter McDougall