Family Business: How to Honor the First Generation While Creating the Next

Jan 05, 2017 10:30 AM by Aileron

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“I played in the company warehouse as a kid and worked in the office during the summers and throughout my high school years,” says Kim Stout, recalling how she grew up around the family business that she now works for, Coastal Pet Products Inc. The business was founded by her father and uncle, Jim and Tom Stout, in 1968.

Today, Kim is COO of Coastal Pet Products Inc., a family-owned and operated business that provides and manufactures lifestyle products that support the care and safety of dogs and cats.  

Kim didn’t always know she would work for the family business, however. “I joined the company in 2000 at the suggestion of my sister,” says Kim. “I had been teaching high school and decided it was not a long-term fit for me.” Even though originally being in sales wasn’t a career aspiration, Kim learned it was one way to help others find products that were beneficial to them and could grow their businesses, which was rewarding to see. 

We spoke with Kim about her journey as a second generation entrepreneur, a story that may resonate with many other entrepreneurs involved in a family enterprise. Here she offers insight into how she respects and honors the first generation, including some of the top lessons she’s learned along the way.

Balance Legacy with Change

“I find myself balancing legacy with forward-thinking risks,” adds Kim. “Success makes change difficult. Just because it worked in the past doesn’t mean it will in the future,” she says. 

Balancing heritage (in this case, from the business’ first generation) with a forward-thinking mindset is an aspect of growing a family business that many second generation entrepreneurs can also relate to. “It takes courage to challenge past successes,” she explains—whether that be in the day-to-day, or on longer-term basis. That’s especially true when many employees are used to the prior generation’s style of leadership. 

“The team that's here has done a great job. What worked very well for the organization in the past is not always going to work as well in the future. A lot of our conversations are around how to challenge that past success. You don’t want to become complacent,” explains Kim.

Evaluate Company Traditions 

One way to make sure legacy is preserved is by staying very connected to partners, vendors, and customers so that leaders can get feedback when change does occur.

She also works to stay connected with employees. “Since moving into the COO role, I’ve made a concerted effort to spend time with all our managers and supervisors so I can get to know them and their roles.” 

Another way to start to shift norms in the culture is to re-examine company traditions, including the ones that often go unnoticed. For example, one tradition that Coastal Pet Products Inc. has is for the CEO Jim Stout to sit at the head of the table for meetings. 

“As we transition to a professionally managed organization, I’ve set the precedent that the leader of the meeting sit in the ‘cat bird seat.’  It took a while for the associates to feel comfortable with Jim in the meeting, but not sitting at the head of the table,” Kim explains. 

Another technique they’ve used is to have the least senior person in the room give input or feedback first, so that they can grow their own skills, and also to ensure their ideas or perspectives are heard by others.  

Slow Down & Communicate Changes 

“As one of our advisory board members stated, ‘I’m bringing good changes to the organization, just more slowly than he would like.’” And even if change isn’t happening quite as fast as Kim would like, she is sure to communicate about the evolution of the company with her father on an ongoing basis. 

Kim says she also regularly thanks her father for the opportunities he has provided her and other employees, as well as the community. 

This kind of communication has been invaluable to the business and to her relationship with her father. “I spend a lot of time talking with my father and sister about the business to understand what is important to them and to gain alignment. I also speak very candidly with my father about my hopes and fears and ask to understand his. This process has built our trust,” she says. 

Seek Clarity Within—By Using Outside Resources

As many family owned businesses can attest to, there are often deep-rooted complexities to running the business.

“There are many layers and roles that are fuzzy when working in our family business,” says Kim. “Clarity can sometimes be difficult as there are multiple stakeholders,” she says. Business resources, such as the Course for Presidents and having effective boards, says Kim, can help provide direction and clearer understanding for all involved in the business.

Accelerate Your Journey to Become a Better Business 

Sharpen your focus and accelerate the journey to a better business by attending the Course for Presidents. Over two days, you’ll learn a systematic, proven way to grow your business alongside business peers. Then you’ll work one-on-one with your Business Advisor to engage your employees and to implement what you’ve learned.

Expect a change in perspective about what’s possible for your family business: learn more about the Course for Presidents today.

Learn More About the Course for Presidents

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