From One Generation to the Next: How a Manufacturing CEO Got Her Family Behind Her
Taking over the family business isn’t easy. Just ask Laura Richardson.
When she took the reins from her mother and became CEO a couple of years ago, there was no way she could have foreseen the roller coaster ride she and her family were about to go on. And had she known … well, perhaps there’s a reason seeing into the future is a superpower.
Richardson’s grandfather, Charles Frazer, founded his company, called Frazer, Ltd., in 1956. The oil field equipment manufacturer weathered some challenging times in the 1980s when the oil industry tanked and the company had to cut its staff by 70% just to survive.
While in her mind she would always take over for her mother, Richardson’s parents and brother were slower to draw that same conclusion.
“We just thought we were special and didn’t need boundaries, processes or job descriptions. We just assumed that in the transition, everything would be equal and work out,” Richardson recalls. “We had four owners of the company with four different visions. It’s difficult to grow and for employees to understand where you’re headed without a unified direction.”
Making the Transition
Complicating matters was not only the transition of leadership but also Richardson realizing that the company culture needed to change for Frazer to stay competitive. Already the business had diversified into an emergency vehicles builder back in the ‘80s, and they were reinventing again as a mobile healthcare company specializing in small command and emergency vehicles, mobile stroke units and mobile clinics.
Before Richardson took over, the organization functioned like most autocratic 20th century companies—micro-management ruled, staff didn’t ask many questions and there was a lot of turnover. And while that model had produced tremendous results, Richardson knew that to move forward, things would have to change.
And to create that shift, her family would have to rally around her.
“They did a great job of making it known, by their words and actions, that I was running the business now,” she says. “It was really hard, especially for my mom, but ultimately they trusted me to do what was best for the company—and for them.”
Power to the People
Richardson moved quickly to get the decision-making process out of her hands and into the various departments. She wanted her employees to feel more in control and not subject to anyone’s whims. With the help of her Vistage group, she found training resources that would change the way meetings were structured and run.
Instead of a ‘command and control’ model, major decisions are made now based on consensus—thumbs up, thumbs sideways and thumbs down.
“We don’t move forward if there’s even one thumbs down,” she explains. “I didn’t want an environment where no one would challenge us. One person can keep me from driving something off a cliff. So now, whether you’ve been with us for a day or 10 years, you can stop something from moving forward.”
As she capitalizes on the talent and energy of others, Richardson finds her company looking and feeling very different these days. Retention is up, turnover is down and the vibe out on the shop floor is very different. There is a spirit of innovation, leadership and creativity that is driving her business to new heights, with goals to double output over the next few years and quadruple it not long after.
While Richardson says her family has made it through the most challenging parts of the transition, there are still some tough days. But everyone is on the same page and believes in her leadership.
“There were a lot of three steps forward and two steps back. I’ve seen a lot of companies in similar situations implode,” she says. “Some weeks I had the emotional bandwidth to handle it and other weeks not so much.”
The results speak for themselves. In just a few years Frazer, Ltd., has transformed from a 59-year-old family-owned business to a place that feels more like a start-up and happens to employ family members. As she keeps her focus steady on growing , she continues to lean on her Vistage group for support.
“I know that I can’t change someone else’s behavior. I can only change my own. Vistage really helped me understand that concept, which helped me break through to my family,” she says. “Once we got to that ‘aha’ moment, there was a lot more trust and faith.”