Ownership & Governance

A Vistage member describes how his small business turned into a transnational enterprise [Podcast]

Wenger Mixing Company was once known as a small town mixing plant in Sabetha, Kansas, in 1935. Today it has grown to become an international enterprise with a presence in Taiwan, Belgium, Brazil and China.

Some might wonder what how-to approach Wenger’s leaders took. Was it going to business school? Reading an
inspirational book, or even attending a corporate strategy seminar?

Ask Lafe Bailey, Co-CEO and president of sales and business development at Wenger, and the answer is none of the above.

As part of the third generation of the family to take over the business, Lafe faced the challenge of developing a succession planning process that would not only improve the company, but also keep the philosophy of teamwork in mind.

“It would have been hypocritical for our employees to see us fighting over the top job,” he said. “So we essentially came together and put our own egos to the side and put our own humility forward and said ‘I’ve grown this part of the organization and don’t know what it’s like to be on the other [end] day in and day out.’”

That’s why it made sense for Lafe and his two cousins to operate the company through a Co-CEO approach. For Lafe and his cousins, it was about acknowledging that all three showed equal strengths in different fields.

Lafe, a Vistage member for five years, was knowledgeable about the company’s sales and business development needs, and his two cousins specialized in managing the company’s engineering and customer service needs.

“So we said what we needed to do is collectively as a team, the three of us, come together and exemplify teamwork,” he added. “We need to exemplify sharing and our willingness to have empathy for our other co-workers outside of our departments.”

It was more than a decade ago when Lafe and his cousins decided to mix up their leadership structure. The past 15 years since Lafe and his cousins assumed co-CEO leadership ended up being the most profitable 15 years in the company’s 80-year-old history.

When people ask Lafe what the best business advice he got was, he says that he, along with others at Wenger, might have just created and followed their own business advice.

“We like to say inside of Wenger and have been saying for 80 years that we want to keep the cannibals in our own kitchen,” Lafe said. “Which essentially means our job as a company is to make our status quo [as a company] obsolete because if we don’t do it somebody else will.”

For decades, Lafe has helped Wenger keep their cannibals in their own kitchen by making sure that their mixing equipment is constantly cutting edge and making sure that every leadership decision is vetted by their three CEOs.

“We’re able to give a much clearer and a much more understandable decision and it’s been effective in our organization,” Lafe said.

Lafe considers one of the key turning points of the Wenger Mixing Company to be their decision to put their egos aside and assume collaborative leadership roles.

And he credits their commitment to teamwork, humility and innovation as the essential ingredients to their business growth.

To hear more from Lafe, listen to his podcast here.

To learn more about Wenger click here.

Category: Ownership & Governance

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About the Author: Vistage Staff

Vistage facilitates confidential peer advisory groups for CEOs and other senior leaders, focusing on solving challenges, accelerating growth and improving business performance. Over 2…

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