What’s the best course of action in growing the wholesale firm?

Most of merchant wholesaling is entering the third generation. This generation has a rather interesting history in American Business and, if the history of family-owned, third generation businesses apply to merchant wholesalers, the next decade will be interesting indeed. The third generation of business is, generally, marked by the following traits:
  • Studies show only 3% to 5% of family businesses make it past the third generation.  Some businesses dissolve, some sell out, and some few make it to the fourth generation.

  • Third generation family becomes extended with nieces, nephews, sons and daughters holding stock of the original founders. A few family members may work in the business but the disparate stock holders have a profound effect on the firm. Decision-making becomes risk-averse as family members become comfortable in using dividends and income distributions to fund a lifestyle. 

  • Third generation management typically inherits a successful, going and growing concern. However, third generation management typically does not have the drive to grow the business of the prior two generations. They are benefactors of the success of their forebears and the desire to drive the business is typically not there. Ergo, third generation CEO’s have a propensity to run the business as lifestyle and not for earnings and superior statistics in growth and profit.

  • Successful generational businesses have a tendency to put family in executive positions. The old saw, “family members are the most talented business people as they all become V and C level employees,” applies. The problem with the third generation family management is that many have not had to develop the skills and education to drive the distribution company as it grows. Guaranteed executive stardom in early career, many family execs of the third generation simply find the business has outgrown their skill sets.
    We find graduate business degrees in many sizable firms in the manufacturing and service sector but seldom in the third generation managers of family distribution companies. Those that do have graduate degrees typically run much more profitable firms than those who don’t.

  • Because executive ranks are filled with family, the firm often calcifies with family presence and relationships. New blood at the executive level and from outside the family seldom works out. They are not given the room to change family impediments to the performance of the firm.

  • All these challenges are not evident in all distribution companies but you can usually find several of them at work. How does the third generation guard against these issues? The bottom line is that family must agree to run the business as a business, hire the best managers regardless of whether they are family or not, and develop goals that are best in class for growth and profitability.

    In essence, family members of the third generation should have to compete for the top spots in the firm and justify their position with best in class performance. Of course, our experience is that many don’t do this and this is why most third generation family businesses underperform or fail. In a conversation with two, experienced, well-educated, and non-family executives, I asked them how does one change the third generation family business? The overall opinion is that it is almost impossible to do so unless family cedes major decision making to outside elements and challenges the often sedentary practices wrought by three generations of success.

    In this environment, however, I believe it is an opportune time to succeed. Far too many distributors I interact with are satisfied and rather sedentary businesses. Many distribution executives think they are busy and don’t see how they, or any one else, could do much more in their respective firms.

    However, the financial performance of most durable goods distributors, over time, is not good. Some two-thirds of family distribution businessesfailto earn a satisfactory return on investment. Generally, the wholesale firm must earn a consistent and minimum 2.5% to 3% of sales before taxes to get the same returns, liquidity and diversification that they could in public markets.  

    Unfortunately, most distribution firms, over time don’t do this and this is why they underperform and are vulnerable. Today, many distribution firms are experiencing an earnings “pop” because of commodity inflation. The prices of steel, copper, petroleum and other base metals have skyrocketed 2.5x to 3.5x and this has lifted earnings of the average wholesaler. We caution wholesalers that this effect is only temporary and the commodity prices will come down and, over time, reflect marginal cost and inflation led earnings will be a fond, and sometimes bitter, memory.  

    In this predominant third generation environment, the firm that does things differently, smartly, and consistently can profit handsomely. This means breaking up the family gene pool with the best management that can be found. Whether or not the management is family is not as important as what they can do. Secondly, the third generation firm that hires experienced, better educated, and hard driving execs will have a better chance to succeed.

    Extended family members who are clipping dividends and distributions will have to sell out or come together and agree to let outsiders drive the firm. They will have to give key outsiders stiff objectives when, once reached, pay off handsomely. And, finally, our research leads us to believe that the innovations and competitive advantage in distribution will come from changes in the business model and less from typical sales, product, branch, and acquisition growth. 

    The opportunity in distribution is as rich as it has ever been. The third generation impediments are real and those governing families who acknowledge, understand, and fight against them are going against the well established history of observed decline in third generation family businesses. In essence, they take the historical bull by the horns and, in the paraphrased words of Winston Churchill, history will be kind to them for they intend to write it.