“To develop the best possible team, give them the best possible tools and get out of the way!”
I grew up in the swimming pool business. My father started Midwest Pool Management in 1963, the year I was born. I grew up digging ditches, acid washing swimming pools, lifeguarding and managing. As the boss’ son, I had more opportunities than most, but I would also argue that the expectations were higher than most. Through this experience growing up I developed a strong respect and interest in the entrepreneur. When I went to Indiana University it was with the intent of earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Entrepreneurship (it was a major at the time that has since been discontinued). After college I worked for Adam Aronson, CEO of Mark Twain Bank, in a management training program. Mr. Aronson was a dynamic leader that invested heavily in his team. I learned a great deal from him, and many of these lessons are a part of any legacy I have left at the organizations I have led.
In 1989, my father asked me to join the family business. I was eager to help. The advantage of joining a family business is that you get a head start on your career path. I would like to think I would have been successful on any career path, however, the family business allowed me to be tested by fire faster. It has been my experience that success of the next generation is more dependent on the senior generation than the younger. How the family patriarch communicates, shares knowledge, empowers and trusts the new generation is the critical component to success. My father was a master at laying the foundation for me to be successful.
In 1997, I approached my father with another team member to discuss buying the firm. While there were a lot of reasons we were not successful, I realized my father was not comfortable with partners. He was a brilliant visionary in the aquatic world and was exceptional at pushing the boundaries of aquatic design. But, at this point, the firm was at capacity because Dad was intimately involved in every project and there were just so many hours in the day.
In 1999, I was successful in purchasing 100% of Counsilman-Hunsaker. At that time we were licensed in 10 states and had 10 employees. I realized that for me to grow the firm, it would take a team that had the passion and discipline to build on the values my father established. Within the first six months we held our first strategic planning session, developed an open book corporate dashboard, began a formalized quality control process and created a shared fate culture where the entire team shared in the success and shortfalls of the organization. Over time this culture attracted some of the best talent in the industry. Counsilman-Hunsaker stood out as a home for talent where team members could make a tremendous impact.
By 2009, the firm had grown to 37 team members with three offices and licensed in all 50 states. Twenty percent of our revenue was from international projects. In 2003, I began offering stock to team members and by 2009 there were 12 partners. We had built a management team that could do just about anything and were poised for continued rapid growth. While hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst, the recession hit the aquatic industry in 2009. Industry publications indicate the swimming pool market declined 70% between 2008 and 2011. While Counsilman-Hunsaker did not experience this decline, we did have to manage challenges during this period. As we exited the recession in 2012, we had no debt, our market share had doubled and we were poised to enter new markets. Since 2010 the management team handled most of the day-to-day function of marketing, production and planning. My role as CEO was focused on strategic initiatives.
In our 2012 strategic planning meeting, we came to a standard agenda item of corporate stock sales. It was my philosophy to offer shares of stock each year to provide an opportunity to buy in the good times and bad. This seemed the most fair to me. In 2012, I owned 56% of the firm. I had always said I was willing to be a 51% owner, a 20% owner, a 0%owner but not a 49% owner. The plan was for me to go to 51%. I had also shared with my team it was my desire to do another start up and to build another team. This would bring my focus back to my passion for entrepreneurship.
Well, be careful what you ask for … a number of our junior partners expressed interest in becoming major shareholders. This would take me to the 20% ownership range. The fact of the matter was this team had the talent, skills and capability of taking Counsilman-Hunsaker into the future and make it their own. I believed in them and the bank did as well. The bank agreed to finance buying 100% of my outstanding shares. We executed the deal in less than 60 days. This could not have been accomplished without the years of communication, empowerment and trusting with confidence. These team members had already been owners in Counsilman-Hunsaker, both figuratively and functionally for a long time.
So why did I do it? Could I have made more money staying in my role? Absolutely. Do I miss having a highly skilled team of professionals around me? You bet. But it was time to walk the walk and talk the talk. The Counsilman – Hunsaker team was the best possible team, we had the best possible tools and they were making themselves better every day. It was time for me to get out of the way.