I saw a cartoon recently in which the owner of a business said to his son as they gazed out of the window on the family business, “Someday Son, this will all be yours, unless I can come up with a better solution!” That statement echoes the sentiment of many dealers I’ve worked with who are worried that their son or daughter is not prepared to be able to lead the company if something happened to Dad today. 

The question that needs to be answered involves the following: Is your successor identified, trained, approved by the manufacturer/s, respected by management and able to run the company successfully today? This may involve your son or daughter, or possibly a key manager. Unfortunately, in most dealer’s situations, the answer would be “no” or “I hope so”, neither of which is a satisfactory answer.

So, what needs to happen? 

GET EDUCATED – This seems basic, but all too often children are able to convince their parents that this is not important since “Dad doesn’t have a college degree.” That may be true, but in today’s world it is harder to navigate without one. This education needs to also involve industry training, such as is offered by the NADA Dealer Academy, the NCM Institute, Northwood University and manufacturer programs. 


Why? Because you will learn what it means to be an employee where your name doesn’t give you any advantages. Also, when starting out it helps to be able to make your mistakes in someone else’s sandbox, rather than in Dad’s dealership where many of the managers still remember you as a small child and expect you to continue to be a child. It is not fair, but every son/daughter of a dealer is constantly under the microscope and employees are scrutinizing your child’s work ethic, attitude and aptitude for the job while expecting him/her to take advantage of his status. Most of the time the managers have known your son or daughter since childhood and bridging the gap to be accepted as an adult can be challenging in your family dealership. 

One dealer that I have worked with for 20 years was so excited about the prospects of his son joining him in the business after college. “We’re going to be partners together!” was his viewpoint so he resisted my advice to have his son work somewhere else first. The son came into the family dealership right out of college and had trouble establishing himself, as he was still seen as the boss’ kid. As a result, he floundered and finally Dad was willing to listen. We decided that since the Used Car department was the weak link in his dealership, he would send his son to a Twenty Group dealer friend in Florida who did a great job with used cars. After a year the son returned, but now he brought knowledge that no one else had in their family dealership. His understanding of how to run a great Used Car department helped build his confidence and he began to act like a leader, gaining respect as he did so. His world had changed and his chances of becoming Dad’s successor had improved exponentially! 


It is crucial to earning respect that your son/daughter learns the basics of the business. If he/she is really capable, then they will want to progress quickly and may feel like you are holding them back. That is why it is extremely important that you develop a Successor Development Curriculum so that your children can see where they are headed and what he has to do to move forward. This Curriculum needs to include Objectives/Goals and Measures of Accountability so there are objective means of everyone knowing what progress is being made by your hopeful successor. 

Promoting someone too quickly is a recipe for disaster as they are bypassing crucial learning benchmarks needed to sustain long-term productivity, especially in the difficult market conditions that they will eventually experience. Once promoted, no one wants to go backwards to pick up this crucial experience and knowledge. Remember, some things can only be learned via experience and moving your successor too quickly may bypass this vital experience. 


Play by the same rules that you impose on all the rest of your employees. Often, parents increase the pay of their child, wanting to share the good life with their children, such as affording them the opportunity to live in their neighborhood or help the grandchildren attend private schools. While these are understandable motivations, there are other ways of providing income rather than via their pay plan. This undermines their relationship with your other employees. When you promote your child who is not ready, this does not help him to become the leader you want him to be. 


While many successful dealers and successor dealers have not followed the above “rules”, this is no surprise as those who are talented, committed, hard working and self motivated will usually succeed. Unfortunately, my partners and I have been brought in many times to resolve issues in family dealerships where the above “rules” were violated and havoc reigns supreme. It is our experience that 100% of those children of dealers who fail, usually do so because one or more of the above “rules” were violated. To be the successor leader of your dealership, your child will need to make their success the old fashion by, “by earning it!

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