“I love coming to work every day!” exclaimed the 81- year old dealer. No doubt and he definitely still had plenty of gas left in his tank! Energetic and mentally sharp, his idea of “retirement” was to come in to work at 10:00 a.m. (“but I stay at least until 5:00 p.m.”). As the founder of his dealership empire, he was extremely proud of what he had accomplished and still felt he could contribute and run the business if he had to. So what’s the problem? 

The problem is that each of the dealers I worked with, who are in this situation, wanted his son (or daughter) to take over the business eventually and continue his legacy. In working with auto dealers for the past 25 years, I have had this type of conversation on many occasions. I have therefore seen successful transitions between generations, but all too often, I have witnessed disasters, both for the dealership and the family. The questions therefore are, “will your son/daughter be ready when the time comes” and “is your involvement sabotaging your succession plans?” Frequently, the first answer is “no” or at best, the transition would not be smooth. The decisions you make as to your involvement will definitely impact the successful transition of your business. So, what needs to happen in order for your legacy to continue successfully? 

First of all, as the patriarch, you must realize that you cast a very big shadow. It is often extremely difficult to be your son or daughter. Undoubtedly you are a very strong personality and you have been extremely successful, thus making it very difficult for your child to measure up to your accomplishments. Depending on your personality and management style, you may need to change things in order to give your son or daughter the opportunity to make the decisions that are necessary for preparing them to be able to run the dealership. If you are a very dominating personality or have a strong need to control, you need to look in the mirror and convince yourself that you must back off and give your son some space or your succession dream will one day become a nightmare. 

It is likely that you are comparing your son to you and “look out” if he wants to do things differently. My experience is that most dealer fathers acknowledge that their son will need to do things differently but it is a whole different ball game when that actually happens! 

So, what should the basis be for deciding whether or not doing things differently from Dad is acceptable? Certainly, profitability is key. If the business continues to maintain levels of profitability (along with acceptable CSI scores, market share, following legalities and manufacturer guidelines), then it is probable that your son has what it takes and his management style is working, even if it is different than yours. 

It is one thing to try to train your child to be successful when they are in their 20’s or 30’s. It is quite a different thing to still be expecting significant change to happen when your child is in his/her 40’s or 50’s. By continuing to badger them to change at this point, you are only damaging your relationship and change is not likely to happen. I told one dealer (in his 70’s), “your son is 46, the die is cast – he is obviously his own man and wants to do things differently from the way you do things”. This son was definitely an accomplished General Manager and he definitely did things differently. 

In contrast to the frustration that the above dealer and his son were experiencing, I just met with a dealer in his 70’s who is addressing this issue in a very satisfying and effective manner. John (not his real name), recognizes that his son is not the gregarious salesman and motivational leader that he is. The son, Bill (not his real name), is solid financially, good on administrative details, presents himself well with the public and manufacturers and has a good business sense. Therefore, John and Bill decided that the best approach was to hire a GM who could manage day to day operations and keep the troops fired up and selling. John continues to be involved but he is conscious about giving the spotlight and deferring decision making to his son and the GM. Due in large part to the father’s sensitivity to his own dominant personality and willingness to back off, his son welcomes Dad’s involvement and continued expert advice. 

However, if you know you aren’t likely to back off, then probably you need to remove yourself for significant periods of time, as did another dealer with whom I have worked. Tom (not his real name) knew that he and his son George (not his real name), would definitely clash as George is extremely talented and opinionated, much like his father. In order for Tom’s succession goals to be accomplished, he knew he needed to give the reins to George. As a result, Tom spends at least six months in Florida. 

This definitely helps in their situation, but there is one huge pitfall you must avoid, if you go this route. All too often, fathers exercise “seagull management”, i.e., fly in, poop all over everything and fly out! In other words, you can’t expect to show up every now and then and overturn major decisions that have been made. This is a recipe for business and family disaster! 

Finally, expectations are extremely important and must be clearly stated and defined between a father and his children operating together in the family business. With the help of a trained succession advisor, you need to define and get on paper what each of you expects of the other in terms of decision making authority, time spent on the job, who is going to be responsible for what areas, profitability benchmarks, etc. Clearly defined expectations, agreed upon in writing, will make it more likely that fathers and their children can co-exist positively and effectively, both for the betterment of the business and your family. Hopefully, you too can echo the words of one dealer, “having my father involved with me in the dealership is wonderful!” Obviously, he is no longer living in Dad’s shadow. 

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