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The next generation: Assuming leadership of a family tent rental business

April 1st, 2020 / By: / Feature

Thinking about taking over your family’s tent rental business? Be prepared to learn every job, initiate delicate conversations, ask questions and respect the previous generation’s work. Oh, and don’t expect special treatment. 

by Jeff Moravec

Young people entering their family’s tent rental business as a career can look forward to a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment that just isn’t available anywhere else—but they also should expect challenges above and beyond what they might find in any other workplace. 

That sentiment seems to be the consensus among a varied group of tent professionals who joined their family business and are thriving as the next generation of leaders. 

“Working in the family business is so rewarding,” says Jill Weis, one of three sisters who are a part of Cartwright & Daughters Tent & Party Rentals Inc., which has been in business in Carmel, N.Y., since 1981. “But it can be difficult.

“I love the industry and what I do, and I want to be here,” says Weis, who with her sisters has an ownership stake in the business, while their parents are the majority stockholders. “But when you have three siblings working with their parents, you’re going to have some drama. Communication is the key—you have to have constant communication to make sure you’re all on the same page.”

“It gets tough with family, but it has its blessings,” adds Jeff Ginty, president of Durkin’s Inc., a Danbury, Conn., fabrication and rental company that has operated under five generations of the Durkin family since it opened in 1904. “Where employees may come and go, everyone in the family is in it for the right reasons.”

The tough part, says Ginty, who is in the process of buying the company from his father, comes when there are expectations. “I’ve dealt with some family members that felt they had ‘family privileges.’ Family members as employees should be treated the same as everyone else,” he explains. “There should never be any type of special treatment; otherwise other employees will recognize that and there will be instant resentment.”

Paying your dues

Tent professionals who have taken over a family business advise young people to leave their entitlement at the door if they want to lead the company one day. 

“When I was growing up, I worked here in the summers, washing dishes in the back and driving a truck,” says Scott Alexander, who in 2014 bought Alexander Party Rentals in Kent, Wash., from his father, who started the company in 1992. “Then when I came here after college (in 2009), I started at the bottom and moved through every management position.

“You walk a fine line,” he adds. “You don’t want to be seen as being in your role just because of nepotism. For me, it helped that I was hard-working and tried to lead by example.”

“My sisters and I have all done everything,” adds Weis. “I’ve driven the trucks, scrubbed dishes, whatever needs to be done.” One advantage to learning multiple jobs within the company, she says, is that she and her siblings were able to naturally gravitate toward the roles where they each showed the most aptitude, but they can still fill in for the others when necessary.

“Growing up in the business, I was always an employee just like everyone else,” Ginty says. “After learning every single aspect of the business and mastering all the details, I felt comfortable knowing that all my surrounding employees witnessed me climb the corporate ladder by proven success, dedication and hard work.”

A solid family business succession plan benefits all of a company’s employees and their families, whose livelihood depends on the business, including the Marianne’s Rentals crew of Oklahoma City, Okla., shown here. Photo courtesy of Marianne’s Rentals.

Delicate topics

One of the challenges in a multi-generational family business is deciding what happens when it’s time for one generation to step aside and another to take over. Given the potential issues, it’s not surprising that it is a subject that families often shy away from.

“It’s one of those topics family businesses often avoid like the plague, because it can be uncomfortable,” says Stephen P. Miller, president of GenSpan Inc., an Asheville, N.C., family business planning firm, and cofounder of the Kenan-Flagler Family Enterprise Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

It doesn’t matter if a founder is no longer involved, says Miller; it can be just as delicate if it was a second or third generation of ownership that really built the company. Whatever the case, he says, “there’s a lot of personal identity tied up in a business.”

Succession planning requires the current ownership, no matter which generation it is, to think about stepping back, and about their own mortality, Miller says. “And because the next generation may have a lot of questions, it’s easy for them to feel that if they bring them up to Mom and Dad, they may be perceived as pushing them or putting their nose in their business where it doesn’t belong.”

As Made in the Shade Tent Rentals, Sacramento, Calif., has transitioned from one generation to the next, it has evolved to one with formal procedures and processes, according to Donny Vasquez, CEO (right) with his brother Kevin, chief technical officer. Photo courtesy of Made in the Shade Tent Rentals.

The first part of any discussion, Miller says, should be about whether the family really wants to continue the business when the time comes for a change in leadership. 

“The family needs to have a good reason for wanting to be in business together,” he says. “Next-generation family members may feel obligated or entitled to join the family firm, but they haven’t thought or talked about why they might want to be in business with a sister, brother or cousin. Many founders started their business as a way to make a good living, and it doesn’t necessarily have to go to the next generation to be a success.

“Then you need to work really hard to create a shared vision, to get clear about where you want to take the business,” Miller adds. “Family businesses often fail to succeed from one generation to the next because there is no shared vision for the future of the firm.”

Transition plan

At Marianne’s Rentals in Oklahoma City, Okla., general manager Jennifer Rodriguez has been through the process with her mother, Marianne Long, who is still president.

“I told my mom we needed a plan done while she is still alive, so her wishes could be honored,” says Rodriguez. “If something happened to her, it would have been a nightmare. I didn’t really care what her specific wishes were; we just needed them on paper.” 

In the end, the family created an ownership pool with the understanding that Rodriguez would eventually take over the company.

A successful transition requires that “the next generation respect the work that has already been done,” Rodriguez says. “They must show humility and gratitude in their role as the company transitions. Otherwise, it can be detrimental to the process or cause the owners to sell instead of passing it down.

“The balance is delicate,” she adds. “But the next generation must understand they will have their time to change things to be the vision of what they want.”

According to Miller, the consultant, it is often a good idea for a next-generation family member to get some outside experience before going to work at the family firm. 

“It can help them have some of their own success some place where their last name doesn’t matter,” he explains. “They can get more accurate feedback on their performance and build some self-confidence.”

Working in the family business is rewarding, but it is not without its challenges, according to Jill Weis, one of three sisters who are part of Cartwright & Daughters Tent & Party Rentals Inc., Carmel, N.Y. From left: Laura Dalrymple, Tracey Sherwood, Jerry Cartwright and Weis. Photo courtesy of Cartwright & Daughters Tent & Party Rentals Inc.

From teen worker to owner

Beginning at the age of 12, Donny Vasquez was required to help on weekends taking down tents for events produced by his parents’ tent rental company, Made in the Shade Tent Rentals, then located in Vacaville, Calif. (it’s now headquartered in Sacramento). It was the last thing he wanted to do. “I threw the biggest fits,” he says with a laugh.

But after graduating from college, Vasquez joined the company, working in outside sales. “I saw there was business out there we could tap into,” he says. “I wanted to stay.”

The company incorporated in 2001, at which time the three sons were given an ownership stake. But it wasn’t until 2015, when Vasquez’s parents began planning their retirement, that the family started to look at what the next generation of the company should look like.

It’s been a slow process, says Vasquez, who now serves as CEO. “We look at it when we have a free moment, and sometimes there isn’t a free moment.” But they are now working with a consultant, and Vasquez’s parents are taking an advisory role, while he and his brother, Kevin, lead the company (the other brother is no longer involved in the day-to-day operation).

“It’s been a process moving from a mom-and-pop shop to one with processes and procedures in place,” says Vasquez. “One thing I’ve learned is that you can’t just have the company handed to you. You have to visualize how you’re going to advance the business; you have to learn how to deal with people, with the equipment, and understand how to maintain customers. 

“We’re a very close family,” he adds. “My parents have given us the tools to succeed but never forced us to do anything. It’s played out very well in what we do. We rely on each other, and we always listen to what the others have to say.” 

Jeff Moravec is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis, Minn. 

SIDEBAR: Bright futures

Not everyone who ends up in the family business grows up dreaming about doing so. In fact, some swear they would never make such a move, after observing how much work their parents do for the business. 

Scott Alexander, now president and owner of Alexander Party Rentals in Kent, Wash., graduated from college in 2009, at the height of the recession, and went to work for the business started by his father to help him through the downturn.

“I swore I’d only give him a year, max,” says Alexander, who graduated with degrees in biology and history. “It didn’t quite work out that way.”

Alexander says he discovered he liked the work. “I found success in it,” he says, “and enjoyed the fact that we were doing well.” 

He bought the company from his father in 2014. “It was a huge opportunity,” Alexander says. “I’m very fortunate to have had the challenge.”

Jeff Ginty, president of Durkin’s Inc., a five-generation fabrication and rental company based in Danbury, Conn., also planned for a different future. 

“Although I grew up working in it my whole life, afternoons from grade school and summers through high school and college, I did not have intentions with working for the family business,” he says.

Ginty went to college, finishing with a double major in business management and marketing, with a minor in finance.    

“In my senior year, I prepared my thesis revolving around our family business,” he explains. “My professors were so intrigued, which drove me to dig deeper. I realized there was more potential once I scratched the surface.

“I recognized the value in Durkin’s and realized that it had a bright future,” he adds. “I found that working for myself one day was the answer. Our family business was somewhat antiquated, but I knew it had big potential. I knew we could dominate the field in our industry with the right people, along with a long list of satisfied clientele. I approached my father, who was president at the time, about the potential and, with welcoming arms, here we are thriving today.”