Dean, Ryan, Ted and Bob Walker (left to right)
Walker Mowers has long been known as being family-owned, operated and oriented. As the third generation makes their transition into the business, many of the company's dealers and end-users are wondering what changes are in store. To assist with the transition, a consultant has been brought on to see it through. The hands-on, thorough transition will likely lead to some changes in the end, but the company's core values will remain the same.
Trusting in an expert for the transition
When brothers Bob and Dean Walker took over the family business decades ago, it was a very different transition in a different time. The company was smaller, still coming into its own. As Dean's sons Ryan and Ted begin their transition, Bob and Dean reflect on their own experience and the transition they hope to facilitate for the third generation.
"When I started with my dad, it was 15 people and we did a lot of different things," says Bob. "I basically just came to work and learned the business. The company now is 150 to 160 people. The complexity of the company and business today is a lot different from 30 years ago."
Bob and Dean spent a lot of time working in the business experiencing the day-to-day activities. The time they spent there prepared them for an unfortunate event that required an immediate transition. Father and founder Max Walker had a stroke that left the company in the hands of his sons. Bob now oversees the business and marketing, while Dean oversees product development and manufacturing.
"When we joined we did so in purely a working role," says Dean. "We were in survival mode as a company and didn’t know where we were going or if we had a future. The transition came much later, but by that time we had been involved in the business and working with our parents for years. It was almost a seamless transition when it happened."
As the company has grown and the day-to-day business has become more complex, the brothers agreed that bringing on a consultant for the succession would help their chances at another smooth and successful transition.
"We both felt that instead of trying to be the trainers in a family setting, it would be better to have someone that is more objective," says Bob. "My brother and I are both very emotionally connected to the business. You tend to get into your groove or way of thinking. It's good to have the next generation ask a lot of questions and have a better answer than 'that’s the way we have always done it.'"
The consultant will not only be a neutral party to bounce thoughts and ideas off of, but is specialized in the succession process and possesses the tools Bob and Dean may not.
"Like a lot of things, if you try to wade through the water yourself, you will find it to be much more difficult than if you have somebody to guide you through the process," explains Dean. "Part of the function is the outside perspective our consultant gives us and them. He can listen and advise based on his experience and perspective."
Time on the job gaining experience
Bob and Dean gleaned their experience with Walker Mowers through many years on the job. While they gained a lot of experience before their transition into their more active roles, it was not a premeditated transition.
"It was much less intentional than what we are doing," says Dean. "We are in a much quicker transition as far as the time between bringing them in and when we plan to turn the business over to them. It is going to be a much shorter time period and there is a lot more pressure on them than what Bob and I had on us."
The consultant has developed a plan that involves Ted and Ryan spending periods of time experiencing and proving their knowledge in six areas of the business. Those six areas are: finance, manufacturing, engineering, purchasing, customer service, and sales and marketing. The consultant has worked with the heads of each of these departments to develop a curriculum for teaching the ins and outs to Ted and Ryan through hands-on experience.
"Some people like to put a lot of emphasis on talent, but I feel it is sometimes overstated. I think you need a blend of experience and ability—the experience part comes over time," explains Bob. "We will try to align them with where their strengths are, but in the beginning they just need to get a feel for how the company works."
The amount of time they spend in each area is entirely dependent on how long it takes them to grasp the role and challenges of each area of the business. It is up to the consultant and department heads to evaluate their performance and decide when they are ready to move on to the next area of the business. Once all six areas are mastered, they will move on to the next step in the transition.
"The rotations are phase one, then they will begin to mentor for leadership in the company. My brother and I don’t intend to retire and walk away at that time," says Bob. "Hopefully we can do as well as my dad did. We told him we wanted responsibility. It wasn’t always easy, but he gave us more and more every day."
Expect some changes, but the same principles remain
The full transition before the third-generation brothers assume leadership roles will be eight to 10 years. At that time, and perhaps during the transition, it would be reasonable to expect some changes. Bob and Dean are already witnessing the effects of the new perspective and positive energy Ted and Ryan bring to the business.
"As you go generation by generation, there are always changes," says Bob. "It is fairly naïve to think it will stay the same. There are foundational principles that have been developed, and those will stay the same and be used and appreciated by the next generation as much as the previous generations. If you are going to bring a family member into a business, they have to be passionate about the business. They can't be there just because they are in the family."
In the last year, Ted and Ryan have both displayed their passion and concern for the business and its success. Dean hopes their presence in the day-to-day operations will help to put others at ease.
"Our employees and our channel have been concerned for a long time about what the future of our company was," says Dean. "People both inside and outside are excited and very receptive to Ted and Ryan and the future of the company. Any time there is possibility of change down the road it’s always a little bit unnerving and unsettling. The best thing is that people can see what kind of people they are and where their heads and hearts are."
Bob says that the day he signed on as president of the company didn’t feel any different than the day before. He and Dean are hoping they can set Ted and Ryan up for just as comfortable a shift. They trust that the decisions made by the third generation will be in line with their core values and have everyone's best interests in mind.
"The person driven by ego wants things to fall apart so everyone will notice they are gone," says Bob. "We look at all the other people beside the owners that have a stake. Suppliers, distributors, over 1,000 dealers, and the end customers that bought the product with the promise that there would be spare parts and continued support. When you look at it that way, it becomes less about 'me' and more about 'us'. When you have that view, careful succession planning makes perfect sense."
Ted and Ryan's goals are in line with Bob's desire to take each person the Walker brand touches into consideration when they take on their future responsibilities. Their time spent in the different rotations during the transitional process is helping them to better understand each individual involved.
"The rotations are certainly valuable from a purely educational standpoint, but what I've discovered to be even more important is the opportunity to develop relationships with the people that really make this business possible," explains Ted. "We are dependent on people to be successful, and we have a great group of people here at Walker and in our distribution channel."
Along with great people, the brothers have a growing respect for Walker products. Ryan says he hopes to maintain the company's core principles while helping Walker Mowers continue to create innovative products.
"The foundational beliefs that guided my grandfather, Max, my uncle, Bob, and father Dean, will continue to be our center," says Ryan. "We are a company that takes risk, innovates to create value, and continues to seek opportunity in the lawn care industry. These attributes of Walker Manufacturing are our competitive advantage, and I will do everything I can to nurture innovation and a passion to get better. We are in the manufacturing business and it is imperative we continue to improve Walker Mowers."