You Can Pick Your Family

It is said that you can pick your friends and pick your wife, but you can’t pick your family. In general, this is true. An exception is family businesses. One can pick the family he or she works for.

It is said that you can pick your friends and pick your wife, but you can’t pick your family. In general, this is true. An exception is family businesses. One can pick the family he or she works for.

At one time or another, most companies have had an entrepreneur at the helm with the hope of founding a family business. Before there was a General Motors, there was David Buick, Ransom Olds and Louis Chevrolet. Before there was a Kodak, there was George Eastman. For various reasons, these household names, and many others, moved beyond the founding families’ circle of influence to a point where the companies’ histories are their only attribution.

However, many companies have managed to navigate the mine-field of multi-generational family business. June is the anniversary month of Gardner Publications Inc., parent company of Production Machining. After 78 years, and as our fourth generation prepares to take over the reins, we remain most definitely a family-owned and operated business.

In 1928, Don Gardner started a metalworking trade magazine called Modern Machine Shop. He founded the company in Cincinnati, which made a lot of sense back then because the city was inarguably the machine tool capital of the world.
Through depression, war, feast and famine, the company managed to stay in business and thrive. Don passed the mantle to his son-in-law, Richard, who was patriarch to the Kline family that now owns and operates GPI.

Richard’s son Rick Kline is our current president and has worked for the family business for 43 years. Today, we publish six trade magazines, all targeted at various manufacturing industry segments.

Like any family, employees here share the good times and the bad. We’re not a large operation—about 100 employees total—but we play large in the markets we serve. The reason for this is passion and vision for the business. Even after 43 years, Rick Kline works as hard today as ever and enjoys it more than ever. In addition to growing our publishing business, his vision has led us to early Internet utilization, international associations with other publishers, publication of reference books, and production of seminars and trade shows as well as immersion in the industries we serve through trade association relationships. The company will never be merely tangential to its markets.

Currently, we’re getting ready for the inevitable changing of the guard as generation three gives way to generation four. Many of you work for family businesses and understand that often this generational transition can be tricky.

The Kline family understands this and has been pro-active about transition. Moreover, and importantly, they have kept the extended employee family in the loop about plans to ensure the continuity of the business from this generation to the next. Proaction is key to continuity because a family business takes more attention to the business than others because of the interpersonal nature of it. If left on auto-pilot, survival of a family business is far from a given.

Implementing some of these action plans might be helpful in your family business. For example, to help with continuity, a few years ago, we established a Kline family council to function as a forum for inter-generational dialogue. It’s a more structured and business-like approach to transitional issues than just sitting together at the dinner table.

In addition, the family has participated in training programs from the Goering Center for Family Business at the University of Cincinnati. In another move I applaud, the Kline family includes independent members on our board of directors who not only provide outside advice and council, but also complete performance appraisals for family members.

Please don’t get the wrong idea that I’m living in paradise. There is no perfect family or family business. A difference here, and I believe in other successful family business, is that we work together to identify and fix our problems—just like any family should.

Over the years, our culture has evolved purposely to reduce the tendency found in many family businesses for a we/they hierarchy to take prominence in favor of easy access and direct dialogue among all members of the family. All in all, after being part this family for 14 years, I still think I picked a winner.