How many family businesses do you know that survive the heir apparent stepping away from the company? How many times does that separation happen under good terms and end while maintaining positive relationships with the company leadership and employees? How often do they still endorse and rep that company to anyone they would talk to?
How many father son relationships not only survive such a move? How many times does that relationship not only survive but thrive coming out of it?
In case you were wondering, all the positive answers to those questions are my story coming out of Gerding Builders, one of several companies in the family of companies in Gerding Companies.
I believe one of the secrets to this comes from a piece of the story that I have never shared.
For those unaware, Gerding Companies and every company within that family of companies is 100% employee owned. My dad sold the company to the employees several years ago as part of his succession planning of making the company succeed into future generations and outlast him. That decision was years in the making, and at least two years before the actual transfer of ownership happened my dad began talking to me about it. Before he decided on a plan of action for moving forward, he wanted my buy-in, and so he laid out two different paths for me.
One option was bestowing the company on me by making me a partner and having me buy him out over time. If I had chosen that, right now at age 30, I would probably be stepping into the process of being a part owner in the company. In fact, it might have begun even sooner. It would mean a lot of money, a lot of power, and a lot of respect and bragging rights; everything that most men would dream to have.
Additionally, this would not have been an unwelcome ascension. I had done the janitorial service through middle school and high school. During my first couple college summers I worked in the field on a couple different crews and earned a reputation as a damn hard worker who busted his butt day in and day out as best he knew how to get the job done. The superintendents respected me for listening to them and doing whatever I could to keep the lights green on the jobsite and help keep them moving. The project accountants loved working with me because I kept things easy and clear on billings, change orders, and requests for updates on the project job costing. The executive team respected my ability to live out the company’s values while also keeping jobs profitable. When it became public I was transitioning out of the company, I don’t know how many well wishes and statements that people would miss having me around I received from all across the companies.
The second option was making the company employee owned. This would mean I would start working my way up the company leadership on merit and my ascension would be determined more by the next generation of leadership between my dad and myself. Everyone would have a general understanding of where my ultimate trajectory would be, but it would be a much slower climb. Additionally, the company would never be “mine”. I would not have nearly the same financial upside.
My dad wanted to know what I wanted. The future trajectory of the company was not fully in my hands, but I bet my choices were about 80% of what ended up driving my dad’s decision.
What would you choose as an ambitious 25 year old man?
About this time I was starting to significantly invest my own time and money (to the tune of $5k-$10k a year) on learning from some top business individuals and business coaches through their programs and events. It is a habit I have kept myself engaged in ever since I started. One of the things that I had been learning about was the power of getting employee buy-in and how to engage them in making a company successful. One of the most if not the most powerful means of doing this was making a company employee owned.
It was not even a contest between the two choices for me. I knew without a doubt that making the company employee owned would propel it so far beyond where I could take the company as a sole owner. It was the best thing for the company by an infinite leap, and I let my dad know it and encouraged him to pursue that path. Once my dad knew I was behind that decision, he began figuring out which legal structure for an employee owned company best served the people and culture of the company.
The reason my transition out of the family company went so smooth was that neither my dad nor myself were consumed in making it be family owned. It was in our dreams and intentions, but we cared about the company as a whole, about all the people and their families, and how to keep the company strong and whole beyond our lifetimes. We wanted the company to expand beyond the dreams of a father and son and continue to benefit the world long after we were present.
I believe that the heart for both my dad and I came from our faith in God, specifically in what Jesus did for humanity.
The Bible uses the picture of God the Father and Jesus, the Son of God to show the connection and depth of relationship contained in that aspect of the Trinity (the Christian term for God being both singular being and simultaneously God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit).
The relationship of family existed in the essence of God from eternity past, and its revelation in the story of the Bible comes when humanity has not heard from God for 400 years. God’s people have regularly turned from Him and ignored His reach to bring them back into whole relationship with Him to such an extent that He stops communicating. Now to be clear, this silence is after nearly 1,100 years of regular and constant rebellion, which the Bible compares to a wife going off and acting like a prostitute. There are a handful of cluster of years where His people are faithful, but they are the exception.
It is at this point that God dramatically and forcefully exerts himself into reality by becoming a human being. Jesus, the Son of God, is born into grinding poverty and grows up despised and ridiculed because people believe he is a bastard son. As he starts into his ministry at thirty years of age, even his family turns against him, thinking him crazy.
Jesus gathers together a group of followers, the closest of which either betray or leave him at his highest hour of need, when the religious leaders, the very ones who should immediately recognize him for who he is, take him away to kill him. In the end, he is flogged until his bones and internal organs are visible, forced to carry his own cross until he collapses under it weight, and then hung naked on it, visible to everyone passing into Jerusalem, the largest and most important city of his country during the height of their most important religious festival when everyone who is able bodied is required to travel there.
What would compel a Father and Son to enter into such a heart wrenching plan? How could a Father endure watching his Son endure such horrific pain and suffering? Why would a Son gladly endure such pain and suffering at the request of his Father? They had a vision and goal that made it beyond worth it.
The author of the book of Hebrews in the New Testament writes, “For the joy set before [Jesus] he endured the cross, scorning its shame…” What joy could possibly be worth THAT?!
“In love [God] predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.” (Ephesians 1:5)
“But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has mad you also an heir.” (Galatians 4:4-7)
“The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” (Romans 8:15)
They wanted humanity to have access to them as family. Not as servants, not as subservient subjects, not as fearful, terrified individuals.
Listen to this prayer of Jesus right before he is captured, tortured, and sentenced to death:
“I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one – I in them and you in me – so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:20-23, emphasis added)
God’s heart has never been to be separate from humanity. He has always longed to bring humanity into the fullness of relationship with Him. Knowing that humanity was completely unable to do what was necessary to make that relationship possible, he took responsibility for our failings. He had to measure out justice for our actions, so he bore our own punishments. He lived through a life of suffering, so that in the end he could pay our price through a horrific, humiliating death. He endured that we might gain access and be able to belong in his family and receive every blessing that comes from being an heir of God.
That is why my passion is to help people find and encounter God, why I am writing a book on how to engage and grow in relationship with God: a Father overflowing with love and mercy, a Son willing to give up all comfort and security all for guaranteed suffering and death, so that a free invitation into the blessings of his family could be extended to all.
May you seriously consider the gift extended by a loving Father and Son to join their family and mission to see every person included in the joy and celebration of coming home what their heart has always longed for.