My Inbox to Yours 007: Doing The Right Thing Isn’t Just Hard, It’s Painful

A while back I received an email from Russ Vaagen, sharing the story of his success and personal struggles with family business.

Here is how everything unfolded.

Gary,

I’m 40 years old and I’ve been the VP for my family’s Forest Products Company for the past 13 years. My father is 65 this summer and we have been butting heads for the last 3–4 years. Since I’ve been involved we’ve grown the business from around $50 million in sales to over $164 million in 2016.

Last year I brought an opportunity to the company to vertically integrate into a new product line that is going gangbusters in Europe, but is barely discovered here. My dad was good with it at first and then I think felt like it was too much risk so even after everything looked great he passed.

I decided to go out and do it on my own and get it going. It’s ready to take off and my dad has turned on me and is now going against almost everything I do. I’ve been his biggest fan and our company’s biggest fan. I speak in public, write a blog, started a YouTube channel, write a column for an industry publication and always hold him and my family in the highest regard.

This is super painful and I know you grew up in a family business. There’s a lot more to this, but I thought this might be something many could learn from. If you’re interested in more of this story and how we can use it for others to learn from I’d be interested in talking about it.

All the best,

Russ


My team responded and we got to talking. Then Russ wrote this:

Many of you that listen and watch Gary are looking to go out on your own and do your own thing.

Maybe you already have your own business, but you’re looking to do better. This is great, but there are others of us that, like Gary, work or have worked in family businesses.

Making that leap from key employee to starting your own business is hard, but when your other title is “son” or “daughter” it can be incredibly painful.

I’d like to share my story to help anyone else that finds themselves in similar shoes.

Since 2004, I have been the Vice President of my family’s forest products company. I am the third generation of this company that was started by my grandfather and great uncle. I have always told people that family business is the best thing in the world and the most frustrating thing in the world at the same time. As I move out on my own the latter becomes more and more true.

Our family company owns land and operates mills that use small logs from forest restoration work to produce lumber. That’s right, 2x4’s and other size wood used to build homes, apartments, and anything else that you can construct with wood. I have been responsible for the day to day operations since 2004. Many people like to ask, “What does a vice-president do?” Good question. I usually answer that by saying, “I do everything my father (President) doesn’t do and vice-versa.”

I loved my job and took immense pride in carrying on my family’s legacy. In my 20’s and 30’s I worked well with my dad. We were on the same page and he listened to my suggestions and trusted my instincts. My dad is 24 years older than me and I am the oldest child. He was a young man when I was getting after it. He liked growing the business together and had a decent risk tolerance. Since I started we took the company from about $70 million in sales with 130 employees to $165 million revenue and 370 employees last year.

2016 was a record year. Everything is great, right? Wrong.

You’ll soon learn, if you don’t already know, that money isn’t going to solve your problems.

Our problem had been developing for about 3 years.

My dad, who had been mostly supportive and a mentor, providing leeway and leadership started micro-managing more and more. As he was growing older, his trust was waning and it was impacting the entire management team. We had the dreaded “Monday Meetings” that seemed to drag on for hours to re-hash the same tired issues over, and over again.

In 2014, I heard of a new product that used our existing products to create something of greater value that had the potential to vertically integrate our business. I saw this as a way to move us from producing commodity lumber at wholesale prices to selling something much deeper in the value chain, expanding our margins significantly with almost unlimited growth potential. As any VP worth their salt, I studied the prospects and brought this opportunity to the company.

This included research of the product, how it was used, what it would take to make it, cost estimates and profit potential. I even traveled to Europe to visit facilities that were doing what I was proposing. Not only did all this make sense, but it was almost ignored in North America because so few people in our industry took the time to understand it. Initial conversations with my dad were promising. This process could easily be added to the back end of our process and would seamlessly integrate operations.

In March of 2016, in the “Monday Management Meeting,” I presented my case for moving into this business. Abruptly, my dad says, “It’s not ready yet. We’re not doing it.” I was shocked. There seemed to be no logic behind his decision and I was left wondering what to do.

I had been working under the pretense that I was building “our future.” I come to find out the hard way that “our” only works when my dad agrees with it. After lots of thinking and prayer it was obvious what I had to do. It was time for me to move out on my own.

I needed to do this myself. After all, if makes sense to do it for my family company, it will make sense for investors and the banks. I think everyone in that meeting knew it was a watershed moment when my dad said “no” to the project. Now it was time to act.

I called a meeting with my dad and told him that I was going to pursue this on my own. I knew he wasn’t going to be thrilled, but I knew I had to do it. The conversation was less about business and became this strange discussion where he told me where I was good at things and then criticized me for others.

I’m open to criticism, but when it’s personal it sucks. This is where family businesses are frustrating. In businesses, professionalism is required. In family businesses things can be said that have something to do with what you did in high school and for some reason that’s ok.

As a 40-year-old executive, hearing personal criticism when you’re trying to take your big professional leap is frustrating. In a strange way, it re-affirms your resolve.

Over the next year, I built a business plan, assembled a team, and started talking to everyone in my network that knew something about raising money. I embraced the ride as this was something I had never done before. I learned a ton, and I’m still learning. During this process I always hoped in that my family company would get involved. Maybe in some deep seeded way I wanted my father’s approval, but I also wanted to let the family company that I still owned 30% of take advantage of this amazing opportunity.

These are the painful days because what you need to do and what your heart wants you to do are two different things. Your family will most likely not understand what you are trying to do, even when they stand to benefit. When you are creating change, people resist.

Especially true when they feel like that change is being forced upon them. Ultimately when you know you are right you need to go! You need to do what’s needed to make it happen.

People always ask, “…but, what if you fail?” My answer has always been “Sometimes you just have to ‘will it’ to work.”

I don’t plan to let something I do fail. That doesn’t mean that you don’t pivot when you see your assumptions are incorrect. It just means you keep the pressure on and keep moving forward toward that goal.

All I can do now is work. These things will come together as long as I am diligently moving forward while keeping my head up to see what changes need to be made along the way. The pain with the family is still present, but it’s what I signed up for.

I didn’t tell this story so I could tell “my story,” but rather so many of you out there could see the similar story in what I am going through. You know that it can be done. Just like Gary, when you know the time is right to move to the next thing you need to go. There are many people every day branching out on their own because they have something bigger to share with the world. At the same time there are others that have something to share, but decide to stay in a role they hate. I don’t judge, but you do have a choice. And even with the pain, it’s worth it. And if you don’t do what you know you should do at some point you may regret not doing.

My Response:

It all comes down to regret. I’m glad Russ shared this story and hope it can provide some perspective for other’s going through a similar situation. The reality is, is that your boss or your father, or your brother may be the person holding you back and you have to have that conversation. We have to get to a place where you are doing you, because the number one thing that scares the fuck out of me, is regret and you are gonna sit there at 72 and you will say, “I wish, I wish, I wish…”


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