Succession Planning Breeds Success
In roughly 600 days, Mark Brown will exit Burger & Brown Engineering, leaving the company after nearly 30 years but returning to a familiar title to its president, Corey Brown. “I become dad, and walk out the door on June 6, 2023,” Mark says.
The fact that Mark’s exit has a precise date, which has been advertised to Burger & Brown’s (Grandview, Mo.) staff, vendors and customers, is not an accident. It is just the final step in a 9-year process for Mark’s planned exit from the company and Corey’s succession—emphasis on planned.
“I was at a place where I was staring at 50, and I had let go a president that was running the company for three years,” Mark says, recalling the moment when he determined it would be best for all parties if his retirement was choreographed and transparent vs. haphazard and hidden. “I didn’t want to be the guy that was 70 years old wondering what I was going to do with this business from a customer standpoint, as well as from our associates viewpoint. Transparency was the utmost; everyone needed to see a transition was in place.”
The precision machining, engineering design and custom injection molding company known by many in plastics for its Smartflow portfolio of manifolds, flowmeters and ejector tie-in systems is currently in year 7 of that 9-year transition plan. As 2021 started, per the plan, Corey became president on Jan. 1. He started at the company in 2014 as a project engineer, advancing to engineering manager in 2015 and vice president in 2017.
Five years into the transition, Corey began working with the executive coaching organization, Vistage, which provides executives and executives in training with an open forum to discuss shared issues and learn from each other.
As his watch nears its end, Mark says in many important ways, his role has already transitioned. “These last 20 months are going to be for me, kind of sitting back and being a cheerleader and supporting Corey in decisions that need to be made as opportunities arise,” Mark says. “It’s pretty well handed over at this point—if he needs support or has questions, I’m trying to help.”
As his exit nears, Mark has had a chance to reflect on the company and his time there, including the transition he experienced when its founder, Phil Burger, stepped aside. “[Phil] and I did an 11-year transition, which was too long,” Mark says, “when I reached out to Corey in that initial conversation, I said 9 years is what we’re going to shoot for and that’s what we stuck to.”
When Mark started with Burger & Brown in 1994, the company had 11 employees—today it has 70, while revenue has grown 10 to 11 times from where it was. “We went from being a small mom-and-pop shop to becoming a legitimate corporation, if you will,” Mark says, “dealing with the growing pains of having that many people and running 24 hr/day, 5-6 days/week.”
Founded as an engineering house performing design and automating processes for outside companies, the company had just started its own proprietary product line when Mark was hired on. Today, Mark says 35% of Burger & Brown’s business comes from those proprietary products, noting that it now has 16 trade names and 10 patents in its IP portfolio.
Transparency and Change
Corey and Mark thought it was important to share their company’s succession experience because so many businesses do not create a roadmap for that leadership change. Too often they’ve seen a lack of succession planning not only impact the transitioning company and its employees, but also its vendors and customers. “Not many people do succession planning,” Corey says. “A lot of people find themselves stuck at 60 years old and don’t have an exit plan.”
For companies starting the process, or even starting to think about the process, father and son have some advice. “You’ve got to be open to change; you have to be,” Mark says. “You’re going to constantly be uncomfortable, but that’s O.K.”
For Corey, it boiled down to one word—“transparency”—which his father agreed with. “With all of our stakeholders—our associates, customers and vendors—we’ve been very open about it,” Mark says. “Why we’re doing it; and we keep them abreast of where we’re at and let them know that we’re going to be around at least another 20 or 30 years or more.”
Passing the torch—a survey by Nationwide found that three in five small businesses do not have a succession plan in place.