Seated front: Mrs. Jo Cook, secretary-treasurer emeritus; seated left: Lyn Cook, secretary-treasurer; seated right: Leslie Cook, Brian’s wife; standing left: John Cook Jr., chairman of the board; standing right: Brian Cook, director of business development. Cook’s photos by Dave McAlister, Ceva Media Group
On Brian Cook’s first day of graduate school, his professor told him that the odds of his future success were stacked against him. Citing national statistics, the professor pointed out that less than 3 percent of family businesses survive past the third generation.
Brian wasn’t phased.
“I always knew I would have to work hard to prove myself in the family business and hearing that, I knew I’d just have to work harder,” he said.
Now as director of business development at Cook’s Pest Control, Decatur, Ala., Brian represents the fourth generation leading his family’s business, and the industry, into the future.
At Sprague Pest Solutions, Tacoma, Wash., Ross Treleven manages the company’s Denver office and represents the fourth generation in his family’s business. Recently, Ross, Brian and several other company executives spoke with PCT magazine about what their companies are doing to cultivate a new generation of leaders.
Plan for the future, now. “One of the most important facets of developing the next generation of leadership is deciding who the next leader will be, and spending ample time – preferably years – grooming that person,” says David M. Paradise, Ph.D., president of the Family Business Resource Center, Newton Centre, Mass.
At many family-owned pest management companies, like Cook’s and Sprague, grooming the future generation begins almost at birth.
“Growing up in pest control, you tend to live, eat, sleep and drink the business,” says John Cook Jr., chairman of the board and member of the third generation of leadership at Cook’s.
His son, Brian, agrees. “It was part of our everyday life. I grew up next door to my grandparents (the late John Cook Sr., and wife Jo, who represent the second generation in the business). I would spend time with them after school and ask them to tell me about what they had done each day.”
Day-to-day conversations about work soon gave way to more serious discussions about the future of the business in each family.
“Talk about the business side of things started casually on the golf course in our family,” says Ross Treleven. “Then we started to have family meetings about once a year. Those early meetings laid the groundwork to get my generation engaged in the business.”
Sprague Pest Solutions’ Larry Treleven, left, and his brother, Alfie, regularly discuss the company’s future and the roles their children might play. Photo by Dane Gregory Meyer.
According to Ross’ father, Larry Treleven, chairman of the board at Sprague, the family meetings recently have evolved. “Now we have family meetings three or four times a year,” he says. “We talk about the business, about the future and about what’s involved should the kids choose to work with us.” The “kids” includes Ross, as well as his brother Paul and sister Angela, and their three cousins who are the children of Alfie Treleven, Sprague president and Larry’s brother.
While Ross is currently the only member of his generation involved in the business on a day-to-day basis, his siblings and cousins have not ruled out joining the company.
“Almost all of the kids have worked at Sprague at one time or another,” says Larry.
To bring additional insight and structure to these meetings, the Treleven family has utilized resources like speakers and books that focus on family business development.
Paradise also suggests that creating an agenda and distributing it to all participants prior to the meeting will help add structure. “Family meetings should really be seen as part of a due diligence process of sorts,” says Paradise. “It’s a time to provide a full picture about the business, not only information about the financials, but also about the business history including any stressors, like failed business partnerships or endeavors, that have influenced the business. That way, the next generation has a better understanding of what they are really getting involved in.”
Annual meetings are just one part of the succession planning process at Sprague. “With the growth of business and our families, my brother Alfie and I realized we needed a formal succession plan in place and have engaged family business planners to help us figure out how to plan for the future,” says Larry.
Engaging a third party who understands the challenges of succession can help manage the process and avoid some of the pitfalls.
“Succession does not just happen,” says Paradise. “It requires careful planning – everyone involved needs to become part of the team, planning together so the succession process develops smoothly and effectively.”
According to Paradise, a third-party facilitator can help bring the family team together. ”Succession planning among families tends to be more emotional than at a publicly held company. People tend to say things they may not in a non-family business environment,” says Paradise. “A third-party facilitator can set the discussion agenda and help guide participants through difficult issues and emotional content to help people listen in an open way.”
Ross understands the importance of planning for the future and the stress that can come with it. “We have to focus on how ownership will pass,” he says. “There’s so much more at stake now and ownership impacts many more employees. We have one shot to get it right.”
That’s precisely where a third-party can help, notes Paradise. “A facilitator can help keep the atmosphere of calm,” he says.
At Cook’s, succession planning has not been as formal. “I am the only son, of an only son, of an only son,” says Brian. “We have had conversations about the future of the business over time. It’s been an organic process for us.” Planning meetings have included members of the Cook family, along with members of the executive management team who have worked together to develop a timeline for a future transition.
Room to grow. Another transition strategy is allowing the next generation ample opportunity to earn trust and respect and to try out different roles.
Larry’s son Ross, right, manages the firm’s Denver office. Photo by Laura Ashbrook Treleven.
Like other sons and daughters in the industry, Ross and Brian each worked at his family’s company throughout high school and during college vacations, learning the business from the ground up. Since joining their respective companies after school – Brian holds a master’s degree from the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, while Ross earned his bachelor’s degree from Gonzaga University – each has worked to prove himself with every new role.
In Brian’s case, he initially focused on dispelling any negative stereotypes. “The reality is that when I joined the business full time, some may have viewed me as just the grandson of the current owner, an only child, maybe lazy and spoiled, maybe expecting something for nothing,” he says. “I embraced that and knew that I had to work harder, work smarter and prove myself to each technician, sales inspector and manager. I think in doing that, people saw the same passion, commitment, work ethic and positive attitude of my father and grandfather as well.”
After joining Cook’s full time, Brian worked in several different areas of the business before immersing himself into aspects of quality control as manager of the customer care center. That role allowed him to work closely with managers, customers and employees to ensure the Cook’s service mantra was brought to life.
Now, in his new role as director of business development, Brian works on more project-based assignments creating synergies across departments. Like his grandfather before him, he’s wearing all the hats trying to learn “everything about everything” on the business side of the operation. But Brian draws an important distinction: “When he started out in the business, my grandfather didn’t have all the valuable assets in personnel to help guide him,” he says. “Today, we are blessed with great individuals who love what they do and are a wealth of knowledge to learn from.”
At Sprague, Ross has followed a purposefully accidental path since rejoining the company. Initially he helped out in the Spokane office, then filled a gap in the Tacoma office. Once he finished training his replacement in Tacoma, he then moved on to fill an open role in the Seattle office. A few years later, the Seattle manager resigned and Ross interviewed for the job.
“I went through four interviews for the job and almost didn’t get it,” recalls Ross. “There are no free lunches at Sprague. We have faith in the family that we can seek employment anywhere and be successful. It’s not up to the company to employ the family. We won’t create a position for anyone in the family – positions have to be earned.”
As Seattle manager, Ross grew revenues by nearly three times. And when Sprague recently made an acquisition in Denver, Ross headed east to serve as manager of the new office. “We needed someone to spread our culture out there,” Ross said.
Recruit a great team. No matter how personally successful they become, neither Ross nor Brian will carry the family company into the future alone. The companies that Sprague and Cook’s are today are more Wall Street than Main Street. The size and structure of each dictates that passing the torch to this next generation will require the guidance of a strong management team, and the continued commitment of the employees throughout the organization. As a result, the process of growing leadership from within begins early, too. It starts with hiring the right people.
Both companies look for employees who will fit into their corporate cultures. “We look for people with a service heart,” says Jim Aycock, Cook’s president. “The people who want to help other people – those are the employees that are successful here.”
Equally important, according to Brian, is a candidate’s character, level of integrity, attitude and work ethic. “We can teach them the skills,” he says.
Ross Treleven adds two more characteristics to the list. “The employees who fit best at Sprague are loyal and a bit irreverent. They work hard and challenge us to continually improve what we do.”
Once hired, employees are immersed into the corporate culture. Initial training at both companies involves a trip to corporate headquarters.
At the Sprague headquarters in Tacoma, employees step into the company’s history as they walk past the Wall of Fame featuring photos of all the employees who have worked at the company for 20 years or more.
“These people are the nucleus and have helped us to build this great company and reach our 85th anniversary this year,” says Larry. “We are not really in the pest control business, we are in the people business and happen to provide pest solutions.”
Sprague’s new employees are also invited to sit in the Plymouth wagon out back – the original service vehicle. “We want everyone who works for Sprague to know who and what we are all about,” says Larry.
When Brian Cook speaks to new employees during training classes at the Decatur home office, he focuses on who and what Cook’s is all about as well. He stresses the importance of reputation and name – both individually and as an organization – and of the company’s cornerstone mantra: Do the job right the first time. Do what you’ve promised plus a little bit more. Satisfy each customer.
Passing on that philosophy of quality service is central to passing on Cook’s culture. “To our customer, Cook’s is the person making the sales presentation or providing the treatment,” says Aycock. “If that person believes in what they are doing, the customer will too.”
Providing ongoing training and opportunities for personal growth are also part of developing tomorrow’s pest management leaders. “We’ve become a learning organization, striving to make everything we do and all our employees better,” says Ross Treleven.
Every year at Sprague, several employees begin a one-year leadership program that provides personal and professional development to help individuals prepare for their next role. “Our most successful employees are home-grown talent who embrace our culture of passionately delivering uncompromising service,” says Ross.
In addition to development classes, the leadership program includes a book club geared toward introducing business-focused titles for discussion.
“We may read a chapter at a time and then discuss the ideas,” says Ross. This gives employees an opportunity for what Ross refers to as “genius watching,” a term he’s borrowed from another colleague. “Genius watching refers to observing how someone you respect or admire reacts to information or a situation and learning from their example,” he said.
At Cook’s, in addition to classroom and computer-based training, the company provides educational and motivational seminars and conferences conducted by in-house professionals or other industry specialists. Exceptional employees may be given a chance to participate in personal development training as well.
“We select people who are good examples of the company culture and work with them to try to develop them into future leaders,” says Joey Harris, Cook’s chief operating officer. Employees may be chosen from any department. “We provide them with information training to help them become better people overall,” says Harris.
That includes information on personal accountability to help employees in their current role, as well as cross-training to provide a broader view of how the company is run. Individuals who participate in personal development training also may move on to a more formal management training program.
“We try to identify what people are interested in, where their talents lie, and plug them in where they best fit,” says Harris. “After working with Mr. Cook (John Sr.) for more than 20 years, I learned you don’t have to be the boss to lead.”
Footsteps to follow. That’s certainly true of the many long-term employees at both companies who serve as role models and mentors to the next generation. Cook’s currently employs more than 180 people who have been with the company longer than 20 years. At Sprague, 14 employees have earned their 20-year service awards and another 29 employees have passed the 10-year milestone.
“We are training the next generation every day by what we’re doing,” says Harris. “We focus on the fundamentals – on our people, our customers and quality service.”
Every time Cook’s employees get together becomes a mentoring opportunity.
“So much of our training and management development occurs informally,” says Aycock. “Our employees learn so much by just observing and talking with each other and sharing ideas about what’s working. The next generation naturally gravitates to those with more experience.”
Brian Cook knows well the influence of the company’s role models. “I developed a passion for the industry through my family’s example. Now, I want to motivate others to embrace a service heart,” he says. “Since my grandfather passed, people have commented that my father and I have big shoes to fill. Really, we don’t have to fill his shoes, we have to walk in his footsteps.”
Larry Treleven at Sprague sums it up this way: “If you are enthusiastic and positive and what you have is worth catching, you will be contagious. The next generation has seen all of us working hard,” he says. “They see some of the benefits, but they know it wasn’t just given to us. They know it’s from consistent hard work over time. But, we have fun every day.”
While the path is laid internally by those who came before, both companies value the expertise of outside resources too. Each looks to business management books, consultants and especially industry associations and other pest management companies. “Some of the best ideas are borrowed from others and their experiences,” says Ross Treleven.
The author is a freelance writer based in Milwaukee, Wis. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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