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LisBiz Strategies: The changing of the guard

April 13/20, 2015; Volume 29/Number 1

By Lisbeth Calandrino

Screen Shot 2015-05-29 at 3.43.44 PMRetailers have asked what to do when customers come into their businesses and only want to speak with the owner. As I sit down to write, “The Apprentice” is on television and Donald Trump is introducing his family. No one apologizes for their ages or interferes with their ideas. But in the real world, customers seem to always want to speak with “the Donald.”

Retailers spend years building their brands. The outcome of this hard work is customers who feel they are special and have an extraordinary relationship with the owner. The strategy has paid off—or has it?

Is it possible to keep your brand in the customer’s mind, hold your traction in the marketplace and still take a vacation? This was what my sister and I struggled with when we were in business. With a limited advertising budget and few employees, the business was built on the two of us. Customers would come in and ask for us, and if that didn’t work, they would ask for my father. One day, a customer came back with a half carton of tile. I explained we didn’t refund partial cartons and he defiantly said, “Your dad used to.” My dad had nothing to do with the business.

It’s suicidal to build a brand around one person. What happens if the owner suddenly dies? Who moves into the executive suite? In 2008, the industry lost John Millar, a larger-than-life entrepreneur and owner of Avalon Carpet, Tile and Flooring in Cherry Hill, N.J. It was obvious that John had built a powerful team and with Maryanne Adams at the helm, the business continues to thrive.

If a business is to grow, everyone has to learn, assume responsibility and share power. The mistake is to make the owner or one person indispensable. If you want to sell the business, what do you have left without the owner?

Professional sports teams support their stars, but they are aware that teamwork is what makes them work. If the team doesn’t feel valued, they can sabotage the outcome. In professional sports there are large sums of money involved, which gives everyone a reason to do their best. In life, not everyone plays for money. We feel valued because of our influence, our decision-making skills and our ability to create change.

Unless an owner wants to be tied into the business forever, he or she needs to transition from star to coach. This is hard for many owners. No matter how much they complain, most owners love being the star and are unwilling to give up the power of being in command.

Instead of building a hard-working team, they’ve done it all. They were taught if you want it done right, you have to do it yourself. The result is being left with employees who are liabilities instead of assets.

To change this, the owner must see sharing the power as a gain rather than a loss. The old guard can’t be effective forever and change is inevitable. Here are some thoughts from my experience:

  1. Decide what needs to change and meet with the entire team to develop a plan. Which major customers will this affect and how do you make a smooth transition?
  2. Who will step up to motivate the team? This is the time for staff evaluations, skill building and realignment of tasks. Team building is best accomplished by bringing in someone with organization skills to rebuild and realign.
  3. Introduce the team and managers to important customers and give them power to make decisions.
  4. Finally, stay out of the way and let it happen.