When Mark Blanchard sold his landscaping business 16 years ago, he expressed interest in working for his dad, Jeff, at Bobcat of New Hampshire. “Not a chance,” said Jeff, who was thrilled but told his son that he needed to work for another employer to gain outside business perspective before joining the dealership.
“I used to sit around the kitchen table as a kid and listen to all of Dad’s stories as a Bobcat salesman,” Mark said. “Anytime I got a chance to ride with him in a truck, go to the office or run a piece of equipment, I did. [Bobcat] kind of gets in your blood. So I said, ‘What do you mean, not a chance?’ It was good advice, though.”
Starting from the Bottom
After two years of selling landscape power equipment, Mark went back to his dad, who then agreed that he could work at the dealership. But he would have to start at the bottom and work his way up.
“He said that I’m going to have it tougher than everyone else and that everybody’s going to be looking at me because I’m the son,” Mark says. “He had me start with sweeping the floors, cleaning toilets and unloading trucks.”
“I didn’t overpay him. I underpaid him,” Jeff explains. “I said, ‘The opportunity is down the road.’ If you hang in there, the money will be there.”
Mark is grateful for his dad’s approach. “It helped to get a perspective of what it takes to run the dealership, and it showed the other folks there that I was willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done. It helped me earn some credibility on my own — and not just because I’m Jeff’s son.”
Planning for Succession
Around the time Mark joined the dealership, the two began plotting a succession strategy for Mark to carry on his dad’s legacy and eventually allow Jeff to retire. They attended acquisition and merger seminars together to understand the scope of succession planning, and they joined a Bobcat-facilitated Next Generation peer group that focused on how to develop future dealer principals. He then put Mark on a management track that brought him up through the ranks of responsibility to the role of vice president. Then, two years before he planned to retire, Jeff worked with advisors to finalize a succession plan before officially transitioning the dealership to Mark in the spring of 2014.
But the transition wasn’t without its struggles.
“I continued to go into work for a while after I transitioned the business to Mark,” Jeff says. “But it became abundantly clear that there can’t be two kings in the same kingdom. I remember when I bought the business, and I was going to fix all the things that I thought the previous owner had done wrong. That was the same with him. I had to step back and say that he owns the place and has changes he wants to make. Whether I agree with them or not, they’re not my decisions anymore. They’re his.”
One thing that helped the father-son duo successfully transition ownership was their ability to communicate in a deep way.
“We communicate on a different level than most people do, and that made it easier,” Mark says, “But when it comes to transitions, I would tell people to start planning early. It takes a long time to get right. It will test the strength of your relationship with your family because there are a lot of difficult questions and things that come up. Also, make sure to pay special attention to the structure of the sale for the tax implications. It’s basically you against the tax folks, and you want the plan that works best for your family.”