All family-owned companies eventually face an important decision: To continue as a family business, in which case control, accountability, and responsibility remain within the family; or to transition from a family business to a corporate structure in which family members relinquish control and employees assume a greater degree of accountability and responsibility.
A few years ago the family owners of Roberts Traffic Marking, Hollywood, FL, recognized they were nearing this crossroads. Owners Linda and Don Levine were ready to transition out; their daughter, Lisa Birchfield, was transitioning in; and Lisa's husband, Ari, also wanted out. That meant that all responsibility and accountability would fall to Lisa Birchfield, and she and Linda Levine, current treasurer, knew that wasn't going to work.
"One person cannot do it all, and even a husband and wife can only accomplish what each can do in a day," Birchfield says. "When I became involved 12 years ago I knew that this would not be healthy or a profitable way to support additional employees including my own family."
So Roberts Traffic Marking (RTM) decided to make the move from family owned business to corporation. Birchfield, who in January became president and 100% owner of the company, and Levine have spent the last few years taking the steps necessary to remove family members, including Birchfield, from the day-to-day business - while maintaining the relationships and job quality that has made the company one of the dominant pavement marking contractors in south Florida.
"You can't transfer experience"
One of the most difficult aspects of running a family business is that the knowledge of the business, and the expertise of the company, all reside within the family unit itself. As family members begin transitioning out, that knowledge must be passed along or the company will fail. Too often, as in the case of RTM and Birchfield, the knowledge becomes more and more centralized.
"The most serious issue is how to transfer all the knowledge from the people in our family, who built and who know this business, to the business itself as people transition out of Roberts Traffic Marking," Birchfield says. "You can't transfer experience - you can only transfer knowledge - so our biggest challenge is to make that happen."
Under Birchfield's guidance RTM has enhanced its value by successfully handling issues of accountability, control, continuity, training, expertise, quality control, and more as she and Levine structured an organization and created a system to encompass everything the family knows and everything the family has done - without losing a beat, a customer, or a job.
"Hiring effective individuals to 'replace' me in estimating, project management, operations, field supervision, maintenance and inventory control, was a necessity if RTM was to move on from the 'family' structure to an efficient and growing corporation - especially for the purposes of creating value for the company. RTM has done exceptionally well at transitioning from the 'mom and pop' to the corporate professional business we are today."
To make that happen Birchfield needed to relinquish some of her control within the company, and she was more than willing. But she also needed to then find the "right people" who could assume the responsibilities she was giving up. These people had to be accountable for their jobs, and they had to demonstrate a "family" commitment and work ethic - but within the confines of a corporate structure.
Airports "bread and butter"
But long before Birchfield faced the challenge of transforming RTM, Levine had the challenge of growing it. Initially the company employed only three people, but under Levine's guidance and with Don's and Ari's field expertise, Roberts Traffic Marking grew to five field workers (two crews). When Lisa came on board, and in order to support both families, RTM increased its business and currently runs five crews (two to three persons each).