Mother Parkers is one of the largest coffee and tea suppliers in North America and can trace its roots back to 1912. With Paul and Michael Higgins at the helm of the family business, they have recently sought to professionalise the organisation by bringing in a President from outside the family.
“We’ve been Co-CEOs since 1992,” says Paul, “and in that time the business has achieved great growth. We’ve also made some significant progress in areas like Research & Development (R&D) and the use of IT. But for the last few years we’ve been thinking very seriously about what the next phase looks like. The next generation isn’t old enough to take over for a while yet, and we really felt we needed an injection of new blood and a different set of professional skills, insights and experience to help us to the next level. So we made the decision to hire a President, Fred Schaeffer, from outside.”
“But we didn’t make a decision like that lightly,” says Michael. “We talked to our advisory board, we talked to the kids, and we talked to other family businesses who’ve done something similar. Because we’d heard some horror stories, where the owners had hired people to come and run the business, but the owners weren’t prepared to let go and it turned into a complete mess. That’s the last thing we wanted, so we talked to other firms about what pitfalls we might encounter, and how the process worked. We quickly came to the conclusion that the best time to do it is when the company is in a strong and steady state, and there’s plenty of time to embed the new person, without the pressure of a looming retirement date.”
Supporting the next generation is a key part of Fred’s role. “I wanted a mentor for my kids,” says Paul, “to help them get a broader view of the industry and the global market than I can give them. Fred has worked for big consumer brands around the world – that’s going to be invaluable, both as a manager and a mentor.”
It’s clear that mentoring isn’t just about management skills, either. As Michael says, “We’d love it if the kids were the right people to lead the business forward, but there’s no culture of entitlement here. You have to work as hard as any other employee, and you don’t get any favours just because your name is Higgins. And however things turn out, we want to make sure the next generation will be good owners, even if someone outside the family is CEO. And that’s a tough role – being a good steward. That’s how Paul and I see our role here: we’re stewards of this. We didn’t start it. We didn’t create what our father developed. We were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to take what he did and build on that, so we’d like to instil the same sense of responsibility with the next generation. Their job will be to build it, make it bigger and better, more successful. Having the support of a professional CEO at this stage in their careers is part of that.”
Thus far, at least, the decision seems to have paid off: “We were really impressed at the calibre of applications we received,” says Paul, “and a few months into the role, Fred has impressed just about everyone, both inside and outside. Relationships with customers are particularly important, given how much of our turnover is B2B. These days it’s much more of a partnership than a sales relationship. We don’t just sell product, we sit down and work out what new blends or tastes might be successful, how best to manage the supply chain, how to build in recyclability – key issues like that. And looking ahead even further, the next big thing in our sector might not be a new beverage at all, but a new way of delivering it. We’re already selling to all the most important parts of the market – the Big Box stores, the really large grocery chains, food service, fast food. You name it – we’re there. So, they know us. They trust us. And that means if we can come up with something new that’s really spectacular, the opportunity could be significant.”
This feature was part of the PwC Global Family Business Survey 2016. It has been reproduced with the permission of PwC.