I attended a conference on family business issues many years ago and listened to Jake Leinenkugel, the then President of Leinenkugel Brewing, tell his story of how he came back into his family business. Jake was a Marine in Korea when he received a letter from his father, Bill, asking him to come home and help him run the company.
“Leinies” as it is known in Wisconsin was founded in 1867 by the first Jacob Leinenkugel in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. While now owned by MillerCoors it is still one of the longest family-managed breweries (and probably companies) in the United States. In fact, Jake told us, his brothers and some of his cousins had always worked summers or after school at the brewery – typically loading trucks or moving barrels. (I ALWAYS recommend new employees work a few days in the shipping department – there are few places closer to the customer than fulfilling orders. And sometimes, it weeds out those who shouldn’t be there!)
What struck me listening to Jake tell his story, he thought he had found his calling in the Marines. While conflicted in resigning his commission, he did come home and eventually became part of the next generation to lead the brewery. Jake closed his story with saying that in hindsight he realized that even though he had grown up working in the brewery, he hadn’t really considered it to be a career because until that letter, he and his dad had never discussed the brewery as an option for him.
Jake said, “All those years and I was simply waiting for my dad to ask me to join the business.” Had Bill not written that letter, Jake wasn’t sure he would have left the marines on his own. If you lived in the upper Midwest during the time after Jake became president and heard some of their lively Leinenkugel commercials, there was no doubt he and his brothers were destined to be in the family business.
Years later, I thought of this story when I was speaking with a client of mine. She had received an inquiry if she was ready to sell her business. I knew she had children so I asked if any would want to take over some day.
She laughed. “My daughter said she would never want to do what I do. It’s too much work.”
Then she told me that her daughter was an Emergency Room Physician. Yes – a woman who had gone through eight years of college/medical school plus a medical residency and internship, and was now working 12 hour days in an ER thought running a small manufacturing company was too much work!
In looking at why her daughter thought that was easy to see. My client had built a nice business but she was still doing many of the key functions herself. In fact, she had moved the business out of her home 20 years ago but was still running a business that could not run without her. And my guess that’s what her children saw. Her long days and hard work most likely cloaked the passion and motivation that she truly felt about her business.
Most of us want to teach our children the value of hard work and perseverance but I wonder if sharing the “why” behind our motivation to pursue our dreams in starting and running our businesses is just as or even more important.
Since then, I have worked with clients who have realized that growing their business to a point where adding a “second-in-command” or #2 not only allows them to focus on their particular passion (often their own “secret sauce”) for their business but gives them a path towards succession as well. Showing your children (as well as yourself, your employees and any future potential buyers) that your strength as an owner as the leader and the thinker of your business can pay off in dividends. Also showing your children on how to leverage their passion and hard work may be one of greatest gifts you can bestow regardless of where their own particular journey leads them.
In this article on Jake’s tenure at the brewery, he shared one of the little known reasons that Bill Leinenkugel agreed to be acquired by MillerCoors was that Leinenkugel’s did not have a succession plan in place. The 1980s brought significant change to the brewing industry and many competitors were in trouble. The sale would help ensure the future of brewery long after Bill Leinenkugel and Paul Mayer stepped down – even if they were the last of the Leinenkugels to lead the brewery.
Jake Leinenkugel’s reign as President of his company ended in 2015 when his younger brother Dick, took over the helm. Like Jake, Dick has spent much of his life at the brewery and Jake’s four children now all have roles in the business.
Asked what he thought his father would think of the job Jake had done as the leader of day-to-day operations.
“He’d probably say, ‘You didn’t (screw) it up,’” Jake answered, adding that is one of the things he often thinks about. “I think he would also be very proud that I kept the family together and involved in the business.”
What legacy will you leave for your family and your business?
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