Celebration Corner: Willson International's 100th anniversary

By April Hall

The company is spending the entire year thanking employees and clients with gifts, parties and educational events. A company history book is slated for publication this fall.

The Business: There are a lot of Is to dot and Ts to cross if you’re transporting goods across the border between the United States and Canada. Customs broker Willson International has helped importers and exporters for 100 years.

William F. Willson founded the business in 1918 in Fort Erie, Ontario, serving as a customs broker for goods traveling via ferry between Fort Erie and Buffalo, N.Y. Today, the company serves a range of industries, including the food, steel, floral and automotive sectors. At one point Willson also included real estate and insurance units, but between the second and third generations of owner-operators, those businesses were sold.

Third-generation owner Bill Willson started out emptying wastebaskets around the office at age 10. Then he was a “runner,” taking paperwork to the border and back. After college, he worked outside the business. He retired as an executive vice president of Harlequin Books in his 40s. Instead of resting, he joined the family business a few years later. He bought out his uncle and ran the company until he was ready to retire again, for good this time. The business was passed to Bill’s son Peter in 2014.

Peter believes there are four reasons the company has succeeded for 100 years through four generations:
“First, through most of our history we have focused on a single primary market: something over 50% of goods traveling between Canada and the U.S. travel through Ontario, New York and Michigan. We have focused on this market and particularly on clients in Ontario, both importing and exporting. By remaining focused on the needs of a distinct market, we have been able to grow, [serve] our customers and manage risk. We are just now expanding to Western Canada and the U.S. with focus on what we have learned in Ontario and how to duplicate that success in new markets.

“We also have been a family-controlled business since our inception. Without having to pander to market earnings requirements, we can focus on the long-term needs of our customers and businesses. We’ve survived recessions, depressions, 9/11, the 2008 meltdown, inception of NAFTA, etc. It’s because we can focus on a longer term and not get caught up by short-term issues or economics.

“Another good part of our success is the tenure of our team. On our senior team we have two people with 30 years of experience with Willson: me with 20 to 30 — if you count when I started summer work — and many senior branch personnel with over 20 years’ experience. This gives us institutional knowledge of customers, and about products and government regulations, that is hard to match.

“The last component that has been beneficial for us is a single leader. My great-grandfather founded the business, and when he passed on, he split the ownership between his two sons. My Great-Uncle Harold played the role of primary owner until my father stepped in to own, manage and grow the business through the late ’80s and ’90s. I’m the youngest of four children, but ended up as the only family member in the business. When I speak with other four-generation or beyond businesses, they might have 20 family shareholders, with disparate desires, wants and needs. As the fourth generation, I’m the sole owner of the business and will need to factor in my two daughters’ desires and roles, but at least I’m not dealing with a large pool.”

The Family: Peter Willson worked for the business as a young man, starting out sweeping up and filing, as his father had. His father hoped he would take over, but he wanted him to acquire a specific set of skills first. Peter worked at Ernst & Young, where he learned about management, and brought that experience back to the business in 2014.

Peter is now sole owner and CEO. His teenage daughter served as an intern this summer but hasn’t committed to joining the company full-time.

The Celebration: The marquee event was a dinner in Niagara on the Lake for 350 people. The company took over a hotel there, so dinner guests were also able to spend the night.

The event cost about $100,000, says Gillian Wood, the company’s director of marketing and inside sales.

“It was more of a party, not a sit-down dinner,” Wood says. “We wanted it to be informal and fun, not stuffy, where you sit down next to the same person all night.”

During the event, a loop of 200 company photos was projected in the ballroom while people went to different food stations and mingled. Attendees included current and retired employees. Family members and longtime executives delivered remarks.

In their rooms, guests found a thank-you gift: a rose and branded chocolate bars.

The yearlong celebration began in January after the hectic holiday season. Employees received personalized emails with a code worth $100.

A branded blanket will also be distributed to employees, and a book on the company is scheduled for publication in September.

In the spring, the company hosted an “executive roundtable” with some of its largest customers — many of them steel companies — to discuss hot topics, including U.S. tariffs.

“[The tariffs] impact the volumes we are handling and the business we’re doing,” Peter says.

The Planning: Planning for the major events started at the beginning of 2017, Wood says. There were several moving parts, and executives wanted flawless execution.

She worked extensively with IT to make sure there would be no glitches with the $100 employee gifts that were given in January.

“I was not going to be part of a gift that was frustrating to people,” she says.

The May event was similar to planning a wedding, she says. That planning folded into other departments, including the CFO’s office, which kept an eye on the budget.

The 100-page, hardcover book was started about two years ago, with the hiring of an author, the preparation of an outline and research into photographs.

The Response: “There’s a real energy and a real joy in the company right now,” Wood says. “People are feeling very appreciated and proud.”

She says people have stopped in her office all year long to say how appreciated they feel and to express continued surprise at the ongoing celebration.

“I didn’t want our celebration to be a one-trick pony, so to speak,” Peter says. “I think getting to 100 years is a big deal.”

The Advice: “My biggest insight — and Peter knew it from the beginning — is to make everything about the employees,” Wood says. “Even if it’s just a fun email or a $5 chocolate bar.”

The employees, not the family, are responsible for dealing with customers every day in a century-old business, Peter notes.

“I didn’t know when I started planning what I knew when we ended,” he says. “It was all about them. It’s not about me. It’s not about my dad.”

Peter advises companies that plan to publish a history book to be patient and diligent. Willson International’s book ran into production delays on the way to publication.

“The challenge with a 100-year-old business is, at the beginning no one thinks about keeping track,” Peter says. Much of the information for the book came from his father, who has the most institutional knowledge of living family, he adds.  

Copyright 2018 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permission from the publisher. For reprint information, contact bwenger@familybusinessmagazine.com.                 

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September/October 2018

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