The Education of a D.O.B.
“My seven years in the wilds established the self-confidence and assertiveness I needed toovercome stereotypes and claim leadership of Breuer Electric.”
A few years ago the son of a competitor in our industry came over to meet me at a trade show.Like me, he worked in a family company and I assumed he would be familiar with the acronyms S.O.B. andD.O.B., which as almost everybody knows stand for "son of the boss" and "daughter of the boss."Believing he was a kindred spirit, I stuck out my hand and greeted him cheerfully, "So you're theS.O.B. at the X Company."
The young man turned very pale and said in a faltering voice, "Oh well, yes, I guess my reputationprecedes me." My efforts to explain were lost to his cold stare.
You need a sense of humor to work in a family business. That's just one of the lessons I've learned inmy 15 years at Breuer Electric Manufacturing Co., founded in 1927 by my grandfather. While growing up,it never dawned on me that I would one day succeed my father as president of Breuer Electric, which isis in the Chicago suburb of Harwood Heights. A child of the 1960s, I wanted to get as far away as Icould from the comforts of my Midwestern upbringing. For seven years I lived in the wilderness in acabin with kerosene lamps and wood heat. I don't think I ever made the connection between vacuumcleaners and our family business until I was an adult and had to clean my own house. (Now I spend alot of time looking into janitors' closets wherever I go.)
My training for business was thus hardly of the orthodox MBA variety. Curiously, however, much of whatI learned during those formative years later became useful at Breuer Electric. If nothing else, myseven years in the wilds established the self-confidence and assertiveness I needed to overcomestereotypes about S.O.B.'s and D.O.B.'s and assert my claim to leadership of the company.
I am the oldest of three children. When we were growing up, our father did not involve me or myyounger brother and sister in the family business. Company matters were not discussed at the dinnertable. Once a year we did get to take a trip to the office and have a "day with Daddy." It was usuallya difficult day. The employees made a fuss over us. We felt very self-conscious and uncomfortable. Theonly nice part was spending a little time with our father and getting a glimpse of the place hedisappeared to every day.
In 1969 I went East to college, aspiring to twin careers as an artist and nursery school teacher.While at Bennington College in Vermont, I fell in love with the land, the outdoors, and the rustic,small town lifestyle. When I left school, I went to live out a dream so powerful I have yet to escapeits grasp. I built and lived in an isolated cabin, made a garden for food, and raised sheep for wool;at the same time, I painted and did some writing. My eight-party phone line was always out of order.The scenario completely terrified my father.
My lifestyle could have been sparked by a back-to-basics feeling — an imperative shared by many in mygeneration. My family attributed it to a willful streak of independence. It think it also hadsomething to do with my attraction to challenge, the battle to survive, and perhaps also to a small bitof Indian heritage.
While living in the wilds, I also taught in a Head Start program for children, pruned trees forChristmas, picked apples, and worked the night shifts at various factories in the area. Once whiledoing a stint on an assembly line in a tool manufacturing company, I saw a salesman demonstrating aTornado floor scrubber to the cleaning crew. I walked over and proudly stated something about myfather owning the company that made Tornado. They looked at me in my beat-up jeans, clutching dinnerin a brown paper sack, and laughed in disbelief.
In the late 1970s I was working the second and third shift in a small factory where we processed andpackaged eggs then loaded them onto tractor trailers for delivery. The eggs were shipped up from thehot Southern states covered with maggots and unmentionable debris. The equipment we used wasdangerous, and the working environment was ice cold and — to put it mildly — odoriferous. We would greetthe dawn exhausted, our clothes stiff with egg. (I was unable to look at an egg for many yearsthereafter.)
My father called me one day during this low period. When he suggested during the conversation that Icome home for a while, I considered my circumstances. My $250 pickup truck was broken, my cabin wasunfinished, and, with winter coming on, I didn't have any wood cut. Going home to get through thewinter sounded like a good idea. But only for the winter.
One winter has stretched out to 15 years and a career in the family business. In 1977, I took what Ithought was a temporary job at Breuer Electric as a clerk in our purchasing department. There, Ilearned to file. After becoming proficient at the alphabet, I moved on to production planning andbecame curious about manufacturing. I spent three years in the industrial engineering department andmoonlighted on the assembly line. I spent another three years as assistant to the vice-president ofmanufacturing and then became foreman of our punch press, drill press, and welding departments. Later,I moved into sales, service, and marketing.
Family pride stirred my blood. The longer I stayed, the more I felt that I should stay, and the more Iknew I could do it. My younger brother and sister were not interested in joining the business; mybrother did work in the company for a short time, but traded in the stress for a happy and successfulcareer in art. It was obvious that help was needed and no one was properly minding the store.
I had never seriously considered becoming my father's successor; nor had I ever been encouraged topursue the role. But after several years in the company, I began making increasingly persistentrequests for the reins. My father didn't turn me down exactly, but he was struggling with his owncareer and didn't like to have retirement staring him in the face. He also knew what obstacles I wouldface as his successor, and during one conversation he exclaimed that handing over the reins would belike "throwing me to the wolves." "Go ahead," I told him. I wasn't afraid.
One day, however, I complained to a friend that despite my achievements in the company — and myacrobatics to get my father's attention — he didn't seem inclined to give me a chance. The friendreminded me of the maxim that authority is 80 percent taken and only 20 percent given. That was enoughto get me off my, um, chair, and to take control of the situation.
Risking my career and banishment from the family, I presented my father with a report listingeverything I thought was wrong with the company, from the shop floor to the finished product. Ofcourse, I also threw in some proposals for improvement.
After the color had returned to my father's face and the earth tremors ceased, I found, happily, thatI still had a job. In fact, as I had requested, my father gave me the title of director of qualityimprovement.
I knew that if our company was to survive, we had to be the very best. Breuer Electric is smaller thanits competitors, and few family equipment manufacturers remain in the industry. We became clients ofPhilip Crosby Associates, a leader in the quality movement. I chose Crosby because I believed in hisphilosophy, which stresses teamwork and breaking down walls between departments in order toconcentrate on continual improvement.
My teaching experience came in handy in bringing about this organizational transformation. After goingthrough training in the Crosby process myself, I taught it to everyone in the plant, including myfather. For the first year and a half, I led classes in the Crosby philosophy and in how to implementquality methods.
Today we are in a second phase of instruction. Our employees are learning how to work in teams and totake initiative in solving problems themselves. The sessions have brought together groups of peoplein different departments who virtually hadn't spoken to each other in years. They now work together ina total effort to make defect-free products that meet customer requirements more precisely. In our JobSwap program, our managers take turns working on the assembly line, or in other areas unrelated totheir normal managerial tasks, in order to become more familiar with production problems and qualityissues.
Crosby gave us the format and tools to turn the company around. The changeover also had unexpectedpersonal benefits for me. Directing and teaching the quality process allowed me to keep all my fingersin all the pies. I continue to work with our quality task forces and special teams on a daily basis,which enables me to get to know better every manager and employee in the company. As a result, no oneis afraid to come to my office to discuss a problem.
Although I didn't realize it when I asked for the job, being in charge of the quality process alsogave me the freedom to show my stuff. I demonstrated to the employees — and my father — that I knew allaspects of our operation. Within two years, I was promoted to executive vice-president.
The path to my current position as president has been long and rocky. My father, I suppose, is abeliever in the school of hard knocks, and I had to fight for the principal's job.
My father named me president and chief operating officer in 1991, and he became chairman and CEO. Withmy new position, I inherited a management team that seemed to have little interest in seeing thecompany survive. My father had turned down several offers from them to buy him out, and they wereresentful. They bucked the introduction of the quality process and, instead, were comfortably bidingtheir time until retirement.
I had worked for these managers in the past. At times, they had attempted to sabotage my work, placingboulders in my path and even falsifying documents to undermine my performance. On occasion, theirdislike of me, the D.O.B., showed as a snarl on their faces.
But at this point, they reported to me. My efforts to win them over and convert them to the qualityprocess failed. Previously, their poor performance had been undocumented. I put all of them onprobation and gave them clear performance goals, with frequent reviews.
A year has passed, and the clouds have parted. The managers bailed out. I have a brand new team and,like greyhounds in the gate, our eyes are bright with a vision of the company's future.
Do I like my job? Part of me loves it, working with my father and the ghostly hint of my grandparentsnearby. My brother and sister are very supportive and want to see the company stay in the family. Ihave no children, and my nieces and nephews are young, so I'll probably have to stay around a longtime before Breuer Electric is ready for the next transition.
There remains a longing for the mountains, for the fresh air, the solitude, the owls, the bear, thedeer, and all of that. However, at every port of refuge, there is a price to pay, no matter what youchoose to do.
Looking back, I can see that my unconventional background was in many ways a preparation for thefamily company. The jobs that I held in factories may not look great on a résumé, but they taught memuch about people and work and assembly lines — particularly what it feels like on the other side ofmanagement. My life in the wilds used to be a source of heated argument between my father and me. Nowwhen we talk about those years, it makes us chuckle and brings a proud smile to his face.
I enjoy learning. I no longer paint, but am driven by a relentless urge to create and improve things.I no longer teach children, but have the training to work well with adults and help develop theirskills. My experience in the wilderness taught me to survive, to rely only on myself. It has helped mebecome brave and willing to assume responsibility.
I believe in stretching. My job gives me the opportunity to help others realize their full potential,just as I am striving to achieve mine. Yes, I like the job. If my experience conveys any message forparents, it is that you should not overlook your daughters or have preconceived ideas about the besteducation for leadership. As for other D.O.B.'s and S.O.B.'s, my advice is to plunge in, to chance therapids and dare to lead, no matter what label they stick on you.
Business: Manufactures Tornado brand floor-maintenanceequipment and industrial vacuums.
Location: Harwood Heights, Ill., a Chicago suburb.
Founded: 1927 by Adam A. Breuer Sr., grandfather of Linda Breuer-Murray.
Family Officers: Adam A. Breuer Jr., chairman and CEO; Linda Breuer-Murray, presidentand chief operating officer.
Stock: 100 percent owned by Adam A. Breuer Jr. and Linda Breuer-Murray.
Claim to Fame: A successor who managed her own unconventional education for leadershipof the family company.
Linda Breuer-Murray’s First Person article is adopted from a talk at a conference lastfall sponsored by Family Business in Kohler,Wisconsin.