Hey, leaders: Take risks

By As told to Patricia Olsen

... but always trust your team.

A quick Q&A with Ben Foster, President and CEO, Twin Valley Management, Overland Park, Kan.


Generation of family ownership: Fourth.


Revenue: Between $75 million and $100 million.


Number of employees: 165. Twin Valley Management is a holding company for ISG Technology, Twin Valley Telephone and Southern Kansas Telephone.


First job at this company: Landscaper, in middle school. I didn’t like it. I wanted to do telephone work with the technicians.


At what age? From about 11 to 13. In high school and college, I got to bury and splice cable and do installations and repairs outside. After college I worked at Southwestern Bell for 7½ years and then joined the family business in 2004 at age 30.


Most memorable thing I learned from my father: Take risks and trust your team to make good decisions in the end. When the company was small, he realized he had to grow it. We were 26 employees with 2,500 customers then, so we took out a $75 million loan to acquire customers, hire people and expand. He didn’t have a great plan; he just trusted our people.


Most memorable thing I learned from my mother: Work doesn’t have to be all-consuming. She cared about the company, but it didn’t define her. Dad was invested in it.


Best thing about this job: The people. Anyone running a company can do some challenging things, and we all make mistakes, but my team still trusts me. Also, being the steward of what was handed to us and trying to make it better for the next generation.


Our greatest success: We’ve gone into rural areas of Kansas that had poor service and delivered fiber to the home, so we’re providing our friends and neighbors in those communities the technology that allows them to thrive.


Best advice I ever got: It was more a realization. When the fourth generation assumed ownership, we had unresolved issues. Trying to remedy them for the fifth generation helped us. We’d think, “How do we solve the compensation issue for them?” for example. Removing ourselves from the equation made it easier.


Quote from our company’s mission statement: “Unlocking Possibilities. For Communities. For Generations.” We’re talking about options our customers wouldn’t otherwise have, to introduce more possibilities for them, and we’re talking about generations of technology and owners, so we make those investments from a long-term perspective.


On my wall: I have a white board with a list of “To Do”s and objectives and a paragraph my daughter wrote for a school assignment. There’s also a framed map of Kansas telephone exchanges.


One of my greatest accomplishments: We’ve done a great job of keeping the values we had when we were a small company with the original founders still involved. I feel I’ve done a good job of building a system around those, which allows us to scale and continue those values across a 3-state organization.


Best thing about working in a family business: Seeing the results of hard work with the people I care about most and seeing our teammates embrace our values and respond to them.


Advice for other family business leaders: Decide if you want to be engaged as a family business owner, what that means and if you can commit to it. If the answer is you don’t want to be engaged, figure out what your role is as a non-engaged family business owner. But decide either way so the company can fulfill its potential.


On a day off I like to… spend time at our lake house in Council Grove, or at a kid’s game, either basketball, soccer, volleyball or football. I coach my son’s football team.


Philanthropic causes our family supports: We’re big on kids and education. The majority of our giving is through schools and scholarships.


Book I think every family business leader should read: The one that has helped us make values-based decisions is Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business, by Gino Wickman.


I realized I had emerged from the previous generation’s shadow when ... the fourth generation was having honest conversations about where our conflicts were and started getting energy by solving those problems without any feedback from the previous generation.


Future succession plans: We’re preparing ourselves for a non-family CEO. It doesn’t appear that anyone from the fifth generation will take the role, and I don’t want to work until I’m 75. We’ve identified candidates in the company.


Words I live by: Be true to yourself — but also, try to improve every day.



— As told to Patricia Olsen



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