November/December 2016 Openers

By Barbara Spector

Q&A with Kelly Conklin, G2 president of Gordon's Window Decor.

Kelly Conklin, 36, became president of Gordon's Window Décor last year when her father, Gordon Clements, passed the torch—literally. (Clements decorated a yard light and presented it to his daughter at a company party in a gesture Conklin calls symbolic, moving and goofy.)

Gordon's Window Décor marks its 30th anniversary in 2016. The company, founded by Gordon Clements in his basement, today is based in Williston, Vt. Gordon's has some two dozen employees, who supply shades and window treatments to businesses, schools and homes. The company's mission is to turn clients into "raving fans" by "delivering exceptional custom window treatments and an experience that makes them smile." The casual workplace environment emphasizes fun as well as continuous improvement.

I recently spoke to Conklin about the excitement and challenge of being a second-generation family business leader. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Family Business: Does your father still come into the office?

Kelly Conklin: He does, a bit. We've patented a product that helps with lockdown situations in schools, and that has become his baby. That product's called SecurShade. So all of his focus really is on SecurShade, while I do the running of the business. He's in the shop occasionally, but mostly just for SecurShade meetings.

FB: Now that you've been at the helm for a year, what are your plans for the future of the business?

KC: Right now, it's such a place of change. I've hired a VP who comes from a lean manufacturing background. He's the VP of continuous improvement; that's his actual title. And I have also hired an installation coordinator who will be moving into operations. He comes to us from Keurig Green Mountain, so he's very focused on systems and processes.

What we're doing right now is really focusing on standard work, and what does standard work look like, and how can every interaction with Gordon's create a consistent raving fan? Gord built a really successful business, and he was able to [build] it so that everybody in Vermont knows who Gordon's is, and now we've established ourselves quite well in the Mid-Atlantic area; the majority of our commercial work is in Washington, D.C., and Virginia. What we have been lacking a little bit are the standardizations and the processes that mean that anybody can step in and understand where in the process the project is.

So right now, my three-year plan is all about maintaining where we're at and getting these systems in place so that we can grow our margin more, our bottom line. And then from there, I will feel really comfortable trying to take on active growth. I would feel uncomfortable trying to grow broadly right now, because I don't think we'd do it well. I'm excited about us focusing in and getting really, really good at what we're doing now at our current levels, and then kind of launching from there.

FB: Usually in the second generation, a company branches out and hires department heads and professionalizes the management. Have you found that challenging in a casual culture like the one at Gordon's?

KC: Yeah, it's been very challenging. The team that I've got is deeply passionate about this company, and that is so exciting and so gratifying. It also means that there's a lot of opinions. We've always been a very democratic company, and so there's nobody on staff who's afraid to voice their opinions. We have a lot of heated discussions about "What do these changes mean? Are we losing what made Gordon's, Gordon's?"

I would say the most difficult time was the six months or eight months when I first took over. Because Dad and I did not do an awesome job communicating what we were doing—what the plan was. And, you know, we learned a lot from that. We do a better job now, for sure, and now there's some really exciting things that happen.

A common phrase in the works for us right now is "run the experiment." And that's sort of where we're at. We're at this place where we're saying, "OK, we want this system. Let's run the experiment and see if it works." And people are starting to pick that up, and they're starting to embrace that. The weekly meeting is becoming more and more of, "OK, here's this cool new thing I tried. Here's where I failed. Here's where it did well." So, I think, as people see that "lean" doesn't have anything to do with getting rid of jobs, and it doesn't have to do with making people work harder or anything like that—it's all about making their workplace more joyful—they've come to get excited about it. But it was very difficult. And we're not there yet, by any means. It's exciting, for sure.

FB: A visitor to Gordon's Facebook page can see that it's a happy place to work. It seems that you all have a lot of fun around there. Has that been important in keeping everybody on board with what you're trying to do?

KC: Having fun is hugely important. Part of why I love family business is because I do think that the business takes on the tone of the family, and that's where our democracy comes from. Nobody in my family is a sous chef; we're all the chefs. And so I think naturally, that's kind of the personalities that we ended up hiring.

We laugh a lot. We have a team-wide Monday meeting. And [at a recent] Monday meeting, the majority of the meeting was one of our installers telling a story about one of her installs that was hilarious. And we're all just cracking up, and it's really wonderful that we're starting Monday with laughter at that team meeting. And then we got into safety goggles and stuff like that afterwards.

FB: Have you had any issues with being a young woman at the head of the business?

KC: We're part of two industry groups that are comprised of really powerful businesses in their geographies, and [Gordon] started bringing me to those meetings in the beginning. I've been going to those meetings for 10 years, so all those guys know me now. I have a bunch of mentors in the industry through these groups, and they've seen me come into my own.

I've been in the company for so long—I've been working here since, oh gosh, 2003—it's not like I'm new to the industry or new to this company, so I think I've earned my stripes, just through time, and sort of having done everything in the company. And the same goes with our vendors—we have really, really tight relationships with our vendors, so they all know me, as well. I wasn't just the new young girl coming in. They've known me for a lot of years, so I don't think there was much anxiety about what would happen to Gordon's without Gordon there. Even our bankers and insurers; we've been very conscious about making sure those relationships were passed off slowly.

FB: Was it helpful to you to have mentors from the industry in addition to your dad?

KC: Absolutely. My dad and I have an amazing relationship. And I respect very much what he has to say and the lessons he has for me, but it's very helpful to have two specific gentlemen [as mentors]. And their businesses are a different size, they're in different industries, they've had different experiences. So they just have more to draw on to help advise me. I'm an information gatherer in that way, so the more advice I can get [on] anything, I'll take it.

FB: How does your management style differ from your father's?

KC: I'm very human resources-driven. I like to have engagement lunches with my team, just to check in and see where they're at, and I have people in my office all the time, just sort of talking about what's going on in their lives or whatever. And Gord is more numbers-driven. And that's actually something he and I sort of laugh about, because he says he'd like to learn a bit from me about that people aspect. I'm actually taking a course right now called Emerging Leaders, through the SBA [the U.S. Small Business Administration], because I need to move my management style to be more metrically driven.

FB: Did you and Gordon have any conflicts over different styles when you were working together?

KC: No. In the time I've been here, there are two decisions that he's disagreed with, but he's let me make them. We kind of laugh about them sometimes, and he'll sort of nudge me and say, "Well, if you hadn't …," but [it's] in good fun. We talk through everything. He's been amazing at letting my team and I make our mistakes. He's there and he's very invested in what's happening in the business—you know, he gets all the reports that are sent out—but he's also cognizant that we're trying to forge our business with us running it, and if he is too heavy-handed, he's going to hamper that growth. It's not easy for him. I think he wants to speak up more than he does, but it's been really remarkable to me how wonderful he's been with giving us the leeway to figure this out.

FB: Is there a third generation in the wings?

KC: My son is 6, and my daughter's 3 1/2. And then I have a nephew who's 7. So they're very young. My daughter has said she wants to sell for us, but [laughing] she's 3 1/2.

FB: She would probably be very effective in marketing.

KC: I agree. Absolutely. She's adorable.

FB: Have you thought about the issues that will be coming up for the currently very small and adorable G3s, and what has to be put into place to avoid conflict in the cousin generation?

KC: Absolutely. I went to the Transitions West conference in California last year, and it felt very exciting to listen to these incredibly complex businesses that are in [later generations]. It's all relatively simple for me to put in place now the things that will make it easier for [the third generation,] rather than getting to that very complex place and then trying to set up family councils and all of that [after problems have already arisen].

FB: Do you feel any pressure about being a member of the pivotal second generation?

KC: I'm only kind of peripherally aware of it. I have such confidence in this business, and I'm so excited to rock it for the next 30 years or whatever. So at this point I'm just really excited about this business that I get to take on. Because the kiddos are young and all of that, I think I'm a little young to be thinking legacy. I'm more thinking about the next hour.

FB: What are your family's shared values?

KC: More than anything, we value time spent laughing together. We set aside a time for family vacations, family holidays, and eating and drinking together. And that's part of what I try very much to bring to Gordon's—the importance of sitting down once a month with everybody and sharing pizza. Eating together is so very powerful.

We're passionate about the communities that we live in and do business in. We take part in our communities however we can, and that's the stuff that is the fabric of this company.

No team member ever second-guesses having to call out because of a sick child, or because something has happened in their family. They know that everybody will pick up the slack to support them in that. And they understand why we get out in the community as much as we do, and why it's important to show up in the community. Those are definitely parts of the family values that have become the fabric of Gordon's values.

Copyright 2016 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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November/December 2016

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