Passing the baton from team to team

By Kathryn Hawkins

At Times-Shamrock Communications in Pennsylvania, a trio of third-generation co-CEOs handed off leadership to a quartet of fourth-generation co-CEOs.

The Times-Shamrock Communications media enterprise has grown considerably since E.J. Lynett purchased the company’s first property, The Scranton Times, in 1895. In addition to that venerable newspaper, the company now owns 25 other properties, including daily and weekly newspapers, alternative weeklies, radio stations, a commercial printing business and a distribution business. All told, the company, based in Scranton, Pa., now brings in more than $100 million in annual revenues.

Through it all, Times-Shamrock Communications has remained a family business—even as both the family and the business have grown substantially.

Third-generation brothers Edward Lynett Jr., George Lynett Sr. and William Lynett took control of the company after the sudden death of their father, Edward Lynett Sr., in 1966. (Their sister, Cecelia Lynett Haggerty, is a co-owner but declined an operations title.)

But as the siblings’ own families grew, the company’s future leadership became uncertain. “There were only four members of our generation, but there are 20 in the next generation,” says George Lynett Sr., 67. “We knew we’d have to plan carefully to change the governance of the company.”

A unique leadership structure

Because Edward Lynett Sr. hadn’t outlined plans for the business in his will, there was no natural successor for the role of CEO among his four children. The three brothers decided to share the responsibilities of the position. For more than 40 years, the unusual management structure has worked.

“We each had our own separate responsibilities and oversaw different branches,” says George Lynett Sr. “When we needed to come to a consensus on an issue, we’d talk it out.”

Before finalizing a transition plan, the third-generation co-CEOs sent out a survey to the 20 members of the fourth generation, asking whether they’d prefer to convert a traditional single-CEO structure or to maintain the current system, choosing one CEO from each of the four branches of the family. Overwhelmingly, the survey results showed that the next generation wanted to preserve the existing leadership structure.

So the senior generation began devising a plan to incorporate their offspring into leadership positions at Times-Shamrock Communications. They determined that one member from each branch of the family would have the opportunity to become a new CEO, and gave all 20 family members a chance to step up to the plate. Ultimately, it was decided that George Lynett Jr., 39; Robert Lynett, 48, the son of Edward J. Lynett Jr.; Matthew Haggerty, 40, the son of Cecelia Lynett Haggerty; and W. Scott Lynett, 42, the son of William R. Lynett, would take responsibility for the future of Times-Shamrock.

The plan would take years to finalize, and would involve significant challenges for those who aspired to lead the company into the next generation. Effective Jan. 1, 2009, the four members of the younger generation were appointed as co-CEOs at Times-Shamrock.

The transition plan

The senior generation didn’t rush their plan: In fact, they began working on it more than 14 years ago. “We were all between 50 and 55, and the members of the next generation were approaching 30,” George Sr. says. “A couple of them were working for the business, and they’d started asking us, ‘What are we going to be doing five years from now?’”

Times-Shamrock Communications has 27 senior positions, but a company policy dictates that family members cannot occupy more than 25% of those leadership roles. “We want to leave the door open for other employees to climb the ladder,” says Harold Marion, who served as chief operating officer at Times-Shamrock until four years ago. “I’m a prime example: I started out as a delivery driver at 17.”

The elder leaders wanted to give their children the opportunity to take the helm of the family business, but they needed to ensure that the potential future CEOs were well trained for the task at hand.

A team consisting of four people from the senior generation, two from the younger generation and four non-family managers worked to structure a management development program for relatives who wanted to take on leadership roles at Times-Shamrock Communications. Participants in the program were required to obtain a graduate degree, work for two years at an outside business, and then work for four years within different departments at Times-Shamrock before finally becoming a co-CEO.

Preparing to take the lead

This intensive management training program was a world away from George Sr.’s experience in 1966. “After my father died, the transition happened abruptly,” he says. “I was only 22, and had just gotten out of the Navy. We were the bosses in name, but we needed a lot of support from the non-family managers who worked there. We couldn’t have gotten through it without them.”

The leadership team wanted to make sure that the next generation was far more prepared to take the reins than they had been. “We had to ensure that they had the necessary education, experience, interest and passion to carry the business forward,” says Marion. “By spending time going through the program, they took on management responsibilities of various degrees within different departments. They learned the products and divisions, and got to know all the different management teams. They did not walk into a position where they had to learn on the job.”

Inside the program

George Lynett Jr., one of the new co-CEOs, says the program’s intensiveness wasn’t a problem for him. “We’d all expected a pretty in-depth process, and it was refreshing to know that our preparation was being taken seriously,” says George Jr.

After four years of active duty in the Navy, George Jr. participated in an academic program at the London School of Economics and then entered business school at Georgetown University. After finishing his MBA, he took a one-year internship with Hearst Publishing’s San Francisco Chronicle, followed by two years as a newspaper and radio sales representative in San Antonio and Milwaukee. Finally, he began working for Times-Shamrock as circulation manager for the Wilkes-Barre Citizens’ Voice, followed by a stint as publisher of the Towanda Daily Review and seven weekly papers before being elevated to co-CEO.

During their rotations at Times-Shamrock, the next-generation leadership trainees worked closely with two mentors—one within the family, and one outside manager. Three different sets of mentors worked with the four leaders-in-training.

“We would call and touch base with our ‘mentees’ at least once a month, going over their current projects and what they’re learning,” says Marion, who served as a program mentor. “When they worked in the company divisions, I could see their interest and passion for the company grow as they got to know managers, workers and markets.”

The management program helped the future co-CEOs gain credibility with non-family Times-Shamrock employees. “They were impressed with the fact that we went through this intensive program, and were happy to see we weren’t walking straight into management roles,” George Jr. says.

A difficult time for the industry

Times-Shamrock’s training program graduates took the helm at a time of great challenges in the media landscape. Between the economic decline and the rise of the Internet, the print news industry was suffering, and Times-Shamrock Communications wasn’t immune to the difficulties.

The new co-leaders had to make many tough decisions, including significant cuts to the company’s operating budget. “We were tested by fire right out of the gate,” Scott Lynett recalls. “We had to announce the first layoffs in the company’s history within our first 100 days.”

Thanks to their leadership training, they were up for the challenge. “My time working as a sales agent gave me insight into how to make deep expense cuts,” says George Jr. “I had a better understanding of direct expenses, and where we could afford to cut back on items like glossy rate cards or sales proposal books. The economy forced us to streamline the company’s expenses, but it also helped us to be more effective.”

The rise of online distribution was one of the biggest hurdles the new leaders had to face. “We had to deal with the repercussions of throwing information online for free,” says George Jr. “We didn’t come in trying to change the culture, but we knew we needed to focus on a more digital way of thinking.”

To that end, the new co-CEOs decided to meter the company’s websites by offering readers the chance to view ten articles for free, then pay a subscription fee if they wanted to read additional content. The new strategy, along with the cutbacks to their budget, has helped them to weather the difficult economic climate, the family says.

Changing of the guard

As the fourth generation took control, the third-generation leadership team stepped back from direct management. George Sr. and Edward cut their hours to part-time when they turned 65, and their brother Bill plans to reduce his workload when he reaches that milestone next year. “We realize that we are no longer operating the company,” says George Sr. “The next generation is operating it on a day-to-day basis.”

Still, the older leaders remain engaged with the company. “We’re all still in the same building and have regular meetings,” says George Sr. “They make sure to keep us informed about major decisions. We give them advice, and sometimes they listen.”

Despite the age differences, “there’s really no culture clash,” says George Sr. “They have to deal with a lot of different issues than the ones we faced, like the rise of the Internet. They have an appreciation for the way we ran the business, and we have an appreciation for the way they run the business now.”

The new leaders have made the multiple-CEO structure work for them by carefully dividing responsibilities and maintaining close communications regarding company-wide issues. “We’ve each gone into our own areas of strength, which complement one another,” says Scott. Before becoming co-CEO, Scott had been publisher of Times-Shamrock properties The Citizens’ Voice of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and the Hazleton [Pa.] Standard-Speaker.

Each CEO has his own division. Scott manages Scranton-area newspapers, George Jr. manages outlying news properties, Robert runs the radio division and Matthew runs the company’s alternative weeklies. “We have weekly meetings where we’ll all throw things on the table,” Scott adds. “If two guys take sides, we’ll have longer discussions. Over a period of time, a consensus always emerges.”

When it comes time to involve the fifth generation in the family business, the new CEOs plan to follow in their predecessors’ footsteps in devising an in-depth transition plan. “There are over 40 people in that generation, and they’re more spread out in terms of age,” says George Jr. “A lot of them are less familiar with the company than we were. It’s going to be a challenge to integrate them into the business, but we’ll use a very similar program to the one we went through. We might just need to tweak it a little.”

Kathryn Hawkins is a freelance writer based in Maine.

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Autumn 2011

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