The Education of a D.O.B.

“My seven years in the wilds established the self-confidence and assertiveness I needed to overcome stereotypes and claim leadership of Breuer Electric.”

By Linda S. Breuer-Murray

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. and D.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 the S.O.B. at the X Company."

The young man turned very pale and said in a faltering voice, "Oh well, yes, I guess my reputation precedes 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 in my 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 is is in the Chicago suburb of Harwood Heights. A child of the 1960s, I wanted to get as far away as I could from the comforts of my Midwestern upbringing. For seven years I lived in the wilderness in a cabin with kerosene lamps and wood heat. I don't think I ever made the connection between vacuum cleaners and our family business until I was an adult and had to clean my own house. (Now I spend a lot 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 what I learned during those formative years later became useful at Breuer Electric. If nothing else, my seven years in the wilds established the self-confidence and assertiveness I needed to overcome stereotypes 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 my younger brother and sister in the family business. Company matters were not discussed at the dinner table. Once a year we did get to take a trip to the office and have a "day with Daddy." It was usually a difficult day. The employees made a fuss over us. We felt very self-conscious and uncomfortable. The only nice part was spending a little time with our father and getting a glimpse of the place he disappeared 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 escape its 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 my generation. My family attributed it to a willful streak of independence. It think it also had something to do with my attraction to challenge, the battle to survive, and perhaps also to a small bit of Indian heritage.

While living in the wilds, I also taught in a Head Start program for children, pruned trees for Christmas, picked apples, and worked the night shifts at various factories in the area. Once while doing a stint on an assembly line in a tool manufacturing company, I saw a salesman demonstrating a Tornado floor scrubber to the cleaning crew. I walked over and proudly stated something about my father owning the company that made Tornado. They looked at me in my beat-up jeans, clutching dinner in 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 and packaged eggs then loaded them onto tractor trailers for delivery. The eggs were shipped up from the hot Southern states covered with maggots and unmentionable debris. The equipment we used was dangerous, and the working environment was ice cold and — to put it mildly — odoriferous. We would greet the dawn exhausted, our clothes stiff with egg. (I was unable to look at an egg for many years thereafter.)

My father called me one day during this low period. When he suggested during the conversation that I come home for a while, I considered my circumstances. My $250 pickup truck was broken, my cabin was unfinished, and, with winter coming on, I didn't have any wood cut. Going home to get through the winter 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 I thought was a temporary job at Breuer Electric as a clerk in our purchasing department. There, I learned to file. After becoming proficient at the alphabet, I moved on to production planning and became curious about manufacturing. I spent three years in the industrial engineering department and moonlighted on the assembly line. I spent another three years as assistant to the vice-president of manufacturing 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 I knew I could do it. My younger brother and sister were not interested in joining the business; my brother did work in the company for a short time, but traded in the stress for a happy and successful career 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 to pursue the role. But after several years in the company, I began making increasingly persistent requests for the reins. My father didn't turn me down exactly, but he was struggling with his own career and didn't like to have retirement staring him in the face. He also knew what obstacles I would face as his successor, and during one conversation he exclaimed that handing over the reins would be like "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 my acrobatics to get my father's attention — he didn't seem inclined to give me a chance. The friend reminded me of the maxim that authority is 80 percent taken and only 20 percent given. That was enough to 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 listing everything I thought was wrong with the company, from the shop floor to the finished product. Of course, 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, that I still had a job. In fact, as I had requested, my father gave me the title of director of quality improvement.

I knew that if our company was to survive, we had to be the very best. Breuer Electric is smaller than its competitors, and few family equipment manufacturers remain in the industry. We became clients of Philip Crosby Associates, a leader in the quality movement. I chose Crosby because I believed in his philosophy, which stresses teamwork and breaking down walls between departments in order to concentrate on continual improvement.

My teaching experience came in handy in bringing about this organizational transformation. After going through training in the Crosby process myself, I taught it to everyone in the plant, including my father. For the first year and a half, I led classes in the Crosby philosophy and in how to implement quality methods.

Today we are in a second phase of instruction. Our employees are learning how to work in teams and to take initiative in solving problems themselves. The sessions have brought together groups of people in different departments who virtually hadn't spoken to each other in years. They now work together in a total effort to make defect-free products that meet customer requirements more precisely. In our Job Swap program, our managers take turns working on the assembly line, or in other areas unrelated to their normal managerial tasks, in order to become more familiar with production problems and quality issues.

Crosby gave us the format and tools to turn the company around. The changeover also had unexpected personal benefits for me. Directing and teaching the quality process allowed me to keep all my fingers in 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 one is 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 also gave me the freedom to show my stuff. I demonstrated to the employees — and my father — that I knew all aspects 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 a believer 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. With my new position, I inherited a management team that seemed to have little interest in seeing the company survive. My father had turned down several offers from them to buy him out, and they were resentful. They bucked the introduction of the quality process and, instead, were comfortably biding their time until retirement.

I had worked for these managers in the past. At times, they had attempted to sabotage my work, placing boulders in my path and even falsifying documents to undermine my performance. On occasion, their dislike 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 quality process failed. Previously, their poor performance had been undocumented. I put all of them on probation 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 grandparents nearby. My brother and sister are very supportive and want to see the company stay in the family. I have no children, and my nieces and nephews are young, so I'll probably have to stay around a long time 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, the deer, and all of that. However, at every port of refuge, there is a price to pay, no matter what you choose to do.

Looking back, I can see that my unconventional background was in many ways a preparation for the family company. The jobs that I held in factories may not look great on a résumé, but they taught me much about people and work and assembly lines — particularly what it feels like on the other side of management. My life in the wilds used to be a source of heated argument between my father and me. Now when 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 their skills. My experience in the wilderness taught me to survive, to rely only on myself. It has helped me become 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 for parents, it is that you should not overlook your daughters or have preconceived ideas about the best education for leadership. As for other D.O.B.'s and S.O.B.'s, my advice is to plunge in, to chance the rapids and dare to lead, no matter what label they stick on you.


BREUER ELECTRIC

Business: Manufactures Tornado brand floor-maintenance equipment and industrial vacuums.

Location: Harwood Heights, Ill., a Chicago suburb.

Employees: 130.

Founded: 1927 by Adam A. Breuer Sr., grandfather of Linda Breuer-Murray.

Family Officers: Adam A. Breuer Jr., chairman and CEO; Linda Breuer-Murray, president and 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 leadership of the family company.


Linda Breuer-Murray’s First Person article is adopted from a talk at a conference last fall sponsored by Family Business in Kohler,Wisconsin.