A son's push for planning
At Summer Classics furniture company, founder and CEO Bew White is a risk-taker who relies on instinct, while his son William, now president, craves structure. It was William who initiated meetings with advisers to prepare for transition of the business.
In many family businesses, it’s the younger generation that’s eager to charge ahead and the elders who rein them in. At Summer Classics, a Pelham, Ala.-based manufacturer and retailer of luxury outdoor furniture, those roles are reversed. Founder and CEO William Bew White III, known as Bew, is the risk-taker. His son William Bew White IV, known as William, is more cautious.
Bew, 69, says he has an MBA in mistakes — “possibly much more educational than an MBA from Harvard, and a lot more expensive.”
“Dad and I are somewhat different,” says William, 44, the company president. “He’s go-go-go, multitask, always moving, always doing, and I’m more like, ‘Hang on, let’s think about this. I want to know all the facts before we move forward.’ He wants to race to the finish line, and I’m more reserved.”
When Bew offered his son the president’s job in 2016, William said he would accept only if the company took steps to build up its organizational structure. And when it came time to engineer a transfer of ownership to his generation, it was William who sought out a consulting firm to help with the transition plan.
Good instincts pay off
Bew’s great-grandfather Braxton Bragg Comer, a former governor of Alabama and United States senator, founded Avondale Mills, a textile company based in Birmingham, Ala. Although that business was successful when Bew joined in the early 1970s, he foresaw trouble on the horizon.
Bew was the first member of his generation to join the business. “Right after I came in, four of my cousins came in,” he says. “I saw it could possibly be a bloodbath when I got to my 50s and there would be the decision of who would become president.”
Rather than fight with his cousins, Bew struck out on his own at age 28 in 1978. He bought an interest in a small company that made furniture. It was, he says bluntly, a disaster, and he left after nine months to start Vista Corporation, a sales representative agency specializing in selling outdoor furniture. His experience convinced him there was a need in the market for upscale outdoor furniture that would bring the elegance of the living room to the patio.
These were the days before “outdoor living” was a recognized concept in the furniture or real estate realm. Grand houses might have had a big porch with some wicker furniture, but most people plunked a few aluminum chairs, a redwood picnic table or some resin furniture on their patios and called it done.
Bew founded Summer Classics in 1987 and began creating high-quality outdoor furniture that would stand the test of time, in both design and durability. The company made wooden, wrought iron and aluminum pieces, which it sold to independent retailers and stores like Crate & Barrel, Neiman Marcus and Restoration Hardware. As of the mid-1990s, Summer Classics had manufacturing plants in Chile and Mexico as well as the United States.
By 2000, the company had shifted much of its manufacturing operations to Asia and had started making cast aluminum and wicker furniture. Revenues grew, but Bew was frustrated.
“Our dealer base would buy two or three sets of furniture and throw it on the floor with all their other products,” he recalls. “After having spent an incredible amount of time designing product and making it unique, this really had the opposite effect. It threw me into a generic pool of products and downgraded the brand.”
Bew thought if he could show the dealers how to merchandise his wares, they’d soon understand they could make more money.
“I was not very effective at transferring the idea to the dealer base,” he says wryly. In a few instances, he built out a branded shop-in-shop display for clients, but the retailers would end up selling the floor samples, breaking up the display and missing the point of merchandising multiple pieces together.
In 1995, Bew recalled a huge order for Williams Sonoma’s former garden division because he’d learned of a flaw in the paint. To get rid of it, he held a warehouse clearance sale.
“We put a few ads in the paper, and we couldn’t believe how many people came!” William says. That experience, combined with Bew’s vision for lifestyle merchandising, led to the development of the branded retail stores.
Now with 15 stores, Summer Classics Home is one of several divisions that make up the company. The others are wholesale, private label and contract, which supplies outdoor furniture to hotels, country clubs, assisted living facilities and so forth. Total revenues exceed $100 million. Under William’s leadership, a line of indoor furniture called Gabby (named after Gabriella Comer White, Bew’s mother) was launched in 2010.
A roundabout road for G2
In addition to William, their oldest child, Bew and his wife, Wendy, have two daughters: Walker White Dorman, 43, and Wynne White Martin, 37. As teens, all three had summer jobs in the family business, but none was initially inclined to make it a career.
“I was about 13 or 14 when I started doing summer jobs, bringing in raw rocking chairs, planters and fireplace screens to [Summer Classics’ original] facility in Pelham, Ala.,” says William. His duties included filling cracks with putty, using the belt sander and antiquing gold fireplace screens and tool sets.
“It gets real hot in Alabama in summer, and in a warehouse environment it’s not fun,” William says. “It gave me a bad taste in my mouth and made me want to go to college.”
He earned an undergraduate degree in environmental studies from the University of Colorado and then an MBA from the University of Alabama. After stints in banking and then in chemical sales — during which time he halfheartedly interviewed for a few sales manager positions at Summer Classics — he was finally enticed in when Bew bought a retail store in Huntsville, Ala. He joined the company in 2008.
Wynne joined in 2009, after a stint as a stand-up comic in New York City. When a sales rep position opened up, Bew thought she’d be a natural at it, but she had to interview as any other candidate would.
“I can’t be the one to hire you,” Bew told her. Her ease with people and sense of humor earned her the position, and she grew quite successful in it — so much so that she’s transitioning from field sales representative to national accounts manager.
Walker, who briefly worked in PR for the company, left to pursue her passion for ministry.
No spouses or other relatives currently work at Summer Classics. Following a divorce in the family, the company established a policy prohibiting the hiring of in-laws.
Bew’s wife, Wendy, has been his inspirational sounding board. She has been pivotal to the company’s success, albeit behind the scenes.
A health scare and big changes
William joined the company at an inauspicious time. The Great Recession hit right after he came on board. The company, which had not yet established diversified product lines and had fewer distribution channels, was hyper-seasonal. To make matters worse, its main bank was in trouble and its other lender was also in dire straits.
“I wondered if I should go ask for my old job back,” William says.
Bew acknowledges there were moments when he doubted the business would survive. Fortunately, Summer Classics was able to repay its loans, and today the company is debt-free with a healthy cash reserve, Bew says.
Although the company had survived the recession, it was siloed and lacked formal structure. It didn’t have an organization chart or an HR department, says William.
“VPs were swarming around Dad all the time asking what do next. It was not sustainable, not scalable.”
William was running the Gabby division, but differently than Bew ran the rest of the company, and they had butted heads over the issue of structure.
“There was not a lot of connective tissue between what I was doing and what he was doing,” William says.
When Bew had a health scare in 2013, both realized the current arrangement wasn’t sustainable for the long term.
Bew had trouble breathing. Doctors in Atlanta found blood clots in his lungs and legs. That experience made him nervous about the future of the company.
Before he fell ill, Bew had attended a conference of the Society of International Business Fellows in Toronto. The keynote speaker was Dick Cross, author of multiple books on leadership. He and Bew had gotten into a discussion about succession planning when Bew explained his son was in the business but not engaged in his brand.
From the hospital, Bew called Cross and said, “If I die, will you take over the company?” Cross flew down to have a look.
“He audited the business and came and sat with me,” says William. Cross told William the company didn’t have the structure it needed to manage its rapid growth.
“He said, ‘You guys are way out in front of your blockers. You have to have key management in each division,’” William recalls. “I got really excited when he said that, because I always wanted structure. Historically, we had the wrong people in the wrong seat. A sales guy would come in and he and Dad would hit it off and next thing you know the guy’s running our operation.”
Cross hit the reset button. He built a structure, creating an organizational chart and helping the Whites hire some good managers. He also helped with succession planning and creating a holding company structure.
Cross remained for about 18 months. After his departure, Bew wanted William to move up to president of Gabriella White LLC, the parent company to Summer Classics and the other entities. William agreed, but he still felt the company needed more structural work.
Before Bew’s health scare, William had become involved with Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS), an organization that offers a concepts and tools to help entrepreneurs run their companies successfully and acts almost like a board of advisers.
When his father offered him the president’s job, “I said yes on one condition: that we look at the EOS system,” William says. “I wanted to present it to the management team.”
A certified implementer of EOS came in and spoke to 10 Summer Classics vice presidents. “Everyone was excited,” William says. “They were tired of going to endless meetings with nothing accomplished.”
EOS advocates imposing even more structure than Cross instituted. The system also involves developing core values and using those values to hold people accountable. It calls for a visionary CEO, an integrator president and no more than seven reports per manager. Luckily, Bew and William each fit their respective positions well. They also hired a process improvement manager.
Even though everyone eagerly said, “We need to do this,” not everyone was ultimately happy with what “this” turned out to be, William notes.
“A lot of people are not with us anymore. We realized some of these people had been with us 20 years, but they don’t have our core values.” The values fit the acronym DESIGN: Dedication, Enthusiasm, Synergy, Integrity, Goal-Oriented and Nimble.
Summer Classics has never been better, according to William. Independent patio stores are declining in general, but Summer Classics’ margins are strong, William says.
Last year, Wynne launched a line of indoor and outdoor pillows designed to complement both Gabby and Summer Classics furniture. She named it Wendy Jane in honor of her mother.
Transition of ownership
Although Dick Cross started Summer Classics on the path to structure and EOS further refined it, there was no avoiding the fact that Bew was getting older. His health scare drove home the need to plan for transition of ownership. He and William realized the estate tax implications could be substantial.
Again, William sought outside expertise. He turned to The Beringer Group, an advisory firm for private businesses and family foundations.
“I read an article from The Beringer Group all about transitioning, succession planning, protecting the family business as you transition, estate planning, etc.,” William says.
The family had a stable of advisers, but the article presented concepts that sparked new insights. William reached out to John R. McAlister II, vice president with The Beringer Group.
Bew, true to form, at first was skeptical. After his initial contact with William, McAlister called Bew, who sent him back to William.
William told Bew he had to participate in a meeting with the firm. “It was funny,” McAlister says, “because Bew immediately saw what we could do to get [the business] down to the next generation and reduce taxes.”
Beringer advisers met individually with the White family members and also conferred with the family’s attorneys and CPA.
“It’s good to have someone kind of quarterbacking the whole transition,” William says. “If it came from me, [family members] might think, ‘Maybe there’s some selfish reason why he wants it this way.’”
The Beringer Group designed a plan to transfer a significant portion of the operating company using a series of gifts and sale of non-voting shares to generation-skipping transfer trusts — one for each of Bew and Wendy’s children.
Voting control remains with Bew and Wendy during their lifetimes and then passes to a trust after their deaths.
The plan provides for the inactive as well as the active shareholders and empowers the second-generation family members who are active in the business to make operating decisions while Bew and Wendy have oversight on the transition today.
The plan came to fruition over the course of about 19 months, from mid-2016 through December 2017.
Walker, who doesn’t work in the company, participates in family meetings about the business, held at least annually and often more frequently.
“We’d love to pass [the business] on,” Wendy says. “We thought about selling it at one point, but I’m glad we stuck it out and family came in and wanted to be involved. We had to do some maturing, but it worked out great.”
Bew has scaled back but has not set a retirement date. “We’re not sure how we’re going to define retirement for him,” William says. He adds that before he moves into the CEO role, a candidate will have to be chosen to succeed him as president.
“I had in my mind I would go to three days a week when I turn 65 and then retire at 70,” Bew says. “That’s all moved back five years, and the current plan is to go to three days a week when I turn 70 and not retire. Looking at Warren Buffett, I’m not sure retirement is a good idea for anyone. I like to keep my mind working.”
What he has done, however, is increase his vacation time. He will take 12 weeks’ vacation this year and plans 15 weeks next year.
“If you go away, they figure things out,” he says of his son and the management team.
McAlister recalls William’s words at the closing table: “We’re going to make it as a family business. [The next generation] will have a chance to come in here and prove themselves. I’m going to do everything I can to help them.”
Hedda Schupak is a frequent contributor to Family Business. She recently profiled Round Room LLC.
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