While they and their families run successful auto dealerships, home furnishing stores and ag manufacturing operations, these next-generation business leaders also have a lot in common.
They’ve all grown and developed their careers within their businesses and through experiences outside of them.
Max Patnoe, Emily Schmitt and Eric Sinclair will share their lessons learned at a webinar Feb. 22 organized by the Prairie Family Business Association titled Developing Yourself as a Leader. They will share how they are leading their business culture and leading relationships with employees, vendors, suppliers and family.
“This is a highly requested and important topic for family businesses,” executive director Stephanie Larscheid said. “Our panelists will be giving information others can run with, including their personal approach to leadership development and how they’re extending that through their family and their team.”
For Patnoe, the fourth generation of Liberty Superstores, which has five dealerships in western South Dakota, life in the family business began with washing cars at age 10 and continued as he worked in all the company’s departments before leading daily operations.
“That was really critical in my journey,” he said. “A lot of the employees I worked for 20 or 30 years ago are still with us today, and it was important for them to see me putting in the hours and working on holidays. It really earned the respect of the team.”
Schmitt is the third generation of Iowa-based Sukup Manufacturing Co., which is the world’s largest family-owned and -operated manufacturer of grain storage, grain drying and handling equipment, and steel buildings. She serves as chief administrative officer and general counsel. Schmitt began working in the print room and for years never took on additional titles even as she added responsibility.
“We wanted to make sure there’s room to grow for nonfamily members,” she said. “I got my actual C-level title when we added an independent board, and looking back, I valued it more.”
Sinclair, the fifth-generation president of Sioux Falls-based Montgomery’s, followed his family business policy of working elsewhere before returning – and it proved invaluable.
“I got a job as an independent contractor for a custom upholstery maker, and I was able to work with family-owned furniture businesses all over the country,” he said. “I had a front-row seat to what worked and what didn’t.”
Here’s a preview of topics the panel will tackle.
What are some of the strategies you’ve found effective around leadership development?
Max Patnoe: We’re involved in industry peer groups that allow us to compare financials and best practices. For a while, so much of my focus and my father’s focus was just around day-to-day operations. We weren’t strategizing around high-level topics or developing leaders, and it was just about getting through the day. We needed to be more strategic in developing key leaders to grow, and in hindsight we probably missed some growth opportunities early on because we hadn’t developed our key leaders.
Emily Schmitt: I have a passion for serving on boards and in organizations, and I used to be – I think I’m up to 16 now – and I always want to keep learning. I’ve reached out to mentors, and it definitely changes your development pattern, so I always encourage others to do that. Networking has been key, and I used to be horrible at it and awkward until I flipped it to focus on helping other people. I’m also involved in a family peer advising group, which brings next generations together to solve problems and make suggestions. And I didn’t keep my family name, which has been a secret superpower. You get to know what people are thinking in the world about the company.
Eric Sinclair: My parents were adamant that they weren’t going to teach me how to run the business. They ran it off their gut, and I needed to figure out a different way, so I joined a performance group of about 16 owners, and I was the youngest. The others took me under their wing and gave me a lot of mentorship in home furnishings. And now, I spend time in my Prairie Family Business Affinity Peer Group with great individuals I lean on locally, plus I spent a lot of time on boards, and that’s a very fulfilling way to give back to the communities that have been so good to us.
How are you taking a leadership role within your family or encouraging others to do the same?
Max Patnoe: Family meetings have been very beneficial to us, especially making sure my sisters are on the same page. It’s not unlike making sure as you lead employees that everyone is on the same page. For the next generation, my wife and I have a 1-year-old, so leading the way is pretty basic and simple at this point!
Emily Schmitt: We actually implement personality quizzes for our leaders and really delve into and celebrate our diverse personalities. I’ll detail more about that during the webinar. Also, as we grow generationally, we felt it was important to have an independently controlled board, which has been key. And we created a Leadership Council that has led us to communicate more, including about financials, which isn’t always easy for family businesses. But we’re pulling them behind the curtain to let them see where we’re coming from and why decisions are made, and with that we’ve been able to see people flourish.
Eric Sinclair: When I was about five or six years into my family leadership journey, I was working nonstop, and my parents called a meeting with me. They told me I need an executive team around me, and even though I thought we couldn’t afford it, they told me we needed to build a leadership team. So I did that, and it continued to transform the business. Finding great people who could lead certain parts of the business allowed me to do a much better job as a leader myself instead of trying to do everything at once. And one of the best ways my father continues to lead today is by spending an hour with each new employee, telling them the history of the company and his business philosophy. He loves it, and it’s so valuable for them too.
This webinar is an included benefit for members of the Prairie Family Business Association. First-time guests are complimentary and repeat guests may register for $25.