The Missing Piece: EFBC

This month we are proud to feature a guest blog written by EFBC member Eric Weinstein of Specialty Store Services.

It was 2008. I was 38, and my first child was 6 months old. My wife had finally recovered after a difficult pregnancy requiring an extended stay in the hospital after delivery. Every day there was more bad news about the financial markets: banks were failing, the stock market was crashing, and the names Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae were now in everyone’s vocabulary. Everything was in turmoil, and in the midst, I was given ownership of the family business. To put it bluntly, I was utterly unprepared and more than a little scared.

I had been working at the family business for about 10 years at the time. I wasn’t involved in management beyond my little world of marketing. I did not have exposure to operational decision-making or to the finances of the company. While I enjoyed my job and always hoped for the company’s success, I didn’t have a good grasp on how it all worked and what it took to run a distribution company. There was no succession planning, no training, no discussion of my future and what that would entail. In retrospect, I should have been asking questions more proactively, but that’s difficult when you don’t know what you don’t know. Really, I could have used an MBA instead of my MFA, but that is a subject for another blog post.

I don’t remember any discussion about the business transition plans or what I was going to be responsible for. There was no countdown to retirement for my dad or milestone date for the transfer of ownership. I didn’t even think about it often because it wasn’t really spoken about.

Ultimately, the “transition” was more of an event than a process. I remember it as a simple directive without much preamble. “Eric, be at this address at 9 a.m. on Skokie Valley Road, and you will become the new owner of the company.” And that was it. Be there, is all he said, and I went alone.

So, with the stroke of a pen the business was mine. It was like one day I was doing my job running the marketing department, and literally the next day I was part owner of a family business. I was not prepared.

The business that my dad and his partner had started 22 years prior in a garage on the northside of Chicago was mine. But – and it was a big but – from what I recall of bits and pieces of internal conversations at the time, the business was not doing well. In fact, it was six months away from going broke. So not only was ownership new to me, but I was also looking down the barrel at the very dire aspect of ownership.

It seemed impossible after so many years of success, but the company, Specialty Store Services, a distributor of retail store displays and supplies just had its worst year ever. Specialty Store’s customers, small mom-and-pop retail stores, were closing their doors all over the country. On top of that, the company did not have a handle on expenses. It was like a bus hurtling toward a cliff and management – especially me, brand new to the team but expected to lead – had no idea how to stop it or even slow it down.

We just kept doing the same things and hoped that business would go back to normal. Things didn’t get back to normal, in fact they got worse. I held on tightly.  Even as I educated myself on the operational aspects of the business I found that new challenges were popping up all the time. One big surprise was when our bank insisted I put my house up as collateral for our loans. And on top of it all I thought the stress might kill me. This was definitely not the celebratory torch-passing you’d expect when inheriting ownership of the family business.

Slowly, I began to look at things more wholistically. My partner and I began owning the areas of the business where our strengths were. But still there was so much we didn’t know. I began looking for resources to help me fast-track my knowledge and experience as well as an organization of like-minded people that would offer support during this difficult time in my life and that is when I found the EFBC.

In looking back at the experience, I’m so grateful for the EFBC in helping me find my footing and ultimately grow my business. However, I regret that they weren’t a part of our family business all along. I know that if my dad had been part of a forum and had the opportunity to discuss how he was going to hand over the business to me with his forum partners things would have been different. He could have learned from the experiences of others who had been through these transitions. He could have reached out to one of the strategic partners to get an understanding of the legal or tax consequences of giving me the business. He would have gotten me involved earlier – in both the business and in the EFBC and I am sure things would have been different.

We are constantly told that we as business owners must go at alone, that we have to “pull ourselves up from our bootstraps” but there is something incredible that comes out of the collective knowledge and experience of everyone in the EFBC. You know that you are not alone, that your forum brothers and sisters are there to help you through the hard times as well as celebrate your successes.