Growing pains Featured

9:38am EDT July 22, 2002

Tom Rice admits that one of the more difficult things he's done in his life is to name a successor for Rice's Nursery, a retail garden center, gift shop and design/build/landscape concern located on 35 acres in North Canton.

It wasn't that he balked at the idea of turning the day-to-day operations over to someone else. The 58-year-old CEO was perfectly happy to be out of the office and running one of the nursery's three Stark County farms, a 90-acre spread he bought four years ago to produce shade and ornamental trees. Furthermore, he realized it was high time sons Bryan, a 34-year-old horticulturist, and Kevin, a 33-year-old state-registered landscape architect, learn how to manage the business and its 120 employees.

"I found out a long time ago that as long as you're doing it, everybody will stand back and watch you do it," Tom says in a matter-of-fact tone.

The hard part was choosing one of his sons, both hard-working Ohio State University graduates, to head the family business.

"Making Bryan president was tough because the boys are just a year and five days apart," Tom says. "They're so close in age. But Bryan's really a leader. Kevin's a little more quiet, a little more laid back."

Tough is a word Bryan also uses, in his case to describe the role he assumed in January after working at the nursery for 10 years.

"The changing of the guard, if you will, has not been as easy as I thought it was going to be," he confesses.

The spring and summer of 2000, for one thing, have proved to be incredibly soggy. Bryan recently sent letters to customers explaining that major rainfalls have put the nursery behind schedule in completing landscaping jobs.

"Working with Mother Nature is very, very challenging in itself," he says. "Mix in the family part of it, and that just adds a whole other realm of problems."

Bryan is candid in describing just what those problems are. He believes his father may not have been as ready to hand over the day-to-day operations of the nursery as he professed to be.

"There's a level of trust, but ... this was his baby," Bryan explains. "He still wants to be somewhat involved."

The result was that neither Bryan nor the nursery employees knew exactly who was in charge of what. The new president says that people went over his head to his father with problems and concerns instead of bringing them to him. The problem was remedied to some extent when Tom explained Bryan's role in a letter to employees and asked them to support him in his position.

But Bryan says he needs to do it verbally, too, and calls that clear definition of roles "one of the biggest things with a family business that needs to be done."

Bryan's new title has gotten him involved in landscape sales and production, which has resulted in "a little bit of a power struggle/ego thing" with his brother, who designs and sells landscape jobs for the business to install. Bryan describes Kevin as a tremendously gifted landscape architect who, like many artists, doesn't possess all the management skills needed in his position as vice president.

"A lot of artists won't recognize that or can't recognize that," Bryan says. "That's one of the issues that we're dealing with right now."

His solution is to pitch in and help.

"I'm hoping and praying he's receptive," Bryan says.

Kevin, for his part, says he's had no trouble working with his brother or his father since he left a Columbus landscape design firm and began working with them seven years ago.

"The dynamics of the business are unique," he says of the family firm. "But we tend to work well together, and we understand our chain of command."

Tom says he has relatively little experience with his sons' predicaments. By the time he purchased his father's small landscape business, J.D. Rice & Sons, when his father retired in 1970, his own brother was no longer involved. But he says his sons have their own areas of responsibility -- Bryan the "green-good buying" and garden center, Kevin the landscape business -- and work hard to resolve any differences they have.

"We've had our moments, believe me, but for the most part it's been very enjoyable," he says.

His advice to Bryan?

"I told him to just take it easy, and things will happen," Tom says. "He needs to gain everybody's respect."

The problems Bryan relates are not uncommon, according to Dennis Zaverl of Zaverl & Associates, a Peninsula-based consultant who has worked with family businesses for 30 years. He's not surprised to hear that Tom might have problems handing over the reins of the nursery. The fact that employees seek him out for answers to questions and problems is "a form of being needed, a form of flattery."

Zaverl does say, however, that Tom has done the most important thing he can do in facilitating his sons' success in their new roles -- physically remove himself from the nursery. The next step is to refer those employees who continue to come to him to the appropriate offspring.

"It's a very difficult thing to break that dependency," he acknowledges. "But he has to say to the people who are doing that, 'Look, I like you. We've had a good relationship over the years. But I can't answer that, and I can't get involved in that. That's not the succession plan.'"

Zaverl agrees with Bryan that it might be helpful for Tom to have a succession talk with nursery employees. He says it's normal for some employees not to take the new arrangements set forth on paper seriously, especially in what Zaverl calls "a family atmosphere with nonfamily employees."

"You know how families are -- nobody pays attention to mom or whoever is beating on them all the time," he says with a chuckle.

The succession talk doesn't have to be an elaborate speech. Something simple will suffice, such as "Johnny's taken over the company. From this point on, all decisions in these particular areas will be made by him. Furthermore, these are the only activities that I will be dealing with."

To ease any tension between Bryan and Kevin, Zaverl suggests Tom put the emphasis on each man's respective responsibilities instead of on their titles, both when dealing with them individually and when presenting them to employees in the succession talk. Doing so, he explains, reduces the potential for breeding resentment.

"You go back to the division (of labor), a little bit like the Japanese culture," he says. "So the guy's the president. Big deal. He's just another worker."

Putting the emphasis on responsibility rather than titles, Zaverl adds, makes it easier to hold each son accountable for his actions.

"You let the accountability surface, whether it's at a weekly meeting or somewhere else," he says. "If one is responsible for certain things and they're not working, it's a topic for discussion."

Having Tom present during these meetings as a mediator might be a good idea until Bryan and Kevin work through any issues they may have.

Bryan believes the challenges of recent months may not be bad for the company in the long run.

"I might look back at this at age 40 or 50 and say, 'That really made me strong, to deal with the issues to get us where we're at today.' Truthfully, it should make us a stronger business, to go through this."Lynne Thompson is a free-lance writer for SBN.