Mark Bissell talks talent acquisition, succession planning at Bissell Inc.

Attracting and retaining top executive talent at a family business can be difficult. It’s a problem Mark Bissell, chairman and CEO of Bissell Inc., the seventh-oldest privately owned manufacturing company in the U.S., is familiar with. Bissell recently talked at the EY Strategic Growth Forum about his experience recruiting top executive talent and getting future generations of his family involved with the company.

Finding the right people

Being the only family member in the company for the past 20 years, Bissell has had to rely on the company’s ability to hire and retain the best professionals, and not succeeding generations, to fill executive roles.

“I think, in some respects, today it is a little bit harder,” Bissell says. “There is a global fight for talent. I think holding on to good people today is harder than it might have been in the past. There’s always been a lot of mobility, but finding the right people is clearly the key.”

The right people, according to Bissell, are people who will value working in a family company.

“It takes a unique individual who wants to work in a family company, who derives some personal satisfaction and connection from that,” he says.

Of secondary importance to finding people who want to work in a family business is making sure that executives are compensated well. He says when it comes to compensation packages, the company isn’t in a position to offer stock options, but has found a way to entice top talent through gainsharing and other short and long-term incentives that allow executives some level of wealth accumulation. But that isn’t always enough.

“Sometimes you find such selflessness that I have to say, ‘Hey; you’re not asking for more, but I’m going to give you more.’ And then on the other side it’s clearly the more demanding types. We’ve lost some great people because we just couldn’t meet their expectations, so it’s a balance — it’s a real juggling act. I just think it’s getting harder today, particularly in the global environment that many of us operate in, to attract and retain the really good people.”

The next generation

To prepare the next generation of family for their involvement in the company, Bissell says he employs various mechanisms for getting them engaged. He has had his children work for the company during summers, and holds family meetings to keep his children apprised of company business, talking openly about estate planning, business updates, and the like to engage in sharing communication early on.

“I know there’s various schools of thought on this, but I wanted to talk about money and the responsibility and being a shareholder and those sort of things early on with the kids. To help put it into perspective, it’s not entitlement as much as understanding the responsibility — the mantle — that comes with a bit of a legacy,” he says.

The company has a policy that says a family member must work outside of Bissell for three years before taking a position with it. It also has a policy requiring family members to have an MBA from a recognizable institution. Bissell says his son is yet to complete his MBA and his daughter, who has an MBA, has not shown interest in taking the next step with the company.

“I do want to have my children involved in the business, and I think that will play itself out over time, so you’ve got to start with someone who’s interested. There’s lot of other criteria, but if you don’t have the interest, you’re never going to get to competency and capability and some of the other very important components.”