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Thriving as a Non-Family CEO in a Family-Owned Business

Thriving as a Non-Family CEO in a Family-Owned Business

Rick Bucher
November 21, 2023

I am the non-family CEO of Victaulic, a 104-year-old family-owned company. I’ve been at the company for 14 years and have been CEO for almost three years. My initial decision to join Victaulic was grounded in our shared values and Evergreen® perspective on business, and my experience leading the company has been wonderful for largely the same reasons. I am often asked what it’s like to be a non-family CEO of a multi-generational family company, so I have spent some time thinking it through. I believe our success rests on a few key, foundational factors which are specific to Victaulic.

First, Victaulic is unique in that it has never had a family member working within its ranks. It was decreed from the beginning that this would never happen. Our legacy began with our first patent in 1919 when two men, Lt. Ernest Tribe, a British Royal Engineer, and Dr. Henry Selby Hele-Shaw, an eminent research engineer, imagined a solution to move fuel to the troops on the front line. This innovative solution to swiftly and effectively connect pipes led to the company’s inception. The “victory joint,” so named because of its potential use by the British soldiers during wartime, was quickly adopted and early applications were used in the oil and water markets outside of military applications. At the end of the war, Mr. Frederick Bedford, who was working as an executive at Standard Oil, saw the value of this invention and proposed to his boss, Nelson Rockefeller, that they launch a business manufacturing and selling the connectors. Rockefeller was not interested, but he gave Bedford the green light to pursue the idea as an investor, provided he agreed to one condition: no Bedford family member should ever be employed by the company. In 1925, Bedford founded Victaulic Company of America with James H. Hayes serving as chairman and president.

This prohibition of family members ever working in the company removed one potential challenge for a non-family CEO at Victaulic, since all CEOs would always be non-family. There is not and will never be a risk of family dynamics that get in the way of a CEOs ability to run the company effectively.

Fast forward to the present, Victaulic has emerged as a global leader in pipe-joining solutions, with a prominent presence in iconic structures and industrial sites worldwide. Victaulic solutions are installed in ten of the world’s tallest buildings, eight of the world’s deepest mines, across dozens of Olympic stadiums and sports facilities, and in landmarks such as the Hoover Dam, the Louvre Museum in Paris, and Wimbledon Center Court. Even if you have never heard of us, the chances that you are sitting in a building that contains a Victaulic system right now are high. As the company has grown and thrived, so has the Bedford family. A second reason I have had such a positive experience working in this company is the family itself.

The family owners’ commitment to and passion for Victaulic are profound. Though they are not actively involved in day-to-day operations, their engagement in board meetings and participation in significant decisions underscore their dedication to the company’s growth and well-being. There is a strong ethos of caring for and remaining connected to the company that dates back to the founder, who took great care to educate his family (our current owners) about Victaulic. Family members regularly visit Victaulic facilities and construction jobsites when they travel, and they feel a strong sense of pride in and connectedness to the company. As a result, they see Victaulic as far more than a dividend check, but an extension of their family, and are invested in its success and long-term growth. They are supportive of leadership, which they know will never be their job, and they are eager to ensure that their influence is positive and does not stand as an obstacle to progress and success.

Working with such a family has been a great pleasure; my relationship with the board is positive, productive, and respectful. Maintaining open lines of communication, I regularly share monthly results with the owners and seek their guidance on strategic matters. This mutual trust has fostered a collaborative and productive relationship, enabling us to face challenges and seize opportunities together.

The third and perhaps most important reason my experience at Victaulic has been so overwhelmingly positive has, again, to do with the family owners. One of the reasons I decided to leave a job and a company I loved and join Victaulic was their Evergreen mindset, although we didn’t have the language to call it that at the time. The focus on constant evolution rather than radical changes, long-term and patient strategy, and positive impact in the community and the world resonated with my professional inclinations. This mindset is integral to our operations and has been a driving force behind our sustained growth and success. Our shared core values prioritize people and communities, transcending mere profit-seeking objectives.

Additionally, our owners have been diligent and steadfast in engaging with our workforce of talented associates. They are motivated by the belief that by building employee relationships and taking care of People First, our employees will in turn take care of our customers, suppliers, partners, communities, and their families. This Evergreen value is shown time and again to all of our employees regardless of their level in the organization. From attending holiday functions and business planning meetings to welcoming new employees when mergers are completed and walking the operations/manufacturing floor during COVID, our owners make it a point to be active and visible. They know the best business decisions are never solely about strategy, sales or marketing. At least not directly. They are always people decisions. Those we hire, and how we manage, engage, and develop our employees have far greater impacts on our business results than the things we usually think of as driving success.

The success of leading a family-owned company as a non-family CEO lies in the alignment of values. In my unique case, I will never have to contend with a potential family member who might seek to take the reins. That simplifies things, but really, if you and the family owners share a similar value set, the rest falls into place. Open communication, a respectful commitment to staying in our lanes, and a shared, Evergreen mindset are the ingredients that can make any non-family CEO successful in leadership of a multi-generational family business. If you are looking at a potential opportunity and have concerns about how it might work, I suggest you start with these foundational factors.

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