Lansing Business Dynasties
Tinker with emission levels of 800 school buses or turn garbage into gas in six states and you can expect big environmental impacts. Add the redirection of 1,300 moving vans across the country so they are never empty and you’re talking change.
All of these are efforts promoted by family-owned local companies being directed by second and third generations. Some call them dynasty companies. It’s against all odds they are eve thriving. The Family Firm Institute
says 70 percent of family businesses fail moving from the first to the second generation. Successes trend worse thereafter.
On the other hand, those that succeed, like Two Men and a Truck
on its third generation and the Granger Company
on its fourth, can survive economic downturns because they can change direction quickly while still keeping their long range goals in mind. Add Dean Transportation
, and you have three companies marking at least 20 percent annual growth while garnering national awards.
Working for the fam
Getting a job in one of these companies is not easy, even if you’re related. While founders avoid pressuring a daughter or grandson to join the company, when there is interest, there is a gauntlet to be run.
In fact, Granger offspring cannot come into the company until they have worked elsewhere.
“That works for two reasons,” says Keith Granger, 45. “The son or daughter has time to be sure they want to be with the family company, and when they do come, they bring new ideas, and new experience.” In essence, they cross-pollinate the business, making it stronger.
Keith left college for Chicago with an eye toward retail. He landed a job with Ralph Lauren, the publicly held clothing and lifestyle company. It was not a good fit. Profit margins were small and pressure to make them was large. Goals were in terms of months rather than decades.
So Keith came back to Lansing and worked his way up to chief executive officer overseeing Waste Services and Energy Services.
Patrick Dean didn’t get a free pass either. His father, Kellie Dean, owner of Dean Transportation, recognized Patrick’s degree in finance as a potential company asset so Kellie made Patrick an offer: two years in the company to build the son’s resume. Now, five years later, Patrick, 26, figures he’s there for the long haul.
Brig Sorber’s story is different. With a little imagination, he could be seen as the founder of Two Men and a Truck. The moving and franchise company goes all the way back to Sorber’s small business when the then-high schooler pulled a lawn mower behind his bicycle. He bought the first truck from his uncle for $200. While his business expanded into also moving appliances and other household ware, Mary Ellen Sheets, his mother, bought another cheap truck to move goods from her small Washington Avenue store where she sold housewares. Ultimately they merged.
Sorber tells the story with a twinkle in his eye, moving from references to “Mom” and
“Mary Ellen.” Now, at 46, his original pick-up is memorialized on the wall and he is president and CEO. Sheets is gradually retiring.
However they got there - the new generations are pushing their family’s businesses through the technological revolution. Patrick Dean is working on the design for an electric school bus with battery power projected at two-and-a-half hours. He’s already implemented Dean’s second EPA grant to purchase hybrid buses.
“We’re seeing our yellow and blacks as extensions of the classrooms. Students are getting environmental education en route to school,” he says. International competition is fierce in the bus business, so Dean is seeking ways to set the company apart. And Patrick is making his mark. He was the keynote speaker at the Greater Lansing Area Clean Cities
, GLACC, annual meeting last year. Dean Transportation’s Lansing headquarters, hosting other company divisions as well, has been certified by the East Lansing-based Society of Environmentally Responsible Facilities
as being sustainable.
Like Brig Sober, Keith Granger had some boyhood experience with his grandfather’s company. In the summers he drove garbage trucks and washed Kirby trash carts. But when he returned to the company on the management track, he knew the industry was shifting.
“We can’t run the company like dad ran it,” he realizes. Now there is a management team in place. Nine names show up on the organization chart, with only four who are family members and the Energy Services division is growing.
“The first generation usually concentrates on growth,” he explains. The second consolidates. “Now I like growth,” he says, touting Granger’s three Michigan energy plants and landfills in six states. They are turning methane gas into fuel that turns generators to create enough power to serve nearly 5,000 homes.
Two Men and a Truck has a different fuel issue. With over 1,300 trucks in 228 franchises in the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and Ireland, training and truck movement are big deals. Cutting costs there brings big savings, to the company and to the environment.
Two Men has Stick Men University on the grounds of its Delhi Township headquarters and training of some kind happens there regularly. But the company spent $300,000 last year for distance learning, ramping up its training room, where webinars on smart boards are conducted.
“We can have 60 franchises on a webinar at one time,” Sorber says. “If a franchisee in Chicago has a question, a little hand goes up on the board. Someone elsewhere can e-mail a query.” Travel expense for learning is nil.
All Two Men franchises are automating in the cloud, eliminating the need for their own server or software. “When we upgrade here, we’ll be upgrading everywhere,” he says. Furthermore, the truckers will be able to do what is known as “backhauls,” so that trucks that would ordinarily be returning home could be routed for nearby pickups so they will not be returning empty. Adding global positioning systems, GPS, the computer can tell which trucks will be the closest to which destinations at which times.
“The fuel savings will be huge.” So too, will be the emissions, and other environmental side effects. Two Men and a Truck’s mission is to be a good corporate citizen. “It should be part of the corporate culture to give,” Sorber says. Granger and Dean concurr. All three companies are known in the area for their giving.
Carrying that kind of ethic forward is important to the continuation of family dynasties. Granger makes sure its message is carried forth. Just a few weeks ago, the company had a gathering of its offspring: 17 youngsters, ranging in age from eight to 26 years of age. Keith’s father, Ron, and his uncle, Jerry, explained the history of the company. Others spoke of the company brand, how it is marketed, and the company image.
“We want to give them great pride of ownership,” Keith says. His own children are 16, 14 and 12. It is too soon to know if one or more will add the fourth generation to the Granger org chart. But we know one thing: while always part of the family, he or she will have to work to get onto the corporate floor.
Gretchen Cochran is freelance writer for Capital Gains.
is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.
The Granger Company (lft-rt):
Garrett Russ, Driver Supervisor (Fourth generation)
Andrew Russ, Buyer (Fourth generation)
Randy Russ, retired (Third generation)
Jerry Granger, Co-Chairman (Second generation)
Ron Granger, Co-Chairman (Second generation)
Keith Granger, CEO (Third generation)
Todd Granger, Director of Investments (Third generation)
Tom Hofman, HR Manager (Third generation)
Joel Zylstra, COO, Energy Services (Third generation)
Keith Granger at a staff meeting
Brig Sober and his mother Mary Ellen Sheets
Photos © Dave Trumpie