All in the Family for 110 Years and 4 Generations
There are 5.5 million family-run businesses in the United States, according to Family Enterprise USA, a Minneapolis, MN-based non-profit lobbying group. Collectively these companies employ more than half the nation’s workforce and generate 64% of gross domestic product. By some estimates these firms – ranging in size from giants like Walmart to small home-based businesses – account for 78% of all new job creation.
But despite the contributions of this powerful economic engine, the prospect of a family business becoming a multi-generational success is slim. According to Harvard Business Review, 70% fail or are sold before the second generation takes the reins, and only 10% are still operating by the third generation. Many fall victim to what the Conway Center for Family Business in Columbus, OH calls the “4 Ds:” death, disability, divorce and dissension.
The Mickey family, owners and operators of Mickey Truck Bodies, may not have written the book on family-owned businesses, but they are certainly adding their own chapters. The company, now in its 110th year, is run by four generations of owners who are all active in the day-to-day operations of the manufacturing business. Together with a workforce of about 300 across four states – NC, NJ, IL and FL – they are growing the business far beyond its historical flagship market of all-aluminum beverage bodies and trailers to include emergency vehicles, furniture/moving, batteries and a variety of specially-engineered vehicles.
The key to their success? In the roundtable interview below, all four principals talk about the trials, tribulations, tips and tactics of maintaining a long-term family affair.SPIRIT: What are the benefits of family members working so closely on the job?
Dean Sink, President & CEO: Well, for one thing, I get to see my sons probably more often than most fathers do. I not only had the opportunity to watch them growing up in the classrooms and on the ball fields, I also am watching them mature as leaders in the workforce. And of course, Carl, Jr. and I have become much more than business partners – we’re best friends.
Carl Mickey, Jr., Executive VP: We all have the same objective – to honor the family name and heritage by protecting and enhancing the family business. None of us can dispute this.
Alex Sink, Engineering Project Manager: Our communications are clear and concise and centered on trust. There is less confusion and miscommunication. We have a strong devotion to each other and to our jobs.
Matthew Sink, Manufacturing Manager: There’s a lot of trust between us, and that gives us tremendous confidence that we are doing things right, and if we can be better, we are going to get honest and open advice. We care about each other’s success as well as for the success of the company.
SPIRIT: Do you feel like this is your destiny or your obligation?
Alex: I’ve always felt a strong calling to my family and, in turn, the family business. Family is the foundation of my life and business comes with the family. I do feel a sense of duty to preserve the family values within the business.
Matt: I wouldn’t say it’s my destiny or obligation because I always feel like I have a choice. But I’m very proud of what my family has accomplished and I am certainly motivated to keep it going. And I do enjoy what I do. Certainly this is much more than a job to me. My family never pressured me one way or another.
Carl: I never felt obligated to follow the family tree. All I know is that I grew up in this business, and building high quality truck bodies and trailers is all I ever wanted to do for a living. It’s a great job because it’s a great company.
Dean: I don’t know about destiny or obligation. But what I do know is that I am doing exactly what I want to be doing. If this is my destiny, I can’t imagine a better one. I have never been bored working at Mickey, and I look forward to coming to work every day.
SPIRIT:There are not many 4-generation family businesses these days for companies of your size. To what do you attribute your staying power?
Matt: It’s more about the success of the business and the company than it is about the success of the family. We make great products, offer them at a fair price and stand behind everything we sell.Carl: It’s all about putting the customer first. If you keep the customer happy and coming back for more, you will succeed whether you are family-owned or not. Being family-owned may have something to do with your quality, but without great quality products and service you will not last long.
Dean: Mr. Mickey always said “good work at a fair price” was all that ever mattered at Mickey. And that our employees and our customers deserve all the credit for our success. I agree with him on all counts. Another key to our success is that the family members who are active in the company all respect each other’s roles and responsibilities. We don’t compete with each other; we collaborate. (Editor’s Note: Mr. Carl F. Mickey Sr., the son of the founder, passed away March 4, 2007 at the age of 86.)
Alex: Commitment to our family’s purpose and future; commitment to our employees; and commitment to make the community a better place to live and work.
SPIRIT: Do you talk about the business around the Thanksgiving table?
Carl: Of course. But it’s not because we have to, it’s because we want to. I think we all really like what we do, and if you like what you do, you’re bound to talk about it outside of work. Dean: And all the other holidays, too. Why shouldn’t we? We love what we do, we’re proud of what we are accomplishing, and there’s just not enough time during the day to say everything we need to say.
Alex: There’s always something about the business to discuss. It’s not always as serious as you may think, though. It can be fun. And at work, we’re usually too busy with our job responsibilities to talk about work.
Matt: Sure, but that’s not all we talk about. It’s only natural to talk about business because it’s something we all have in common. It’s fun to talk about the business – if it weren’t, we probably wouldn’t talk about it.SPIRIT: What’s the most rewarding part about being family owners?
Alex: Besides being able to spend a great amount of time with those you care about most, it’s very rewarding to be a part of something that feels bigger than you.
Matt: It’s the pride in what you are creating – great products, jobs for your community, satisfied customers, a stronger local economy.
Dean: Just being able to always guide the company in the right direction without any outside intervention. We can work very closely with our customers to deliver exactly what they need without having to unravel any red tape. I also enjoy watchingour employees grow and succeed in this company – buying their first new car or home; hearing about their kids going off to college.
Carl: Our ability to adapt and change as quickly as we need to without having to go through a huge bureaucracy. We do whatever it takes to be the preferred supplier to all the industries in which we compete.
SPIRIT: What are the unique challenges?
Dean: I’m not sure any of our challenges are unique to our company since the decisions we make here are made for business reasons, not family reasons. We all have our own responsibilities and our individual expertise and that’s how we make decisions – we leave emotions out of the process. We may be family-owned, but we never lose sight of the fact that we are running a business, not a household.
Carl: Our challenges are probably not much different from any manufacturing company whether it’s company-owned or not. We have to stay on the cutting edge of technology; we have to keep up with customer needs and trends; we have to continually recruit great talent. Our advantage in being family-owned and private, of course, is that we can be proactive rather than reactive.
Matt: Living up to expectations. This family has been very successful for many years. Our success has been based in large part by innovation. We have to continue to innovate.
Alex: Keeping emotions out of business decisions. We care so much about our family and business it’s difficult to separate the two.
SPIRIT: Do you notice a greater sense of trust from your customers because you are family-owned and operated?Alex: I think our customers have the sense that we’re more committed to them since we’re family-run and do not have to report to shareholders. We make business decisions that are in the customers’ best interests.
Carl: The trust begins with our history and track record. We’ve been around for 110 years under the same ownership. There can’t be too many customers or prospects out there who would question that consistency.
Matt: I can’t help but think it makes it easier to build relationships with a private, family-owned business versus a conglomerate. You’re dealing with owners and it’s a shorter climb to the top of totem pole. Our name goes on everything we sell, and that stands for something in the eyes of the customer.
Dean: Sure – and it doesn’t hurt our reputation that we have been very successful in an extremely tough and competitive industry for 100 years, either. Our customers know we are going to do what we say we are going to do, and if we can’t, they’re going to hear it from us first. Honesty and integrity are the keys to our success story.
SPIRIT: What about on the part of your employees?
Matt: Sure. We’re not only owners, we’re members of the same community. We’re friends and neighbors.
Dean: I think our employees have to feel very good about the health and well being of our company and their prospects for a prosperous future here. That’s evidenced by the fact that a third of all Mickey employees have been with the company for at least 10 years. They want to succeed here and you can tell that by the quality of their work. When they’re out with their family or friends, and they see a Mickey truck on the road, they definitely can feel a great sense of pride because they’re part of the team that creates the Mickey brand.
Alex: They know this family is in it for the long haul and they feel good about that. We treat employees like they’re part of the family, which may be why we have so many employees with a lot of years under their belts.
Carl: Again – the same ownership for 110 years has to make a person feel pretty secure about coming to work here.
SPIRIT: Is there an official succession plan in place?
Dean: Mr. Mickey and I spent many hours talking about how this company would go forward into the future, and I think we are right on track. There are four of us active in the business right now and I just became a grandfather for the first time with the birth of Matt’s son. I would say our family tree has pretty deep roots. Besides, Carl, Jr. and I are still young and healthy and we aren’t going anywhere for awhile.
Carl: As far as I’m concerned the only succession plan is to keep growing and getting better at everything we do.
Alex: The only succession plan we’re aware of is that we are a family-owned business, and we are part of the family. We want to be able to handle everything that comes our way.
Matt: Right now Alex and I are just learning everything we can about the business. The future will take of itself – we may both fit into natural roles and develop new skill sets, but we want to be prepared for anything and everything.
SPIRIT: How has your relationship changed from the time you were growing up to now that you are business partners?
Alex: We were close growing up and enjoyed many activities together as kids and young adults. We’ve merely replaced childhood activities with livelihood activities. We still get along great and I don’t see that changing.
Matt: We’ve always been pretty close – and I would say we have gotten even closer since we started working together. We probably had a little sibling rivalry growing up – that’s only natural. But now that we have a common business cause, there is no room for any kind of rivalry.