Tepperman Offers Practical Lesson In Choosing, Preparing For Succession

- Jan 11, 2018-

On a panel at Furniture Today’s Leadership Conference this past November, Andrew Tepperman recalled a defining moment for the Windsor, Ontario-based Tepperman’s Furniture.

It was the year 2000. His father, Tepperman’s president Bill Tepperman, came into the office one day and announced he was retiring. When pressed for details, he added that he was retiring on Oct. 31.

Andrew recalled his first thought: “Wow,” he said. “That’s a long time.”

Since then, he has learned to appreciate having that time and a lesson his father was imparting. Bill Tepperman’s path to leadership was anything but carefully planned. Instead, he was pretty much thrown into the lead role in 1970, at the age of 34, after his own father, who started the business, drowned in an accident in Palm Beach, Fla., in 1970. A year later, his uncle, also working in the business, had a heart attack and ended up leaving the retailer, too.

That sudden jolt actually turned into a long lesson on the importance of carefully planning for something as important as choosing a future leader, one who not only can carry the torch, but also can carry the business to new heights.

For years in this industry, it’s practically been assumed that a next-generation family member of a furniture business would take control if he or she wants it. That’s been changing lately (most recent exceptions include top retailers such as Jerome’s, Art Van and Leon’s, Andrew noted), and that thinking changed for Tepperman’s back in 2000, when it was not a given that Andrew or younger brother Noah or any other family member would move on to president.

Instead, Tepperman’s began a long process to ensure the best choice. It brought in PricewaterhouseCoopers for one-on-one meetings and discussions about the retailer’s future and to help assess the strengths of the current leadership.

Andrew had moved back to headquarters after serving in manager and general manager roles for Tepperman’s in London, Ontario, and before that, working on national accounts for upholstery producer Berkline. The retailer started putting him into a number of new leadership slots — warehouse manager, GM of another stores an hour away, operations manager — all while he continued to work closely with his father, to understand Bill Tepperman’s thought processes and to learn the ropes around bankers, lawyers and marketing concepts.

Andrew figures it wasn’t until sometime in 2005 that it became clear he would be the successor, and “I would have been very comfortable if my father had selected one of the other VPs to run it as well, hoping that my time would come at some point,” he said.

“I think a lot of companies fell into that trap (of automatically handing things over to the next generation),” he told me recently. “I know a lot of businesses where the next generation — they’re not qualified. Or maybe they’re qualified to keep the business running at the level it is now, but they’re not qualified to grow the business.”

Among his advice to business leaders grappling with this impending decision now is to take full advantage of the gift of time to evaluate options and prepare.

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It really comes down to three basic choices, he said: you can sell the business; you bring the next generations up to speed so they can handle the transition and prosper; or you bring up someone from inside (or outside, though the track record for outside leadership is not so good, he said).

Today, family succession planning isn’t really on the radar for Andrews. He’s 47. He has two very young children as does his brother in the business. Even if something terrible should happen (Andrew called it “the old hit-by-a-bus scenario”), he now has the bench strength and organizational structure to see the company through.

“But succession planning, in terms of other leadership positions isn’t on the radar every day,” he added. For instance, even though Tepperman’s has a very strong director of store operations, “we hired his potential future replacement.”

“On the surface, to outsiders, it may look like we’re adding too much to payroll, but after 92 years in business, we’ve learned what happens when you have gaps in management. It’s a lot worse and you can end up going backwards.”

Andrew’s father continues as chairman of Tepperman’s, there for Andrew when he needs him. The succession lesson is just one example of Bill Tepperman mentoring to Andrew and other leaders there has everything to do with the importance of planning, setting deadlines and goals.

Andrew recalled that no matter what project they were working on, his father would always ask, ‘by when?’ “so it was timed out, scheduled, specific.”