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Lessons Learned: Selling a Third-Generation Family Business

Two brothers never expected to join the business founded by their grandfather—which survived a family falling-out—but their dad’s health problems led them back into the fold, and led the company to greater expansion and eventual purchase by a competitor.

Rob Johannigman

Rob Johannigman was a Co-Owner and Executive Vice President of Loveland Pet Products, a third-generation family owned business. He relates the story of the company’s founding by his grandfather, the contributions of family members in the second and third generation, his own career and the sale of the business.

Stranberg Resource Group: Loveland Pet Products, your family’s business, was founded by your grandfather. Tell us about the history of the business.

In the early 1920s, my grandfather Joseph “Jo-Jo” Johannigman, bought 22 acres of land in Loveland, Ohio with the intent of raising ornamental water plants and koi fish for water gardens. In those days, it was fashionable for wealthy homeowners and businesses to have indoor and outdoor water gardens and Jo-Jo decided to cater to this popular and growing market.

He developed a retail business for the local market and eventually expanded into wholesale, shipping plants and fish by train and plane to water gardening retailers around the country. He named his business Loveland Goldfish Farm and Aquatic Nurseries.

As the business developed, Jo-Jo became one of the first regional distributors for Hartz Mountain—a leading U.S. pet product company at the time—a move that enabled further expansion of his business in Ohio. As dime stores added pet departments and pet stores began to spring up around the Midwest, he became established as the main wholesale supplier of both livestock and dry goods to retailers in the Midwest.

My father, Bob Johannigman, was born in 1924, the same year that Loveland Goldfish Farm was incorporated and published its first catalog, which continued to be published until we sold the business in 2008. He officially joined the business as Vice President in 1947. He married my mother, Lois, in 1949. I was born in 1953, the same year that Jo-Jo died. My brother, and eventual business partner, Roger, was born in 1954.

Following Jo-Jo’s death, my father became president and purchased the business over the next 10 years from his mother, Claire. In 1955, Bob’s younger brother, Bill, also joined the family business as Vice President.  Jo-Jo’s sons continued transforming the business into a full-line wholesale distributor, changing the name to Loveland Pet Products in 1959.

When my uncle Bill joined the business, my dad retained majority control, keeping 51 percent of the ownership and giving Bill 49 percent. He understood the risk in doing business with family members and he wisely required Bill to enter into a buy-sell agreement. Following a difficult falling-out between the brothers in the mid-1970s, Uncle Bill left the business and Dad exercised his buy-sell agreement, buying Bill’s shares and getting 100 percent ownership back.

My brother Roger joined the business in 1979 and became president in 1983 when Dad decided to work part-time after struggling with several health issues. I joined in 1989 as Executive Vice President. Roger and I continued to expand our delivery area through four acquisitions and taking on new brands. We added on a second warehouse, three more branch distribution centers, more trucks, more people and more inventory.

In 2008, a large competitor approached us with an offer to buy our company that included five-year employment agreements for my brother and me to stay on as Vice Presidents and eventually take over the top management of the acquiring company as the current owner/President transitioned into retirement over the next few years.

Unfortunately, things did not turn out as planned. The company’s owner was reluctant to turn over his second-generation family business to us and changed his mind after several years. Roger and I both left the company and went our separate ways, pursuing other new opportunities outside the pet industry.

SRG: Neither you nor your brother joined Loveland Pet Products immediately. What is the story of your early careers, and what led you to join the family business?

Growing up in Cincinnati, my brother Roger and I worked several summers and many weekends in the family business helping with odd jobs. Neither of us had any ambitions of working with our dad in the family business. We were quite fortunate that our parents could afford to send us both to private universities to earn our undergraduate degrees.

I graduated from Notre Dame in 1975 and got married in 1976. My wife and I moved to Chicago to attend graduate school at the University of Chicago. Two years later, after receiving my master’s degree, I started my career as a consultant with Arthur Young & Co. in Chicago. (Arthur Young was an accountancy firm that later merged with Ernst & Whinney to create Ernst & Young.) My next move was to one of Arthur Young’s clients—Molex, a manufacturer of electronic, electrical and fiber optic interconnection systems—working in sales and marketing. While with Molex, I spent four years on an assignment in Singapore. Shortly after I returned to Chicago in 1988, I was offered another foreign assignment in Sweden. While preparing to move to Stockholm, my father had several health setbacks and asked me to move back to Cincinnati so that I could join him and Roger in the family business. It was a difficult decision to leave Chicago and my successful international career with Molex, and to turn down the Stockholm opportunity, but my wife and I decided that it would be best for our two children to put down roots in Cincinnati alongside our extended family. The business was doing well so I joined in 1990 as Executive Vice President.

Roger graduated from Harvard