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Stewarding a Legacy: Filling a Founder's Shoes

Lincoln Zehr

Lincoln Zehr is the CEO of Hampton Enterprises—a 70+ year-old family owned property management, real estate and construction firm in Nebraska— originally founded, shaped, and led by Joe Hampton. Joe was acting-CEO until Lincoln joined the company as part of Joe’s succession plan and as its 2nd non-family CEO and the third CEO since the company’s founding.

Q&A: SRG: What is the history of Hampton Enterprises, and who is Joe Hampton?

In 1947, Joe Hampton was an electrician in western Nebraska. He came to the city of Lincoln with his toolbox and truck for better wages and opportunities. Over the next 70 years, he turned those opportunities into an exceptional company: Hampton Enterprises - Properties & Construction. In the process, Joe became an icon in the business and political communities in Lincoln, Nebraska.

In 1948, while working as an electrician, Joe began building his first home. After seizing a chance to sell it and pocketing a bit of profit, he purchased a second lot and built another house. He continued that process until the 1960s when he was able to acquire a large enough parcel of land to build an entire residential development. Then a second, and then a third. He eventually moved into commercial construction. In the 1970s and 1980s, Joe acquired additional land and expanded into commercial developments.

Today, Hampton Enterprises operates two divisions: the Properties Division and the Construction Division—and is the most diverse commercial real estate company in the city of Lincoln. It owns and leases over 800,000 square feet of commercial real estate in six different developments across the city, owns enough land to double the square footage holdings, manages properties for other third parties, and does somewhere between $30 million and $40 million per year in commercial construction for parties other than Hampton’s Properties Division. We offer general contracting, construction management, property management, leasing, and development—all under one roof with an integrated team approach.

It was never important to Joe that we be the biggest—he much preferred that we be the best. He remained relentlessly focused on quality, relationships, integrity and work ethic, and giving back to the community.

Those attributes remain the core values of Hampton today and are embedded in the way we do business—a philosophy we call “The Hampton Way.” In addition to growing the company, Joe spent untold hours giving back to the city of Lincoln by serving two terms on the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce board of directors, 12 years on the Lincoln City Council – 8 as Council Chairman, 14 years on the Lincoln Airport Authority, and on countless other civic and nonprofit boards. In addition, he was instrumental in helping to form the Lincoln Independent Business Association (LIBA), which today has a membership of over 1,400 businesses across Lincoln.

SRG: Your career prior to joining Hampton Enterprises tracks through public accounting, pharmaceutical clinical trials, and security technologies. Why do you think Joe selected you as his successor despite your lack of “in-industry” experience?

While I did not have direct “in-industry” commercial experience, I worked summers in high school for my uncle who was a residential electrician and his dad who was a residential plumber. In addition to learning those trades, I had the opportunity to work in roofing, drywall, framing carpentry, finish carpentry, and underground irrigation systems. That said, I don’t think that experience was what convinced Joe or the leadership team at Hampton that I was a good fit for the job.

There were numerous factors—in my view—that played a role in me being selected as President and CEO of Hampton.

  • CPA background: As a CPA, I had accumulated a broad base of business knowledge and saw dozens of different industries and hundreds of different companies in public accounting. More than anything, this experience simply demonstrated an aptitude and a desire to learn things quickly.

  • Family Owned Experience: Many of the companies I audited or consulted for in public accounting were family owned businesses. Family owned businesses just have a different heartbeat. They both think and function differently. It would be very difficult for someone unfamiliar with family business dynamics to step into a leadership role without also stepping into a whole lot of other things with potentially negative consequences that could undermine their leadership and diminish their effectiveness.

  • Culture/shared values: Hampton Enterprises’ core values and way of doing business aligned very much with my own personal beliefs. This allowed me to not only be very passionate about our culture but also to be authentic and transparent at the same time.

  • Previous CEO experience: Before becoming a CEO, one generally only sees problems that are in their area of expertise. They have only seen, from the outside looking in, a fraction of the job responsibilities of the CEO. Having already cut my teeth as a CEO, I had already been face-to-face with areas that were not my expertise and developed practical knowledge about how they fit into the whole picture of company leadership.

  • Good fortune: I can’t ever discount the simple fact that I was in the right place at the right time.

SRG: Why, in turn, did you feel that you were the person to carry on Joe’s legacy?

First, it isn’t just my responsibility to carry on Joe’s legacy. The leadership team at Hampton is all-in on it too. The responsibility is as much theirs as it is mine—because they knew Joe better and for much longer than I did.

Second, there was only one Joe Hampton and there will never be another. I can’t replace him, but I am committed to honoring Joe by maintaining his values.

Still, times change and the way of doing business changes, so it isn’t as if we operate exactly as Joe did in 1948 or 1968. Heck, I’m willing to bet Joe didn’t even use contracts some of the time in the early days—and that of course wouldn’t work today. But we can continue to conduct business in accordance with the principles he established: committing to quality and integrity, working harder than the next guy to get things done, and placing a premium value on all relationships—from subcontractors to tenants to our own workers.

SRG: You joined the business in 2013 with Joe still in control of the Company. Describe your first few years.

When I started, Joe was not actively engaged in the day-to-day decision-making, but he was Chairman of the Board and carried a huge stick—the difficulty was knowing when he wanted to use it and when he didn’t. A vote could be 6-1 and if the one was Joe, it was essentially a veto. Joe continued to have a strong desire to be involved in the business and it was hard for him to see me, or anyone else, sitting in the president’s chair.

Thus, the first couple years were really about learning the business and establishing a strong rapport with the leadership team and getting clear on both the current culture, core values, vision, mission, and what we as a leadership team wanted those things to be going forward. Making any substantive changes during this time wasn’t in the cards and in many respects wasn’t necessary.

SRG: When Joe passed away in 2017, what changed for you, the business, and the community?

In many ways, I think our entire leadership team thought it would be easier to operate the company when Joe passed away. I know I had illusions of that happening. In some respects, it has been—it’s now easier to make some changes and improvements. At the same time, we realized that it really was completely up to us, the leadership team, to ensure that Joe’s legacy would remain—thus the burden of the mantle of leadership has gotten heavier since he died.

As far as the business community, we had been very upfront with community leaders, clients, tenants, architects, etc., regarding what was happening with the company long before Joe died.

Business has continued to be very strong. We’ve retained nearly all of our customers and tenants and continue to be recognized for running the company in a way that embodies Joe’s values. In the two years since Joe’s death, the company has continued to see extremely high occupancy and record revenue and profitability in both divisions.

SRG: In your experience, what are the challenges of succeeding a business founder?

Succeeding any successful leader is a challenge, and when that leader is the founder of the company, it is exponentially harder, because a company is shaped by the leadership style and personality of the founder. When I came to Hampton, the company had experienced other CEO’s but only in the context of Joe still being in control , and I’m not him, so that was hard.

But you check your ego at the door. When you succeed a founder, it’s not about you—it’s about the company, the employees, the vision and purpose.

You have to work at building trust. It could be difficult for others to believe that I have Joe’s best interest and his company’s best interest at heart, that I would actually subordinate my own goals for those of the company. That takes time and a lot of effort—on both sides of the equation.

SRG: What have you learned about stewardship?

An old accounting director of mine used to say: “I don’t really know if I have integrity. I want to think I do, but I’ve never really been in a position where I needed to find out.” Stewardship is a lot like that. It’s easy for me to say I’m going to do business the way Joe did, but in this case, we actually have to do it - and prove that to a board of directors comprised of people appointed by Joe, who scrutinize whether you are living up to the stewardship measure, while each remembering the past differently, which is human nature.

Before Joe passed away, governance was simple: we did things Joe’s way. When he passed, we were governed by his memory, which made things very complicated. Each person who knew Joe personally would interpret company actions through their understanding of what Joe would or wouldn’t do. In a sense, Joe’s passing was a schism and we needed to reorganize from being a company that was guided by his actions to a company that was guided by his values.

SRG: What advice do you have for individuals considering stewardship of the business and legacy of a retiring entrepreneur?

  • Set clear expectations: This was something I admittedly did not do as well as I should have. Doing so would have likely avoided at least some of my frustrations in those first years.

  • Have patience: And then have more patience, and then even more patience. You will be able to influence the organization—strategically and eventually operationally. But that process will take time and a significant amount of energy.

  • Be clear about the culture: Because the culture is what it is. If you can’t buy into it, or if it needs to change in order for you to buy in, you should think long and hard about joining the company. It will be impossible to change the culture while the founder is alive and only marginally easier after the founder passes.


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