Part one in a two-part series- Sally and Malcolm Bryant, founders of the Malcolm Bryant Corporation, reflect on the steps taken to ensure a successful transition of leadership in their business.
Malcolm and Sally Bryant began working in real estate in 1980, and in 1993 they officially incorporated The Malcolm Bryant Corporation, a successful real estate development and property management company in Owensboro, Kentucky. Over their 37-year history, the Bryants and their company have grown to become one of the most respected, innovative, and impactful businesses in Owensboro and played a key role in revitalizing the downtown area. Given their visibility and relationships in the community, they knew that, when it came to succession, they had to get it right – for their family, team members, customers, and the people in the community. Here they share the path that led them to select outside consultants to help create a plan a process for the post-retirement continuity of their business and to recruit a non-family successor.
SRG: What were your first thoughts and attempts at addressing succession planning and hiring an outside executive?
Malcolm: I first addressed the issue of my succession by beginning to look at my network to hire an executive. Sally helped me understand that this was a paramount moment that we needed to approach together. This wasn’t as simple as finding and hiring a person that would allow me to retire some day. We were thinking about the future and that included maybe hiring an executive or maybe selling the business. After some conversation between the two of us, it became crystal clear that we needed to do a lot of soul-searching and planning and to not make any unfounded decisions.
SRG: Describe your approach to decision making and how it led you to seek outside advice when it came to succession planning?
Sally: In absolutely every facet of our business, we go about finding and understanding best practices. We don’t swing from the hip. So, when Malcolm woke up one day and realized that he didn’t want to run business operations for the rest of his life, we got to work learning about what to do next and what that process might be, because that’s how we operate.
SRG: Early in your planning process, Barb Dartt asked you the critical question: “Why do you want to invest in the continuity of your business?” How did you answer that question and how did your answer guide your next steps?
Malcolm and Sally: On a macro level, entrepreneurs are trying to beat a financial obligation and fulfill their dreams. They think, “Let’s see if we can break even and make cash flow.” Then, one day, there’s a business, and you’re employing great people and improving their lives.
That was our story. Step by step, and without realizing it at first, we had built a community that depended on us, and we depended on them. Investing in the continuity of the business was about integrity and taking care of our people.
SRG: How did you form the strategy that guided your continuity planning?
Sally: Barb tried very hard to get us to develop a vision and mission. It was very difficult for us because we were worried about imposing too much of our vision on the future. We struggled with this assignment.
It became clear that if this business were to continue, we were going to need to redo this mission and vision once the new people were on board. So, our ‘playbook’ was about getting us from where we were to someone else taking the reins.
The vision that Malcolm and I came up with took us to the point where we hired Madison Silvert, the candidate who was ultimately chosen to be the new President. When he took over, we made sure that he had enough time to learn the business and get to know our people; then we charged him with writing the mission and vision statement of the company. It cemented his stake in the business.
SRG: We were impressed by how well prepared you were for recruiting an outside leader for TMBC. What was your approach to planning, and how did you incorporate the perspectives of your children, Harrison and Sarah Clay?
First of all, we’re very fortunate to have children who don’t feel entitled to be involved in the business beyond their skill and talent. It gives us the freedom to have honest discussions. Before we made any formal decisions about the continuity of our business, we spent a weekend in Chicago for a series of facilitated discussions to ensure we all had a crystal-clear understanding of each family member’s interests.
DiSC assessments, a behavior assessment tool, were also a critical part of these discussions. It brought a sense of transparency and professionalism. The assessment allowed us to view ourselves in an impartial manner and gave us a baseline of hard data to frame the conversation. That way, things fall into place in a discussion about what’s right for the company, not for any particular individual.
Interestingly, during these conversations, Sarah Clay told us that she was worried about our ability to pull-off the transition. Without the DiSC and associated conversations, it was very likely that she would have kept her concerns to herself, which would have weakened her trust in our decisions down the road. It was a great exercise for the sake of clarity and alignment. This was a critical step in the decision to bring in an outside executive.
SRG: Once your planning and consensus process was complete, you chose to conduct executive search to find the next President of TMBC. What informed this decision?
We are so networked in our local area that we were worried about our ability to be objective. We have a lot of friends in the community, and we didn’t want our decisions to disappoint anyone.
A buffer was necessary to protect us against our own biases. We didn’t have room to fail. We planned on doing this once. We couldn’t afford to do a repeat. Malcolm was still super busy running the company. Having a person to help us on a full-time basis ensured that we had all the options in front of us.
It was also critical that we get a solid look at candidates outside of our local market. We know Owensboro well, but we would have had difficulty finding people from other parts of the state or country on our own.
We vetted multiple search firms, and ultimately selected Stranberg Resource Group for their expertise in recruiting for family businesses.
SRG: Madison Silvert, who you hired for the role, was someone you had known and worked with in the past. What were the keys that led you to selecting Madison?
Stranberg Resource Group’s vetting process was extremely important. We had very serious conversations with each candidate. It was easy to be transparent because SRG enabled us to jump in right away and talk about the personal and the business in equal measure.
SRG: Often termed “onboarding,” your integration plan for Madison was very thorough. Take us through your steps to ensure that Madison would be successful.
Our philosophy was “No Shortcuts.” We did our homework.
Our main goal for Madison’s first couple of months on the job was to keep him out of the day-to-day challenges because this can distract a leader from seeing the big picture. We needed Madison to get oriented to his position so he could do that.
SRG: It has been more than a year since Madison was hired. What do you do today on an ongoing basis to ensure that Madison’s integration turns to growth, both for him personally and for TMBC?
Sally: When Madison first joined, we met regularly. Later these regular meetings became our board meetings.
Malcolm: Our company is founded on the idea of unlimited education and training. Just like the exercise of learning how to execute leadership transition, we want to ensure that Madison has the opportunity to learn, develop and grow.
One thing we did that’s been useful is, after we learned that Madison had a connection to Danville, KY, where he went to college, we found a good investment in a building for sale there and bought it. The Danville building was a way to bridge Madison’s life experience to the work at TMBC.
We continue to learn, enable others to learn, and that’s what is important.