The salmon is famous for swimming against the stream and coming back to the exact place where they hatched to reproduce. Eventually, because of the efforts it made, the salmon dies. What a sacrifice!
I love this image because I do the same lot of times.
No, I’m sorry, not to die for the sake of reproduction. Of course.
I am used to betting on unpopular decisions.
That is a story of the most challenging moment when I decided to swim against the stream, and it’s when I decided to join my family’s business right after graduation despite everyone’s opinion.
As a family, we own Urania Group, a manufacturing B2B company based in Tuscany, Italy. It’s a business that’s worth $60M today.
Urania Group sells components for the Modular Construction Industry. It is a couple of companies: Panurania, the parent company, that produces insulated sandwich walls, and Serrall, which produces windows and doors.
My grandfather often brought me during his travels around Europe when I was a kid. I grew up fed with bread and entrepreneurship. Although I always wanted to study engineering, I chose Industrial Engineering to pursue the idea of working in the company of my family.
However, during my years in University, I decided not to work in Urania Group. In 2013, after I finished my Master of Science, I started my professional journey, and I was intent on avoiding any contact with Urania.
As a teenager, I was so unhappy with the little time my mother, CFO in the company, spent at home. When I started to plan a lifelong relationship with my wife, I declared with the solemnity of a Pope: “I will NEVER come back from work late for dinner!”
So, the opportunity of coming back to Urania never crossed my mind. At least, not at the beginning of my journey.
After some job interviews, I received three proposals from big companies in Northern Italy.
Then Serendipity happened: my mother told me that they were about to fire the VP of Operations and she and my grandfather would like it very much if I could consider working for them.
I was so unsure and I didn’t understand the moment implication. I started to visit the company daily, and I saw people looking at me weirder than before. I mean, they saw me many times. When I was young I went to the company many times to use the printers and I also did some internships. But like an implacable spring breeze, everyone knew why I was there this time: I’m a Well Identified Family Object, a WIFO.
I can feel their expectations: I would have failed like every daddy’s boy.
Like the stream for the fish, the conversation with the managers in the company was like, “You have to experiment outside of the company.” When I first went to my uncle’s (the CEO) office, he was discussing with a manager from the company about the exit of the former VP of Operations. I was not there as a replacement. They were embarrassed to see me there.
My uncle said something about the fact that I would collect data from the plant, and then, he stared at me and said, “You see my fingers? I crushed them with the bending press when I was 19. We don’t like the theory of university professors.”
This was when I decided to start my professional journey from my family’s business.
You can’t really understand what the world is like out there without knowing the backyard
In a family business, the biggest threat comes from the generational passage. While the old generations live with the myth of the “hard due work”, the new generations are more used to choosing and they want to explore their own way. They don’t feel the need to bring the business toward a new era.
Many companies die in the step because they don’t have someone to take care of the firm. On the contrary, often who decides to stay in the family business, from the new generation, is an imposter. This is why most people in the company are afraid of a WIFO like me.
Our company is at the second generational passage, so they have to secure continuity in the business while not placing some family members unable to do the job.
I want to address the most popular tactic. Thus, to send the new generation to work in different companies, different fields. This way, you will see if they are good enough to survive in the company.
But life is not a linear trajectory. Many things can happen, and time is a clock ticking mercilessly. Every minute in an 8-figure business life is a multiverse of possibilities that you can catch, or you can lose.
If you want to build your company’s future, you have to consider how fast they will manage to gain the company culture. Every change in management is a change in the vision of the company. You can’t command the kitchen of another chef.
But every Masterchef is conscious that you can’t experiment with foreign cuisines before trying your country’s ones. It is better to start from your backyards than start from the outside so that you can confront things with them and bring things back when you see them.
Let’s imagine that the plan went well and your son came back and committed to your family business. You have a golden window to change the company culture to adapt to the newcomer. It’s a fertile time to blend the fresh taste of someone external with the company’s core capabilities. But you have to act fast.
Here comes my thesis: you can’t bring fresh air to the company if you didn’t critically experiment with it in a continuous comparison.
My experience is that the best solution to facilitate the generational passage is to see other companies AFTER you experimented in your company. And this requires a trial-and-error mentality.
You can’t know the missed trajectory.
After I decided to start working at my family business, I lived a strange life. It is like the company split into hopeful and skeptical people.
The hopeful said: “you were the only visible shot for our business’ continuity” and they loved to converse with me about all the problems we were facing, the never-resolved one like I’m the Messiah who would rule the world.
The skeptical ones said, “ah, you were the only visible shot for our business’ continuity”. That “ah” stands for: “we will die soon because you won’t be able to manage our business unless you become exactly the clone of the actual CEO.”, thus someone who struggled with the impossibility to control every small square foot of the firm.
My first mentor was my grandfather, 78, in those days, who kicked me to make my bones in our Brazilian branch. It was March 2014, right when the Brazilian Petrobras scandal, the “Operaçao Lava Jaito”, hit the country, and Brazil started to fall into a crisis. I began to notice how different people are, learned two languages, and made a lot of errors.
Then I tried to build a new product we were trying to develop, but I was confronted with the inability of our company to deviate from the core business. It was this characteristic that opened for the operation that changed my life. We acquired a side partner company in 2015 called Serrall, producing windows and doors for the same market segment.
The company sent their managers inspectors without any result. In 2018 I pushed hard to have the possibility to refurbish the company. It would be a long story. The fact is that I approached the company with a 15% passive, and now we are finally turning black with the most significant result of creating a fertile company culture, with autonomous leaders who are trying to scale also the parent company.
On the other hand, we couldn’t know what would have happened if I had decided to enroll in one of the three companies that offered me a job in 2013. I could have chosen another trajectory, and maybe I could not become the father of two daughters.
Another prompt is if I would have obtained higher respect from the people in the company coming from the outside. When someone with a different company culture steps in, it is not automatic to accept it.
It was worth it
What happened after the transformation of serrall is incredible.
First, I met many people outside the company, and I became an example of a transformational leader. I was invited to meet-ups to inspire other leaders, and many companies are visiting us to steal some of our secrets. This gave me a complete and credible introduction that I am using to bring value back to our company.
I applied for a side job as a consultant to create scaling organizations for an entrepreneur with a big idea but without the time to bring it to the market. It is based on the concept of Ambidextrous organization. We are creating some companies, and I am a part-time CEO. This allows me to steal best practices from other companies and apply them in our business.
Also, I know other executives from the top of the company to interact about the intergenerational passage with them as well.
Of course, this behavior is not 100% accepted in my original company, and that’s why I decided to leave a permanent contract and to convert it into a contract as a Board member and Executive to renew every three years, with a 30% cut in the salary but with a consistent pay per result.
And what matters the most, as the co-CEO of the parent company, now I’m able to foster the change. What is happening is that many of the leaders I activated in Serrall are seeing the possibility of a career path in the parent company and are trying to flood every gear of the organization structure with their propelling questions. That’s what my People Garden is doing inside the company. We are attracting many talents shifting the company’s way of doing things to a more scientific mindset.
I am intelligent. Maybe it couldn’t have happened for everyone. It’s very personal.
I am a fish who swam against the stream and ended up helping the stream to swim in a better direction.
There are some takeaways from my story.
Without taking this step, I wasn’t confident in the level I am now on my unique talent.
Someone may think: you have to do it only if you are passionate about your family’s business. I am not; that’s why I disagree. It’s not the business that I love, but the people growth, the science behind the industry, and the number of experiments we can take to scale up. Passions change in time: look at me, I’m trying to be a successful multi-passionate CEO while growing kids and writing consistently. Desires change in time.
Another takeaway is that we should stop considering the job as the time absorber of our whole life. Instead, we should foster people doing more jobs at a time, trying different passions, because every experience can grow you as a better professional.
I don’t know if we can extract a general takeaway from my story. Again, it’s personal and we could simply benefit from a different point of view, of a fish swimming against the stream,
But there’s one thought I want to express: you can’t call yourself an “entrepreneur” if you don’t assume risks. Many family business owners bias to protect the new generations and avoid failure. But you can’t act like this.
My experience is that the best way to avoid failure is to fail. It is better to take rapid shifts than wait for manna from heaven coming from a poorly planned coming back.
Learning to fail small is the way to success.
Cover Photo CC0 on MaxPixel