Succession, Gordon Flesch Co. style
Mark (left) and Patrick Flesch were recently named COO and president, respectively of the Gordon Flesch Co.
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When Patrick Flesch and brother Mark Flesch collected their degrees from Miami University of Ohio, the brothers weren’t immediately ticketed for the family business — the Gordon Flesch Co. There wasn’t much doubt they would both end up there, however, and they were well prepared for the company’s recent leadership transition thanks to the vision of the company founder.
GFC, a 2016 Wisconsin Family Business of the Year award winner, recently named Patrick Flesch as president and Mark Flesch as COO as they prepare to take the reins from their father, CEO Tom Flesch, and uncles John and Bill. This is something Patrick and Mark both have wanted to do for a long time, but company bylaws demanded they first demonstrate their business-development chops elsewhere.
Company bylaws include a provision that required any member of the family to get a college degree and spend three years working somewhere else before joining GFC. The provision now has helped prepare two “next-generations” of the Flesch family to run the business, and they were an expectation of Gordon Flesch, who founded the office-technology company in 1956.
That’s fine with Patrick Flesch, who always wanted to work for the family business and was well aware of the rules. “That was always the goal, but I also wanted to know that I could be successful on my own,” he states. “We’re lucky that Gordon Flesch [Patrick’s grandfather] put those bylaws in place.”
Patrick and brother Mark both earned marketing degrees from Miami University. Patrick spent his first three professional years in Chicago, selling for the technology products and services provider CDW, while Mark also was off to Chicago to develop business for C.H. Robinson, a large freight-brokerage firm based in Minneapolis. Both brothers consider those years critical to their professional development and both are thankful for the experience, so if it sounds a bit visionary for the company founder to make family members prove their worth, neither Patrick nor Mark would disagree with you.
“When Mark and I were asked to join the business, we were ready and we had some sales experience, and that was sort of the proving ground for us,” Patrick says. “Could you cut your teeth in sales for a sales-centric organization?”
Actually, Patrick wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to join the family business after three years at CDW. He was living and working in downtown Chicago, he had developed a nice book of clients, and he had a pretty good setup. But that’s when his father, Tom Flesch, called him to inform him that a sales territory had opened up in Chicago’s western suburbs.
“He said, ‘Tomorrow, the branch manager will be down in The Loop and you guys can meet for lunch, and he’s going to tell you a few things, and we’ll go from there,’” Patrick recalls. He knew this day was coming, but he wanted to make sure he had the same entry-level package as everyone else.
Once back with the Gordon Flesch Co., Patrick’s primary focus was to “make trip,” a sales benchmark that provides some extra incentive for meeting one’s annual quota. Those who make trip get an attractive rewards trip, but it took a while for Patrick to build a sufficient book of business in a geographic area that had not been a “trip-winning” territory since 2001.
“It wasn’t like I walked into a gravy situation,” he says. “It took a lot of hard work, a lot of prospecting, a lot of phone calls, and a lot of knocking on doors to build up a solid sales funnel, which took some time,” he explains. “Once I got that rolling, it was a really nice place to sell.”
Given what’s required in company bylaws, COO Mark Flesch notes that succession planning “began with the beginning of our professional careers.” His early experiences in sales at both C.H. Robinson and Gordon Flesch, where he sold in the Columbus, Ohio market, were the most important of his career. At C.H. Robinson, he had to prove to himself and to his family that he was capable of succeeding outside the family business. “My time at C.H. gave me the confidence that sales are a good path for me,” Mark states. “Once I entered a sales role at GFC, it was my opportunity to again prove that I could succeed in sales but, more specifically, sales in our industry.
“Once we started at GFC, we took on entry-level sales positions,” Mark adds. “This allowed us to learn the business from the ground up and prove our abilities to work hard and be trusted to advance our roles within the organization.”
After their sales tenure, both managed sales teams in different branches and then led GFC’s east and west regions at the vice president level, their first taste of leadership. Mark believes the COO role is a good fit for him because even though he has a sales background, he’s always been intrigued by the operations side. “Since I’ve spent my entire career in sales, taking on an operations role has been an exciting challenge,” Mark states. “I’ve really enjoyed learning more about all of the other departments within our organization, and I’m working hard to have a positive influence on those departments with a unique sales perspective.”
Raising the bar
Gordon Flesch Co.’s proving-ground tradition started with the second generation to operate the business. Tom Flesch graduated in December 1974 from the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire with business degrees in economics and administration. After college, he migrated to Milwaukee, where he eventually took a sales job at Liberty Mutual Insurance.
Tom had the additional barrier of entering the job market during a severe recession, and even a double degree didn’t guarantee him a job when they were hard to come by. He actually began his work life by tending bar in Beer Town, something he had done to earn extra income during his college days, before he was able to secure a job selling business insurance.
From Tom’s vantage point, he knew working at another company would benefit Patrick and Mark, and he wasn’t surprised when both of them built a strong book of business with many repeat customers. “They very successful on the sales side of it,” Tom says, noting they could have had good careers at CDW and C.H. Robinson, respectively. “By going there and learning from somebody else [outside the family], you get instruction from people who are not afraid to tell you what to do or when to show up. That was a great experience for both of them and a good training ground for both of them.”
When it was time for a leadership transition to begin, Tom asked the brothers what they thought, and the funny thing was they came to the same conclusion about who should handle what. Given the example of their father and uncles, who avoided a top-down command structure in favor of consensus, he wasn’t worried about sibling rivalry or clashing egos. “They are thoughtful guys. They know their roles and what they are good at.”