A sudden change only made the Kurt J. Lesker Co. and Kurt Lesker IV stronger

By Jane Gest, Smart Business

In 2015, when Kurt Lesker IV became the third leader of the company his grandfather started, the biggest doubts he heard were in his own head.

“There are 7.5 billion people in the world,” he says. “Am I the most qualified person out of 7.5 billion people to run the Kurt J. Lesker Co.? Probably not.”

Lesker had joined the family business nearly a decade earlier, starting as an industrial engineer, then working in quality management, continual improvement, process control and safety. He spent several years in the KJLC’s Asian operations and some time in Europe.

At the start of 2015, he’d moved back the U.S. as the director of global sales. Then his father was diagnosed with cancer. Lesker had the right name, and he’d worked hard to build respect and trust with his co-workers.

“That’s why I went and got an MBA,” says the president and CEO. “I wanted to have the right skill set to be able to carry the company forward when the time was right.”

However, the timeline was expedited with his father’s diagnosis, probably by two or three years, he suspects.

Lesker isn’t the only family member to work in the business, which designs and manufactures vacuum technology. His older sister is the global HR manager. His younger sister is in charge of operational excellence. His mother is vice president of information technology and chairwoman of the board.

His sisters, mother, the executive team and the board were all confident. They told Lesker he was ready for this — that they believed in him.

Any plan is better than no plan

Kurt Lesker III was diagnosed with sarcoma in March and died at the end of October. Lesker feels fortunate that he had seven months to say goodbye to his father — unlike some of his friends who’ve lost a mother or father unexpectedly.

“It gave the family time to start to prepare ourselves for what was coming next, and it made the transition a little bit easier,” he says.

They say when someone in your family gets cancer, the whole family gets cancer, Lesker says. It was the same for the company, where everyone rallied around the family, including having leadership meetings in the hospital.

After his father’s death, Lesker went to each of the executives and told them he understood if they wanted to do something else. Kurt Lesker III had been their leader for a long time, serving as president for 36 years.

“Each person said, ‘Kurt, if you’re in, we’re in,’ and that meant a lot,” he says.

While the Lesker family had done some estate planning and held regular family meetings, they hadn’t done formal business succession planning. They hadn’t decided on a specific date when a transition might occur.

“My advice to anybody who doesn’t have a sick family member is, ‘Don’t wait for that to do the planning,’” Lesker says. “I’m thankful that we had our family planning meetings throughout the process and earlier.”

Don’t wait until you’re older or sick. The plan you craft now won’t be perfect, but that’s not the point, he says.

“Your environment and your situation change all the time, so it’s not something that you can just do and put on the shelf,” Lesker says.

As for Lesker’s own confidence, that came through results. He set up a frame, but the entire workforce came together to generate record years, such as a compound annual growth rate of around 7 percent. Over the last five years, KJLC also added 100 people, to bring the total employees to 425, and experienced about 30 percent overall growth.

Trust is critical

Lesker not only has grown more confident about his role, he’s learned to trust his instincts and develop his leadership style, which differs from his father.

His father was a visionary who loved to dig into different projects, he says. Lesker instead focuses on getting capable people on board, setting up a framework and letting them go.

“I tell them, ‘Look, I’m going to get out of your way,’” he says. “I’m going to knock down any barriers that I can, but I want to hire people that could run their own businesses. My direct reports, they could go be CEOs, presidents of their own companies, because they’re really capable.”

By supporting people, encouraging them and empowering them, you create real scale, he says. It takes more than one person running around, giving all the answers.

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