If you’ve never been deeply enmeshed in a family business, I can tell you firsthand that it’s a constant battle of wills. There is a delicate balance of work and familial issues that is nearly impossible to untangle when you work on a daily basis with not just your father, but also your brother and two sisters, as I do. When you add the other 40-plus employees to whom I’m not related, it can be a bit hectic. I’ve navigated this balance for almost 15 years. Through that time, I’ve learned that although you cannot make everyone happy all of the time, some battles are very much worth fighting.
I’m the president and CEO of a mid-size, third-party logistics provider just north of Pittsburgh. My father founded the company, my brother is the vice president, one of my sisters is an administrative executive and the other sister is an LTL coordinator. Between 2003 and 2015, we grew from $2 million in revenue to over $50 million, and it has not been an easy journey. Here’s how we did it, and some lessons I learned about leadership along the way.
Identifying Early Issues
Although I’d acquired plenty of experience in the core roles of day-to-day logistics operations (finance, dispatching, HR) before Knichel Logistics started, it was still overwhelming when I took over the reins. I found myself doubting my own decisions, even though I knew that they were right. I allowed family and past leadership to pursue directions that I did not agree with, and I often felt powerless in regards to making final decisions that my father — the founder — approved of. I always felt like I had to prove myself to him. This family-work balance was the most difficult line to walk, as I didn’t initially have the self-confidence needed and felt subdued by being the only woman executive in nearly every business interaction.
However, revenue continued to rise as we expanded service options, grew staff and extended our carrier network, so I felt like we were on the proper course despite my insecurities. I knew that I needed to overcome these insecurities, but the pace was slow until a time of crisis changed everything.
Changes in Management
My family and I have always treated employees like family. This has served us well in that we’ve retained roughly 90 percent of our original staff. Having many highly experienced and loyal employees to this day is a benefit I cannot stress enough. However, this strategy was also detrimental: it blinded us to the fact that some employees were ill-suited for their positions. Some of the original staff members were underemployed, while some of the newer staff were over promoted. This became very clear in 2013 when profitability sank to an all-time low and we had to cut nearly 40 percent of our staff.
As president, I had to evaluate what led to this tremendous downturn in our profit margin and what needed to be done to fix it. The most glaring observations revolved around upper management. The current COO, a man who had more years of industry experience than I did, was not suited for the position. My company had essentially been taken over by an outsider who had elbowed his way into a position of power. He’d altered the company culture by implementing a new strategy that we did not have the resources to execute, and maintained his hold by garnering trust with my father. This did not happen overnight, and I allowed things to continue due to my insecurity. However, that changed when I gathered the strength to oust him.
Although necessary, this was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in business. Here, I put the family-work balance to the test. I had to prove to my father that replacing the COO he’d selected — and moving forward under my leadership — were the right decisions for the company.
Seeing my business at risk, along with my remaining employees’ livelihoods on the line, I rallied my strongest assets and worked with them to restructure and reorganize. We promoted our intermodal manager to COO, and regained our company culture by empowering our remaining staff’s strengths and skill sets.
I worked hard to leverage our assets, becoming a certified woman-owned business enterprise and finding my place as a woman in logistics. I also improved my networking skills by being unafraid to share my experiences with other leaders despite the gender imbalance in the transportation industry. I realized that I had a lot to offer after overcoming these obstacles, because along with the right team, it takes a fearless leader to right the ship.
My advice to other leaders, especially women, is to not let self-doubt hinder your inherent abilities. Assert yourself when you know you are right. At the end of the day, we’re all still family when the work is done.