A Family Affair: Succession planning builds a firm foundation for Grow West’s future
Harvey Lyman started Ag Chemicals Inc. in 1951 with hard work and an inherent respect for agriculture and the families who made it their livelihood. The predecessor of the current generation of Grow West leadership instilled that ethic into Les, Scott and Tom Lyman. Today, his three sons are driven by those same ethics in leading the company as owners and board members.
Les is the oldest of the three brothers who today is integral to Grow West’s daily operations. Continuing his father’s legacy of service in agriculture has never been far from the top of his mind since he joined his father’s company full-time in 1974. For the last decade, that’s meant the development of a family business succession plan.
“By the time my dad passed away, all the important things were protected, but some of the things weren’t, so we had to sell assets to pay taxes,” says Les, current chairman of the Grow West board of directors. “I burned into my brain right then and there that if I wanted to keep this business, I didn’t want to stick anybody with a tax bill.”
Why succession planning is so important
From day-one, the Lyman brothers knew their succession plan wasn’t just for their own family. Grow West has around 350 employees today, and Scott — two years younger than Les — said he and his brothers were compelled to both protect their assets and demonstrate their long-term commitment to the company’s employees and local presence.
“We feel a responsibility to all of our employees,” Scott says. “We’re not intending to sell out, take our money and fall into all of the consolidation that’s happening in agriculture right now. We all know we have a responsibility to our employees and customers.”
That responsibility is huge to the Lyman brothers both today and in moving the ag retailer into the next generation, says Grow West President and CEO Ernie Roncoroni.
“Our customers want to know that they are investing in and working with someone who’s going to be here tomorrow,” Roncoroni says. “I truly believe that Les and his brothers view this as their father’s company, their family’s company, and it’s their job to shepherd it to the next generation.”
Adds Scott: “We want customers and employees to see our commitment to this transition. It gives them stability that they want to hitch their cart to this company, and they can trust us and trust that Grow West will be around.”
The right team is critical to a rock-solid succession plan
Lois Lang enables the Lyman family to get that job done. The succession readiness specialist with Evolve Partner Group in Stockton is the key team member the brothers called upon to help develop their succession plan. She brought a combination of skills ranging from business planning to psychology to the process of identifying the right succession strategy.
“Les and his brothers have been extremely disciplined, and that’s the crux of succession planning in my mind. You must have a clear vision and objective,” says Lang, an MBA and Psy.D. in industrial organizational psychology. “Recognizing our mortality is not something anybody wants to talk about, but it’s part of the succession planning process.”
Lang sees balance between business and personal issues as a component of many effective succession plans. Doing so depends on open communication and alignment of values and goals. That wasn’t a problem for the Lyman family.
“From day-one, we’ve never had significant issues and we’ve all gotten along,” says Tom, the youngest of the three Lyman brothers. “We were all motivated by and committed to the common goals of serving our customers and preserving the family business.”
How to integrate the next generation
A big part of the Lyman family’s process was to recognize the involvement of the next generation, or “generation three.” Les wanted to integrate business education into the process to prepare his successors as future owners of the family company.
“Even if they’re not actively involved in day-to-day work, they’re going to have to be educated on what it takes to be a responsible owner,” says Les, who describes the family’s succession plan as “aggressive, well-consulted, thought-out and in-process.”
Tom’s quick to point out that his generation’s successors won’t be somehow anointed as business leaders without the work required to prepare for their evolved roles in Grow West’s future.
“We’ve made it clear to them that their name won’t guarantee an executive role in the business. Our expectation is that they prove themselves and work through the process,” Tom says. “There will be no crowning of a successor that’s not earned.”
Specific strengths of the Lyman family succession plan
It’s just as important to instill the passion the Lyman brothers share for agriculture and paving the future for Grow West as a family business.
“Our father embodied leadership, stability and responsibility. You can’t afford to lose those things,” Scott says. “We are working to instill these principles as we maintain our family’s connections to agriculture and our customers.”
Tactically, that involves frequent face-to-face meetings involving all family business stakeholders. That’s not easy for the Lyman family that has members scattered around the country.
“We’ve had some virtual meetings, but it’s so important to get everybody together and build relationships face-to-face,” Tom says. “As we pass the baton to them, the chances of long-term success will be better because they have strong relationships.”
Lang says she’s witnessed a lot of “craziness” in some family business succession planning processes. That’s not been the case with the Lyman family. She grades them highly for prioritizing personal, transparent communication as they evolve their succession plan.
“They’re very mature, successful people in their own rights who have successful careers,” Lang says of the successors’ generation. “They’re not sitting around waiting for something to happen. They are really looking at the business and how to continue what grandpa started.”
Outside the family, having the right people in clearly defined roles is important, especially in impressing those requisite qualities to the succeeding generation. That group is something Les has worked hard to maintain.
“You don’t have to go to this mountaintop by yourself. Don’t hesitate to get others involved,” Les says. “We have a management team that I’ve taken very careful steps to assemble who are extremely competent, and we have some succession built in there.”
Value of the succession plan to Grow West employees and customers
That management team led by Roncoroni is critical to the family’s ongoing succession plan in other ways.
“We want the next generation to feel they can trust Ernie and his team to be stewards of the business, trust them to make good decisions and oversee things to make sure that we’re doing it with the right structure, ethics and philosophies that our father instilled in us,” Tom says.
Roncoroni knows he needs to maintain a level of separation between family matters and those directly affecting the Grow West business, and his role is shaped by that acknowledgment.
“I am purposefully staying away from the succession planning process because that’s not my role. My role is to run the company on a day-to-day basis and I report to the board,” says Roncoroni, who became Grow West CEO in 2017. “I have passion and am honored to work for the family, but I make no bones about it that I’m not family. I’m here to do a job on behalf of the family and respect whatever they decide.”
Longtime Grow West employee and current Vice President of Human Resources Samantha Hanley sees practical benefits of this mutual respect and trust daily. The Lyman family’s long view gives her confidence that Grow West will continue to live up to its reputation among current and future employees, something that’s ultimately good for the retailer’s bottom line.
“The Lyman family genuinely cares about their employees. In turn, that’s why the employees care about the company,” Hanley says. “The family’s commitment to the company is important to us from an employee recruiting and retention perspective, and it helps us maintain our competitiveness from a human resources standpoint.”
Those tangible benefits will continue well into the future because the Lyman family has accounted for them in how the company operates today and how it will in the future, according to Grow West Vice President and COO Lucas Schmidt.
“The Lyman family takes great pride in being present, and that helps us manage the day-to-day functions of Grow West. I saw that prior to even joining the company,” says Schmidt, the team’s “newcomer,” having been with the company for five years. “They’re also forward thinkers who take the appropriate steps to support and enable us to do our jobs, today and tomorrow.”
Les knows the succession planning work isn’t complete. He and the entire Grow West family — whether named Lyman or not — will continue to take necessary steps in the future to ensure Grow West is in the best position for when the generational transfer time arrives.
“I hope when it’s time for me to pass along decision-making duties — if I don’t die with a thump — the family is reasonably prepared to assume the roles they need to in order to do my job as an owner,” Les says. “You have to be ready to make changes if tax laws or regulations change. Be aware of your assets and what you have. If your long game is to transfer it to your family, go out and get started. Then maintain that vision.”