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Passing the Baton

Michael Stone | Business Articles
The first company is Miller Landscape, Inc., in Orion, Michigan. Now in its 46th year of providing landscaping services in the Detroit metropolitan areas, founders Bob and Bill Miller are preparing to sell stock in the company to Bob’s sons Jeremy, Marty and Doug.

Miller Landscape is a very different company from the one the senior Miller brothers started in the mid- 1960s. Then, they had a single pickup truck. Now, they’re running 35 vehicles and generating $3.5 million in sales.

The younger Millers always suspected that one day it would be their turn. “Growing up, I can remember a teacher asking about career aspirations,” said Jeremy. “I told her that I wanted to turn our landscape company into a multi-million dollar operation. That was something I truly felt was possible and decided to work toward.”

The senior Millers also envisioned a hand-over of the reins. “Bob and I were considering a transfer of ownership, but we didn’t know how to go about it,” said Bill Miller. “LandOpt’s expertise really helped us get our business on solid footing, so we could start the transition process.”

Among the tools that they brought to the table were an enhanced annual planning process, and a structured sales system to generate new business consistently. They also helped Miller Landscape develop and define the roles of the various players at their company, including how to shift responsibility from the senior Millers to the new junior regime.

“Once we defined what we were good at and put people in place, Bob and I could see the potential for the business to move on without us,” said Bill Miller. “It’s crucial for the next generation to see that we are willing to step aside and give them authority and the responsibility that goes with it.”

To aid its transition, Miller Landscape adopted the concept of acting as though the owners were no longer everyday players in the company. “The biggest transitional tool LandOpt implemented was monthly GMowner meetings,” said Jeremy. “Once a month, Bill and Bob take off all their hats except as owners, and I present them with sales goals and budgets as though they aren’t here on a daily basis. They’ve stepped far enough away from the financials that they truly don’t know everything we’re discussing, and it helps us get a feel for our organizational structure once they have retired.”

According to Bill Miller, the emotional component of the pending transition was such a prominent factor that it took about a year of ongoing coaching to work through the challenges he and Bob were feeling.

“LandOpt helped us separate out the emotions, so we could look at things in a black-and-white way,” says Bill. “We still don’t know exactly what retirement holds. It may be a case of not entirely walking away; perhaps I’ll work 30 hours a week versus 65 or 70.”

Discussion and planning—while critical—are only stepping stones to the ultimate transition. “At some point, you have to take concrete action to get the ball rolling,” Jeremy says. “Day-to-day operations will always get in the way, but you have to allocate the time to get it done. On top of that, you have to commit the financial resources to get it done properly.”

“This transition has been a long process,” adds Bill. “We’ve kept everything transparent. We’ve had bi-annual family meetings to discuss direction and make sure that everyone is on the same page. The reality is that a huge percentage of second generation businesses don’t make it, and we wanted to change the odds. So we’ve taken our time to deal with the little things and do our homework. We’re about to sign the final papers to make the transition.”

The same upbeat philosophy that helped the Millers start the business is helping them turn it over to their kids. “I’ve made a career of building backyards and landscapes that hopefully make people’s lives more enjoyable,” Bill declares. “To have that career wind down in an enjoyable fashion is pretty special.”

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