Joys and Challenges of a Family Business

Many industries in the U.S. are full of family businesses, and the insurance agency arena is no exception. With that come the joys and challenges of families working together. I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing that both as “the new kid” working with my father, and now as “the old guy” with two of my sons in the office.

As a quick aside, as I focus on the family nature of our business, I don’t want to discount or exclude the importance of the rest of our staff. We have been blessed with some outstanding employees who don’t share our last name but have been key to our success. For that, I am also forever thankful.

The Joys…

My father, Paul Leitch, started our agency in River Falls, Wis., in 1983. After receiving a Risk Management and Insurance degree at UW-Madison (yes, I got into this industry on purpose), I joined my father in 1987 and we worked together for 15 years. I very much enjoyed having him as a mentor and teacher, and frankly, we got along incredibly well in the office. He often spoke about how proud he was to work with me, which I thought was perhaps an overstatement, but more on that later.

Teaching and leading by example is an important first point. Like it or not, we tend to “become our parents.” I had a good role model, who taught me good habits and introduced me to the industry. My dad was respected in the industry, which made it easier for me to get involved and also gave me a standard to live up to.

Leitch_BrandonSteveRyan

Steve Leitch with sons, Brandon (left) and Ryan (right).

My dad retired in 2002, and in the years that followed, the next generation of Leitch boys started to come of age. Ryan, my oldest son, was focused on joining the agency. He graduated from UW-Madison as well, and worked as a commercial lines underwriter for a national carrier for three years before joining the family agency.

That brings up a second point. As parents, we may be good teachers, but most of us are not good trainers. I think it was a huge advantage for Ryan to work on the company side for a while — this helped him to gain perspective and great product knowledge.

During Ryan’s stint as an underwriter, we had another retirement in the office. This presented an opportunity for my son Brandon, whose background was in sound engineering. Unlike Ryan, this was not his originally-chosen destiny. In fact, he looked a little more like the musician than the agent. Since his start a couple years ago, he’s certainly evolved and the hair is a little shorter. He got licensed about a year after he joined us.

From the start, however, Brandon’s people skills surprised me. He relates well with clients of all ages, including a persnickety senior client that I would have expected to not give Brandon the time of day. The two of them hit it off from the start, and he always seems to enjoy visiting with Brandon.

My third point is that, as a parent, you have to have faith that your kids will evolve, and that they have talents and skills that you may not be aware of. Let them use those skills!

I mentioned that my dad expressed great pride in working with his son. I now fully understand that. It’s a great feeling to see your kids step into their adult roles and to be involved in their careers.

The Challenges…

Of course, there is a flip side to the family approach to business. Since we have a mix of family members and non-family members, fairness is always a concern. As parents, we want to offer our kids any opportunity we can, but at the same time we need to remain ever aware of equity and respect as business owners.

There is also an issue of equity and respect just in dealing with the siblings. I mentioned that Ryan and Brandon came to the office from different directions. They hold different positions in the office and bring different skill sets. Like any workplace situation, those differences need to be recognized in a fair way.

Another challenge has as much to do with me as it does with them. While I remember being the young guy, I have grown to accept the fact that the little hair I have left is gray. I still think that my perceptions have merit, but they are not the perceptions of the next generation of consumers. More and more I find myself asking Ryan and Brandon for their opinion regarding marketing decisions. What’s sensible to me may be totally off-base to the younger generation. When Brandon tells me that one of our brochures is “very ‘90s,” I have to realize that isn’t a compliment.

The Future…

Another huge impact of having a new generation in the office is perpetuation. It is no secret that we have a large number of principals in the agency force that are approaching retirement, or at least can see that on the horizon. Having Ryan and Brandon in the office (and another son who is yet to come up through the ranks) not only addresses perpetuation, but allows for good continuity.

Since I had worked with my own father for several years, we didn’t have a culture shift or other dramatic change within the office when he retired. Likewise, when I approach that stage in several years, we will have a smooth transition with experienced people at the helm.

Again, I am very appreciative of the foundation my father provided me, and I hope that I am doing the same for my boys. Their success depends on it, as will my retirement!

-Steve Leitch

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