Generational changes in leadership are natural at smaller, privately held companies as sons and daughters take over the business from their aging parents.
But these days, that generational shift has spawned another change — a far-reaching shift in the way companies view and use technology.
Around the region, as elsewhere, a younger generation of more tech-savvy leaders are changing the way their family-owned companies operate — everything from their manufacturing systems to their underlying business systems to their sales and marketing efforts, and more.
“It’s natural now that as these leaders come into the workforce, as they take over maybe from their fathers or mothers, they’re looking at things very differently, seeing technology more broadly, because they grew up with it,” said Dave Hartman, president and co-founder of Hartman Executive Advisors, a business management consulting firm based in Baltimore County, which works mostly with midlevel, mid-Atlantic based companies.
“They’re making these companies a lot more nimble, able to flex more quickly to changing customer needs,” he added. “And they do it because customers are expecting a different digital experience than maybe their fathers and grandfathers expected.”
One such company is Hamilton Associates, an Owings Mill conglomerate of three businesses in three unrelated fields: elevator components, commercial grade pressure washers and air contamination testing.
Douglas Hamilton II, the third-generation CEO of the business, makes no secret of steering the company toward more advanced technology in his seven years as CEO.
Hamilton has made seven-figure investments in manufacturing techniques and machine equipment and six-figure investments in underlying business systems, he said, and he expects to make more.
“We no longer live in a widgets world, we live in a solutions world,” he said. American companies, he said, cannot compete with overseas companies on costs and so must compete “around other differentiating factors, especially the ones that make (using the company) more convenient, faster, easier to use — a more value-creating solution for your customer.”
To do that, he added, “you need a lot of technology.”
For example, he said, technology allows Hamilton access to a lot more information about specific customers’ buying habits and needs. That, in turn, allows them to target products to specific customers — as opposed to sending out blanket emails to all customers, for example, as they did in the past.
Hamilton knows he is not alone in changing the way his company does business. “All I’m doing is just following the market,” he said. “It’s a dynamic field out there and companies like us need to know what technology solutions are available.”
Scott Attman, vice president of Acme Paper & Supply Co., a janitorial and industrial supply company distribution company in Jessup, said his 70-plus-year-old business — it was started by his grandfather out of the trunk of his car in downtown Baltimore — has always been forward-thinking,
“My grandfather used to ask us every day, ‘What’s new?’” he recalled. “It’s part of our DNA to always be trying to be looking for something new and different.”
But with today’s fast-changing technology, that philosophy requires a whole new level of attention.
“Any good businessperson understands the world we live in now, that the changes from year to year are faster and faster, and sitting still is falling behind,” he said. “So we’re trying to find ways to differentiate ourselves, to create a better experience for our customers, and for our employees.”
What that means, he said, is creating a more efficient, consolidated business operations system, on one end, and on the other, the most up-to-date buying experience possible for customers — “One that feels like more of an e-commerce experience,” he said.
The new generation of business leaders often sees themselves as different from their predecessors, even when those predecessors were their fathers.
Or fathers-in-law, as is the case of Kevin Monaco, president of Turf Equipment and Supply Co., in Jessup.
Monaco assumed his current post at the lawn equipment irrigation systems distributor in 2012 and took a different view on technology than his father-in-law.
“It’s a generational thing,” he said. “He wasn’t anti-technology, but IT investment was a necessary evil for him. I see it more as an opportunity to advance your business. If you’re not doing it these days, you’re probably falling behind.”
One change his company is looking into, Monaco said, is making repairs more efficiently. Historically, his repairmen go out to the site of the problem with a van full of tools. Eventually, he said, he wants to use technology to troubleshoots problems from the office, only sending repair personnel when necessary.
“This is where the future is headed, and we have to make sure we have a platform that can handle that level of services for our customers,” Monaco said.
Keeping up with the latest technology means being constantly open to change, the business executives agreed.
When Billy Cole took over Cole Roofing from his father in 2012, the commercial roofing company had already come a long way in its 99 years. His father, for example, modernized the company in the 1980s and 1990s by the use of spreadsheets.
“But at some point, that turned into the finishing line,” Cole said. “We had spreadsheets on spreadsheets on spreadsheets and the next thing you know, we were inundated with a million spreadsheets to update because we didn’t advance the technology.”
Although the company remains “diehard spreadsheeters,” Cole said, a new accounting software process enabled them to produce better, more timely reports.
“You can’t be in this world today and not realize that technology is changing everything we do,” Cole said. “I don’t know what the next evolution of smartphones looks like, or the next tablets. … But I have to assume my business will be significantly different five years from now.”
He added: “Technology requires you to have a little faith to be fearless – to be willing to try some new stuff.”