Photo by Daniel Vogel

It’s no secret that many of the largest, best established companies around today started as family enterprises – but as they grow from a handful of employees to dozens, hundreds, and in some cases, thousands, it’s only natural for a less casual and more corporate culture to take over for efficiency’s sake

But what happens when that efficiency – or perhaps even the corporate giant’s very survival – depends on their ability to dust off the age-old family-business way of doing things and find a way to merge these two seemingly disparate worlds? That was the challenge I faced, when my employer, a large corporate with an international footprint, faced a situation that could make or break the organization.

At the time, I was heading up the business’s implementations on mergers and acquisitions. It’s important to mention that the organization did already have a well-developed and deeply entrenched Change Management methodology in place, and that this methodology had proven successful in many previous projects. It was assumed, therefore that our latest acquisition would go off without a hitch.

The Background

An unforeseen disaster at one of our strategic manufacturing sites suddenly threatened to bring the business to its knees. Almost 20% of our sales capacity was suddenly wiped out. What’s more, there was little in place in the way of a contingency plan, as a huge capital upgrade – already in the pipeline months prior – remained incomplete and therefore offered no help when disaster struck.

A superbly lucky lifeline did, however, present itself as the only possible way to save the company. A family business had recently come up for sale, holding great promise to provide the capacity we so desperately needed. The business owners were immediately engaged and a hasty deal hammered out that would ensure maximum handover speed and a tidy profit for the family business being acquired.

With every passing day threatening the company more, the wheels were put in motion for the take-over to be completed within days. Incredibly, we managed to get the business up and running with our people and producing our brands, in a matter of just four days – an amazing feat in anyone’s book.

It seemed disaster had been averted, but a rude awakening lay in store. The first sign of trouble appeared during a Sunday-Monday shift change when, inexplicably, only

the “new” operators that had been introduced by our organisation turned up. The original operators who had worked so diligently for the family-run business had downed tools and were absent. The shifts had been structured to ensure the old-guard was shadowed by the newcomers in order to facilitate knowledge-sharing and lessen disruption during the change-over. We were forced to ship in even more new team members in order to simply meet our deadlines while we figured out exactly what the problem was. The standoff continued for close to a week before we were able to bring the old operators to the table and hear their issues first-hand.

The Solution

With the problem identified, we quickly embarked on a retrofitted Change Management plan and commenced with remediation. The plan concentrated on a few key areas:

  • Onboarding
  • Implementation of the Buddy System
  • Developing a Knowledge Transfer Plan
  • Weekly focus groups, supported by a robust communication plan

The main aim of our plan was to aid in communicating what was changing and why, without getting caught up in the urgency and chaos of a crisis in production to force a rushed transition. We wanted to take pause and redefine what was needed of each person and tailor a plan to help them achieve it.

In this crisis of corporate culture vs. family values, we managed to break down the us-and-them silos through open dialogue and inclusivity, and were back on track and operating better than ever within 3 months of the implementation of our strategy.