Preparation for the Inevitable

Feb 20, 2003

Fifty-eight-year-old Frank Gristleling was a strong leader of his firm. Other than a three-and-a-half year tour with the Navy from 1968 to 1971, Gristleling worked at Johnson, Smatters, and Tattersham (JST) since he started as a raw co-op student recruit from Georgia Tech in 1965. And by any standard, Gristleling was a success. By 1972, he was the running JST’s Pompano Beach office, and by 1977, he was in charge of the firm’s southeastern region. In 1982, he became COO for the firm, and when Andy Smatters retired in 1984, Gristleling became the CEO. The unprofitable, old-line company was foundering. But under Gristleling’s inspired leadership, the firm soared from a couple hundred dispirited employees to more than 670 largely happy and motivated staffers working in 19 offices throughout the United States and Canada by 1996. Then, with three good acquisitions of mid-sized companies that Gristleling engineered in the late ‘90s, JST surpassed the $100 million revenue mark, as well as garnered a number of awards for everything from design excellence to marketing. Nice story, huh? But there was one problem. Gristleling died suddenly of a heart attack, ending a life-long battle with weight and diabetes. The good news is his company kept life insurance on him (and all other major shareholders) that paid off and allowed JST to quickly buy back Gristleling’s stock from his wife, June. And as untimely as Frank Gristleling’s death was, there’s more good news. The same future orientation and planning skills that he used to guide the firm’s growth, he used to prepare for his own demise. Besides updating his insurance policies every year to make sure they would cover the firm’s entire buyback obligation for his shares, here’s more of how Frank was prepared for his unfortunate fate: He had a named successor and everyone knew it— Steve Gustane. Gustane was working in the COO role making sure that the workload was balanced and JST was profitable on a month-to-month basis. He was very effective and earned the respect of the old-timer principals who had more seniority than he had. Gustane did it through his hard work and tough attitude— and support from Gristleling whenever anyone tried to go around him. But as important as succession is, many CEOs are afraid to say who they think would be best to take over for them. They don’t want to alienate anyone who wants their job but won’t get it. He had strong people in the other major roles. From Barbara Tuniz, the CFO, to Rob Landspur, the head of IT, to Pat Lance, the marketing director, there were good people in every top job— people with the experience, education, and demeanor that it took to be successful in the roles they were in. He was appropriately laissez-faire in his management style. Gristleling was not one of these guys who puts his hand into everything and won’t let others make decisions. In some ways, he was incredibly hands off. He told those who worked for him what he expected. He helped them get resources or clear roadblocks out of the way. Then he let them do their job (for a while). If things looked like they weren’t working, then and only then would he step in. And he always did his best to place those he displaced elsewhere in the firm, IF the person was loyal and had a good work ethic. He set the firm up to succeed without him. Whether it was the company’s bottom up and top down annual business planning process, or the way bonuses were paid out via formula, or the company’s thorough and systematic employee training and development process, good examples of this thinking were abundant at JST. No one really wants to think about the inevitable— pondering one’s own demise is never fun. But if you run a company or unit of a firm that employs other people, it’s your responsibility. Originally published 2/10/2003

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