It is a challenge for a family business to reach the second generation of ownership, much less a third. The percentage reaching the fourth generation is in the single digits. For the Bentley family, reaching the sixth generation after 170 years required hard work, a willingness to innovate and change, and some luck.
“All it takes is one big lawsuit or one bad quote or a tough economic deal that puts companies under,” said Todd Bentley, the sixth generation family owner, who turns 40 this year. Today, the family operates Bentley World-Packaging Ltd. from a facility on North Port Washington Road in Milwaukee, helping manufacturers package and ship products around the word. The company has about 100 employees in Wisconsin and Baltimore, Maryland. For decades the Bentleys were in the construction industry, building iconic buildings from Alexander Mitchell’s mansion that would become the Wisconsin Club, to some of the largest churches in the state.
The messages for the next generations
“The construction guys, for four generations before me, they were tough,” said Tom Bentley III, 71. “I mean, they had focus, they were determined … they were just tenacious. They were going to maintain their construction business or die trying.” John Bentley, a Welsh immigrant who came to the United States at the age of 16, started the business in 1848. His son, Thomas R. Bentley, would eventually run the company and was joined in business by his four sons, including Thomas H. Bentley, who was part of the business for 70 years. Thomas Bentley Jr. started with the company in the 1940s and Tom Bentley III started in 1969. Todd Bentley, the current majority owner, got his start in 2003.
“I don’t think we’re as tough now,” Tom said. “Now, we’re smart and we want to change and adapt and find new ways of doing business.” The Bentleys first got into the packaging business in the 1940s and Tom Bentley III would eventually launch the company as its own entity years later. It has continued to evolve from packaging, to helping companies with logistics, warehousing and packaging engineering. Building that business left the family with options when the Great Recession threatened the construction business in 2008.
A parent-child relationship is not the same as the relationship with an outside hire, which Todd noted further complicates the dynamics as one generation’s influence rises while the other’s falls. “I think it’s hard between the generations to fully support that next generation, at some point to your detriment,” he said. Having built the packaging business and hired many of the key employees, Tom said he recognized he needed to step aside to allow Todd to be in charge.
“If I was coming to a meeting, often people I hired were looking to me for a stamp of approval on things and I had to get out of here just for that reason alone,” Tom said. Todd said the dynamics will probably be similar with his children – two daughters and one son – if they take an interest in the business. At this point, however, all three are too young for succession planning. They come to the office with their dad occasionally on weekends and might have an opportunity to start working in the future.
“I think they’ll do what you and I both did,” Tom said to Todd, “which is get their feet wet at some point while they’re in school and start to decide a little bit whether this sounds like fun or doesn’t.” Todd is sure of one thing: the next generation will have to earn the right to take over the business. “If we’re in a position to pass it to the seventh generation, whoever would end up in the seventh generation taking it needs to deserve to own it,” he said. “They’re not going to get there because they happen to be a son or daughter of mine. They have to get there because they are better and more capable and willing to work harder than anyone else.”
He said when the time comes, it will be important to have a plan with clear hurdles and expectations for the next generation to overcome. For now, the focus is on positioning the business itself for the future. “The focus right now is to really strengthen and grow the business and hopefully I’ve got a kid who has the ability and desire to come in and someday run it,” Todd said.
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