Hussey Seating Company: The board supported the family through the loss of their leader.
Like most family businesses, Hussey Seating had a long history of family members serving as our CEO and board chair. That all changed in the spring of 2016, when my cousin, Timothy — our sixth-generation CEO, chair of the board and leader of the family — passed at age 59 after a two-year battle with cancer. We were faced with losing the key person who ran the business, the board and the family. While this could have been very disruptive to the company, it was not — because we had a strong governance structure that included a board of directors with experienced, dedicated independent board members.
Hussey Seating is a 186-year-old family business that started by making plows and is currently the leader and innovator in the spectator seating industry. With the expansion of our seating business in the 1960s to the entire United States and Canada, plus interest from overseas, the company grew exponentially and needed outside advice. The independent board of directors was established in 1967, beginning as an advisory board and evolving into a fiduciary board over the last 50 years.
Prior to Tim’s passing, he asked our directors to name me chair of the board. It was important to us that a family member lead the board. The board supported this, and I was elected the first chair of our company who had not previously worked in the business. I had served on the board for just four years prior to my appointment as chair, and this was a huge change both for me and for my board colleagues. The board members were very supportive of my new role, and we pulled together to focus on the job at hand.
The board moved quickly to name Gary Merrill as Hussey’s first non-family CEO and president. Gary had been with the company for 25 years and had previously served as CFO. He worked closely with Tim during his illness to manage the business with senior management. His leadership during this critical time helped transition the company leadership smoothly because of his familiarity with employees, dealers, clients and the industry in general. We felt that Gary was as close as we could get to a family CEO without actually being family. Board ownership of the responsibility to name and oversee the new CEO was critical to the continuity of the business.
At the same time, the board decided it needed to up its game, since its role had changed under the company’s first non-family CEO. The board wanted to be there for Gary and his senior management team in any way they could. In addition, the board had a responsibility to the shareholders, the company and the employees to make sure the business moved forward seamlessly. With a company legacy as long as ours, we needed to give our industry the confidence that even though a Hussey was not CEO, we were still a family-run business and in it for the long haul. The board provided the consistency, knowledge and experience to make sure this occurred. Gary knew that the board members were there for him on whatever he needed. The shareholders knew the board was there to oversee the business and make sure we had the right CEO.
Having a strong board of directors, including independent members, gave the family the space to focus on our loss and our needs. We could step back to consider how we were going to structure ourselves and not worry about the management of our family business. It gave the family separation from the business while still ensuring that family directors were there to guide the board.
In addition, with independent directors and a chair who was not the CEO, shareholders believed that we had a truly independent board with a responsibility to all of them.
Here we are in 2021 and — as a company old enough to have made it through the 1918 Spanish Flu — in the middle of our company’s second pandemic. As I look back and reflect on Hussey Seating Company’s board evolution, I see it as a long journey that has served the company and the shareholders well. Will we have a family member as CEO down the road? We will wait to see, but we know that having a board with independent directors is beneficial to the shareholders, the business and our 186-year legacy.
Letitia Hussey Beauregard is a sixth-generation shareholder and chair of the Hussey Seating Company board of directors. Letitia was a founding member of Family Capital Trust Company, a New Hampshire trust company that was started in 1999. As director of personal trust at Family Capital, she is responsible for providing trust services for high-net-worth families and sits on the company’s board of directors and its investment committee.