Our Board Evolution: It's Never Too Soon to Start a Board
I joined the company that my father and grandfather started together in late 1996, when David S. Lapine Company, Inc., was 28 years old. My grandfather had retired and my father had sole ownership. In those days, I gave no thought about future ownership, nor did I ever consider the different challenges faced by a family-owned business compared to any other. After seven years, the family complexity had changed substantially during those seven years. Two other members of my generation — my brother and my cousin — joined me at the company. The three of us shared an office with my father, with a desk in each corner. My father was still the sole owner.
We didn’t talk about the future of the business, but we knew we needed help crafting a plan for the future. We were fortunate to find the Harvard Business School Executive Education program focused on families in business and multi-generational complexities and patterns. My father’s initial reaction was, “I think that would be great for the three of you to do,” but when I explained all four of us should attend, he was game. I think his willingness to do so reflected his consistent pattern of trying new things and always learning.
On the program’s agenda was an entire day dedicated to forming a company board. Seeing that made us question whether this program was right for our little company — a board was something we had come to think of as an instrument of governance for large corporations, public entities. How could this be an appropriate or relevant discussion for our family business? It turned out that no other day in the program had a longer-lasting impact on our business than that one.
The next year was spent planning and installing a board. We worked with a family business adviser and engaged our employees to explain why the formation of a board was necessary. We drafted meeting structures and interviewed prospective board members, and, at the start of 2005, we convened our first board of advisers meeting. It is hard to believe that 15 years have passed since that first meeting, and it is even harder for me to recognize the company that we were back then. I credit so much of our evolution and how we’ve been able to navigate challenges to our advisory board.
One of my key learnings early on was that the strongest board members would never hand us answers to our most pressing problems. Instead, they ask the most challenging questions and press us to look at ourselves in the mirror to solve problems rather than shy away from them. Every important decision we have made since 2005 has passed through our boardroom. The board’s feedback, and often their pushback, has caused us to rethink so many critical choices and has challenged us to run a business that is rooted in accountability, transparency and measurable performance.
Our board also helped us navigate succession planning from the second generation to the third. With their guidance and oversight during the transition, we avoided disruption to the business during a time of growth.
My father was able to move from an everyday active leadership role to that of a valued adviser whose wisdom continues to shape our decision making long after his ownership days have passed.
These days I, like so many others, work from home. One or two days of the week, I go into the office, which we have decided to keep closed to employees until 2021. While all of our associates are in constant communication via phones, emails and video conferences, the emptiness of our office, the silence of a typically vibrant workplace, has an eerie buzz to it. Keeping me company down the hall, hanging outside of the main conference room, is a painted portrait of my grandfather. As with so many family-owned enterprises I’ve walked into during my life, the company founder’s picture is a staple office decoration. It is a reminder of an era that has always felt very distant to me.
The portrait has been hanging in some high-traffic location in our office for as long as I can remember. Most days, I would walk past it dozens of times without even noticing. But now, with no one around, it regularly grabs hold of my attention. I can’t help wondering what my grandfather would make of our business today. Would he be surprised that it’s still here — that three of his grandchildren now own it? What would he think of all of the growth we’ve experienced? Would he even recognize the business? I wish so much that, in the midst of a crisis that comes with no easy answers, I could ask him what he would do and what he thinks of all of this. Those are the moments I am grateful we have our board. They have the wisdom of experience and the generosity to share their learnings. As we feel our way through these uncharted waters, the board has never been more important or more appreciated.
Noah Lapine is president and an owner of David S. Lapine Company, Inc. The company first formed an advisory board in 2016 and was a winner of the Private Company Board of the Year award in 2020.