The Business of Family Succession with Jennifer Johnson

Episode Description:  

In this episode, we’re joined by the owner and Lead Lumenista at The Light Center, Jennifer Johnson. Almost 10 years ago, Jennifer took over a 51-year-old lighting company from her father and turned to Elizabeth and the Transition Strategists to assist in that succession. Tap or click the play button below to listen to: The Business of Family Succession with Jennifer Johnson.

Listen in to hear more about Jennifer’s career and life leading up to her succession of The Light Center, and get an inside look at how a business transition can work between family members. 
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Connect with Elizabeth and the Transition Strategists:

This episode was produced by Story On Media & Marketing:

The Business of Family Succession with Jennifer JohnsonTranscript

[00:00:00] Elizabeth Ledoux: Hi, and welcome back to our podcast. Um, I have the pleasure today of having Jennifer Johnson with us. She is an incredible woman. She is the CEO and the co-owner of the Light Center here in Fort Collins, Colorado. She runs a 51 year old business that was started by her father, Larry Edwards. And the company is, it employs about 28 people.

[00:00:24] It serves the residential and the commercial. Market in northern Colorado for lighting. It’s been the foremost lighting supplier for builders, homeowners, and business owners employing experts in lighting for up to 40 years. And Jennifer is known by most, if not everyone, as the Lumina. She’s the lead Lumina.

[00:00:47] She loves everything in lighting and design, and, um, is amazingly talented. So Jennifer, welcome.

[00:00:54] Jennifer Johnson: Thank you. I’m so happy to be here. You and I have known each other for quite some time and I’m so happy to join you on your podcast. So thank you.

[00:01:02] Elizabeth Ledoux: It’s wonderful to have you. So I, I thought that the reason why I invited Jennifer is because she.

[00:01:10] And her dad, we started working with them, um, a decade ago, almost 10 years ago. I looked it up Jennifer, in our records because I had to validate and verify that. I thought, Wow, that’s been a long time. Mm-hmm. and um, We, she went through the entire journey of starting with her dad, working with him, and then migrating all the way to where she is now, which is successfully, she’s taken over the business and is running it, um, from that sole perspective.

[00:01:43] So, Jennifer, I thought we’d start by you telling us a little bit about yourself and what you love. and then kind of go into a little bit about the journey that you went through with your dad and with the business. Sounds great.

[00:01:57] Jennifer Johnson: Well, a little bit about me. Um, I graduated with a degree in business, uh, marketing.

[00:02:02] It was an advertising emphasis, um, from Arizona State University. And I remember when I wrote my. Um, I think it was a letter to apply for college and it was about, um, my dad owning a business and being, um, a great owner and, and, uh, having the flexibility to be at our soccer games. And I remember always reflecting back to that as the reason why I decided to go into the business school.

[00:02:26] I thought he was a great role model for that and it’s fun to, to reflect back on that. But, um, I have lived back and Fort Collins since school for about 23 years and been at the business full time. But I had started there when I was 16. Um, In between college and, and now I’ve, um, enjoyed traveling. I enjoy playing sports and, um, I have two kids.

[00:02:50] I have two stepsons. I have a wonderful husband and, um, love living in Fort Collins and just think we are in a great place. So, um, it’s really fun to have a, a business and a place that we love and, um, a great community overall. Um, Uh, let’s see here. A little bit more about me. I’m a, an innovator, uh, creative.

[00:03:11] Um, I’m also kind of an analyzing, uh, business brain. So I have, I have that left and right brain brain thing. So I think that’s why I really love our business because of the design and, and the technical aspects. Um, and it was fun to go through the journey of learning that that’s what I really, truly loved.

[00:03:30] So there you have it .

[00:03:35] Elizabeth Ledoux: Thank you. Thanks. So when you, um, if you take us back to the beginning and we’ll kind of step through your journey of transition mm-hmm. , um, kind of in the beginning, what were you thinking about when you first started to consider taking over and operating this company? With your

[00:03:57] Jennifer Johnson: dad?

[00:03:57] No. Um, interestingly, we were in, both of us were in separate groups in a peer advisory group called Vistage. It was originally called Tech and he was in the CEO chapter. I was in the key executive chapter and the chair of that group actually brought to my dad, um, the thought of, you know, what do you wanna do eventually when you retire or, or you wanna leave the business?

[00:04:20] What’s your transition look like? So my dad started thinking about who would be a key person to take over. Is it gonna be the person that’s been here for, you know, I think at that point, 25 years? Or is it gonna be, you know, maybe my daughter would be interested, but she’s really young. And, um, through the course of being in that peer advisory group, um, That leader, that chairperson actually identified me as somebody who he thought could be a good owner, and that I had really an ownership mentality.

[00:04:48] So it, it was an interesting thing of hearing from someone else that they thought I had that in me and I didn’t see it in myself yet. So it wasn’t a thought that it was, um, coming to me directly or that I, I really had considered. Um, but I loved the, the, it kind of was a little bit of a backwards way.

[00:05:06] Okay, I’m gonna start buying into the business. It was more of the, the transactional piece. Um, and it was a small piece of the business at that point. It was 20% in 2009. Um, so really that’s how it all came about. And, um, You know, the, the real sliding door moment came, actually was when you were in our dining room with my dad and I, we were having a meeting and I remember, um, I was going through, uh, a life transition.

[00:05:33] I was going through a divorce at the time. And, um, so there was questions of, you know, do I still, am I gonna run the business long term? What does this look like with all these changes happening in my life? And I remember that moment of just, Yes, I want the business. This is, I love what I do here. It’s, it’s a great business to be in and I want to, um, formulate something in the business that really can, can cater to my life with kids and, you know, being there for them.

[00:05:59] And also, you know, having that, that business talent and that desire to, to be in our community in that way, um, with our amazing employees. So, um, that was really how the first part of the transition occurred. And so, It was, it was a pretty interesting process. Jennifer. I,

[00:06:18] Elizabeth Ledoux: it is an interesting process. I remember that meeting so well and that was a very big pivotal point in, in the transition because it could have as just as easily, you know, um, our listeners know that I believe that transition, business transition is a journey.

[00:06:36] it’s not an event. And along the way there are different things that happen that either move you forward in that journey or can pivot you out right. To something else. And that was definitely one that moved you forward. And also your father forward as well. Yeah. Yeah. Nice. So, um, tell us a little bit more about that journey and how you got from that point to here.

[00:07:01] Jennifer Johnson: Yeah. Um, So I think along that journey, the things that stand out for me are the learning that I received from my dad as an amazing business owner. Um, he is an amazing mentor to me. He just, he knows so much. He’s such a great business owner. He’s great with, um, the generosity he has with his employees. The, the long term employees we have, as I mentioned earlier too, that have been there at that time, 25 years now.

[00:07:28] They’ve been. here They’re hitting 40 just this month, both of them. So we have two employees with our business for 40 years. Um, and I just look up to my dad tremendously in every way with the business and obviously as a dad. So, um, really for me, it was a matter of gaining the confidence over time to, I guess, maybe prove to myself that yes, I can, I can make the big decisions for a business that’s grown to where it is and, um, And some of those things happened, like when we, when the economic downturn occurred in 2008, 2009.

[00:08:05] I remember making key, uh, decisions or really, um, implementations in the business that made a big difference to, um, how we were doing. And they were, you know, let’s start an energy efficiency side of our commercial business. And those are things that we can still. Uh, due to help others and to like lower other business owners, um, electric bills.

[00:08:27] But it wasn’t something that was, uh, you know, it just didn’t seem, seem difficult to me. And I thought, well, you know, it’s actually, this is a little bit easier. I think there’s things that I, I like the challenges of going through. Those times and then having great outcomes. And so, um, I’ll, that’ll, I’ll repeat that story, um, in a different way later.

[00:08:46] But, um, I’m, I’m thinking of key moments when, you know, my dad would just kind of those daily rhythmic things he would show me in the business that I still refer back to now. And I love the fact that he had such. Um, key elements of things that he knew were important, whether it was about customer service or, um, you know, kind of like projections in numbers or how to do vendor, um, I wouldn’t necessarily say negotiations, but vendor relationships and, and all of those things.

[00:09:19] So all the elements of the business that he taught me were so valuable and having that time with him was, was really key. Um, Other things in the transition. I think that were, um, key things were obviously my work with you for me was, was, um, such an enormous help. So having that outside perspective from your point of view and your perspective, um, just to, to have you to talk to, for both of us and to kind of give just a, let’s take our heads out of, um, the day to day for a little bit and let’s have, let’s work on this transit.

[00:09:58] Um, and maybe it’s sometimes we didn’t even know it was a transition, but it was, uh, the journey was, looking back on it, it was really interesting because you don’t know how long this is gonna take. You don’t even know what the end result looks like. You just know you’re kind of moving through it. And, um, you were an incredible help at every key point between, um, when you consulted with our business and helped.

[00:10:20] Raised to a higher level of strategy and, and vision. And then, uh, working with our team and having me see, um, the things that, you know, elements of our team that really needed to be rounded out and understanding my role in all of that, um, as really more of a creative and an innovative person, um, knowing I needed to hire for this kind of, you know, opposite, uh, or complimentary, um, team member.

[00:10:47] And I still do that today. So those were really, really helpful things. Um, and even just being able to, to say, um, you know, Dad, we have this meeting coming up with Elizabeth. What are we, you know, what is, what is? And it just brought conversation to the table that we would’ve easily let pass. You know, it’s easy to just get into the day to day and just do things that you normally do and not, um, have the conversations or at least even touch on, um, the mindfulness that it really takes.

[00:11:18] At some point make transition decisions. So

[00:11:23] Elizabeth Ledoux: yeah. Yeah, Jennifer, those are some, those are some really great points. And, and I’m very happy that, um, that I played that role for you. So that, that’s, um, something that I’m very grateful to have been able to do. And a couple of points that I think that are key that you brought up.

[00:11:40] Always. I was gonna say almost always, but I think it’s always the person who’s transitioning. Different than the person who’s coming in that successor. Right? Somebody’s leaving and somebody’s coming in. And so yeah, your role in building a, a team around you as the new leader in the business that’s going to support you was so important for you.

[00:12:05] And not having to just, um, try not trying to just work within the old structure, but being able to over time. Right. Keeping key employees, but over time, um, morphing that leadership team so that it really fit your needs and your makeup for what you saw the business needing versus your dads. That’s a big deal.

[00:12:31] Yeah. So great point. Mm-hmm. . Yeah. And, um, yeah. The other one is, is getting out of that day to day and being able to move up. Really thinking about the transition and not just expecting it to just happen, you know, Well, we’ll just start working together and then pretty soon right, we’ll be at the end of it and we and, and you’ll be running it and, and he’ll be retired.

[00:12:59] Yeah. Um, that real intention and real thoughtfulness about how you’re going to go through it when things are going to be, Taken on by you, potentially when your dad was going to let them go, and, um, just how that worked. Those, that intention is such a big deal with the platform to be able to talk about it.

[00:13:20] Um, and you know that that’s what you’re coming to do. So, yes. Nice. Mm-hmm. , I like that. Yeah. Thank you. So tell us right now, where are you in the transition? You’re completely running the business and your father is, um, I think slightly involved. He likes coming in now and then I think saying hi.

[00:13:41] Jennifer Johnson: Interestingly, um, what, what occurred was, uh, the, the pandemic obviously, um, was a forced. Um, and as far as my dad not being there as much, um, with them being in a different age category and wanting to. You know, stay safer during the, you know, we were obviously shut down, um, as most businesses were, but, uh, um, when we came back and reopened, he was there little bits at a time so that there was a way bigger difference with his time element there.

[00:14:14] Um, and also during that time, I had made a big transition from a previous accounting manager to, um, somebody who I promoted into a new accounting manager position, and I kind of changed some of the, the format of things that was really necessary at that point. Moving our, um, financial reporting online, um, rather than just, you know, on the office computers.

[00:14:35] And so what’s happening now is, um, uh, and I had actually just bought into more of the business. So I had become officially 51% owner in 2019, right before the pandemic. So, um, you know, I really went through the gut wrenching times, um, during the pandemic of going, Oh boy, this is really interesting. You know, my dad was probably moving more towards, uh, wanting to be in a retirement position, but I didn’t know that.

[00:15:05] Um, I, I, those are things that I may have assumed at some point that he does or doesn’t wanna be retired. Um, we never officially had those conversations, which is interesting. But, um, I am now running the business completely and through life circumstances and, and health related things, um, and the pandemic he is.

[00:15:24] Um, at home and, um, recently told someone, our banker, I think, that he was retired, and I thought, well, that’s a good way to find out. It was interesting. So, um, I say I have officially, I mean, really as far as learning business, although on paper I am still, um, part owner. Um, and I’m happy to still have my dad, um, every once in a while checking in about things.

[00:15:47] But most of the time it’s, I tell him big picture things that are happening in the business or. He comes in and says hello. Um, but it’s, it’s a much different landscape now for, for his involvement. Um, so I really do feel like I’ve officially taken the reins as far as, as far as running it goes. Yeah. Yeah.

[00:16:06] Elizabeth Ledoux: Congratulations. Congratulations. So, your journey, um, just to give the listeners a timeframe, your journey was close to about, what, 10 years?

[00:16:18] Jennifer Johnson: Yeah, a little over 10 years. You know, from the time that really on paper, I’d. Uh, the 20% owner, that was in 2009. Um, and then yes, in 20 19, 50 1% owner. And then now, I mean, it’s, I would say over the last two years, I’ve increasingly more until probably about the last year, I would say I’ve been officially fully running the business without any, any other, you know, Input not too much.

[00:16:45] So, um, but that, yeah,

[00:16:48] Elizabeth Ledoux: about 10, 10 plus. Yeah. And it’s been 10 plus, I was gonna say, yeah, adding it up probably more like 12, 13, 14, going on. And, um, and so, The journey’s been a good one for you. You’re, you’re a great family. You’ve been able to maintain all those relationships. Strong employees still active in the community.

[00:17:13] The business is very active in the community and supporting it and, and continues to grow. So, um, yeah. Congratulations. So what was the most challenging thing that you faced and you conquered in this transition?

[00:17:32] Jennifer Johnson: Well, so balancing the mother, or excuse me, father-daughter relationship, um, with the business owner or co-owner, uh, relationship.

[00:17:45] Um, luckily in our case, I feel like it was a lot less challenging than it can be for some people. But there’s always that element of, um, am I the good daughter? Am I doing this right? Um, I’m, I’m sure that there’s things on his end, and I’ve keyed into things he said recently that are like, I didn’t wanna burden you.

[00:18:08] And I thought, Oh boy, it’s so different than what I thought. And there was, there’s assumptions I made that, um, you know, when you, when it’s, you’ve never done this before, that is the most challenging thing. Um, I don’t think most people ever would transition a major business, um, element, I guess more than once in their lives.

[00:18:31] It’s not a common thing and I don’t know anyone else that’s ever done it that I could necessarily talk to either, uh, directly, um, that’s been in my same position or has my. Uh, family dynamics and, and the same amazing father that I have. So . Um, and so that was, I think the challenging thing was just wondering, you know, is am I gonna be able to, um, help my dad to know that it’s okay to, you know, I’m, I can handle it, I’m, I can take over and there’s a lot of things I feel like I can do.

[00:19:04] And then also at the very same time, those maybe small pieces of self doubt. Wait, can I really do this? And then, you know, something happens like the pandemic and you know, you end up applying for PPP funds and you know how you can learn how to do that. And you go, Well, if I can do the pandemic and I can do 2009, maybe I can do this is okay.

[00:19:25] And um, so that’s, that’s really what it is. It’s just that, um, not having done it before and, and then just sometimes not knowing what is, what is the end result. Is it? It’s not an event, As you said, it’s a journey and it’s, it sometimes feels like it’s, um, is there something I should be doing differently or is this just like a, you know, is there the time doesn’t, doesn’t have any factor on this.

[00:19:52] Cause you can’t put a timeline on it most of the time, unless unfortunately, some other major life event happens. I think so. Yeah. Right,

[00:20:01] Elizabeth Ledoux: right. Yeah, no, it’s exciting. And, and the thing that you have too with, you know, still having your, your dad as part owner of it, you’re still in a way, you’re still, there’s still a little bit of a transition to a go, right?

[00:20:19] That operational and the majority ownership is transferred. However, um, you also. That could be transferred at any time. Mm-hmm. . Um, but so you’re in a way still serving your family. You’re still operating and, and serving the family and that family investment that you’ve got. So it’s a really interesting situation.

[00:20:40] But, um, yeah. But great work. Yeah, great work. Like I said in the beginning, you were an amazing lady, so I’m so excited to have you here. So Jennifer, I know that, um, that throughout this journey that you have made some shifts and changes with the business, and I would love for you to talk a little bit about some of the shifts that you’ve made as that lead Lumina and the creative that you are and how.

[00:21:10] What you brought to the business is a little bit different than what your dad brought to the business.

[00:21:15] Jennifer Johnson: Okay. Yeah. Um, you know, I think a lot of it involves technology. There was, uh, 2015, we did an enormous, um, change of our point of sale system, which was a big, I can’t, I can’t, I don’t know, I can’t stress enough how big of a project that was for our business, but, um, um, there was those kind of implementations there.

[00:21:39] Uh, for, from my creative side, as I mentioned earlier, it was things like, um, new products, uh, the really more the furniture, um, new ways to buy, um, bringing in. Um, we, I think one, one time we brought an entire truckload of goods here overnight from Austin, Texas, on an Amazon truck. It was amazing and that those are things that I love to think of new ideas and new ways to do things.

[00:22:08] In some ways, groundbreaking. In some ways they’re just groundbreaking for our business, but they’re, they’re new ways and new new paths. Um, um, also with employees, um, you know, for me it’s a, it’s a creative process of figuring out what do people love doing the most? What brings them joy in their day to day work?

[00:22:29] Um, how do they like to work? And really honoring for each person. Um, you know, they, they need some flexibility and they wanna be, they’re gonna be working from home certain times and then they’re here and they’re, you know, it works and we can kind of flow and, um, there’s so many times where I look back and think of my dad supporting me through a lot of those, um, changes and many of them have happened much more quickly in the last two years.

[00:22:53] Um, but um, there was definitely times in the past where, you know, I wanted. Um, there was just needs that I saw the business have and, um, he was able to support me making those decisions and he trusted that I was able to, you know, figure out the ways to do ’em and to have the people to support it. So, um, we, um, and I got to see a lot of that from him too when he, you know, maybe he made a nice, um, you know, stride with a new hire that just brought great business to us or brought a.

[00:23:27] Uh, area to our business or new location, something like that. So, um, anyway, that’s, that’s what I think has been really fun, um, with the two of us. So that’s

[00:23:40] Elizabeth Ledoux: great. Mm-hmm. . Yeah, you two worked so well together. And, and one of the things that we see all the time is where a successor wants to make a lot of changes and do ’em quickly, and the person that’s transitioning, um, is fearful of having things move too quick.

[00:23:58] Right. Because, um, that change, um, there’s, there can be a little bit of a tension between there. And one of the things I. Wanna compliment you on, and also your dad is, you basically did it together. You were very well aligned and, um, moved almost at the exact same rate. Mm-hmm. when you’re going through it.

[00:24:18] And I think that that’s one thing that, when. Our listeners are thinking about going through this process, um, that there’s change on both sides. There’s change from the person who’s leaving that person transitioning and also the successor. But trying to figure out how you can be aligned to move at the same pace is really key to a great transition.

[00:24:37] So absolutely. Yeah, that was nice

[00:24:39] Jennifer Johnson: work. Nice work. I definitely see the vision of passing the baton and you have to be at a similar pace, if not the same pace, in order to really do that successfully. So, um, Yeah. Interesting metaphor for .

[00:24:52] Elizabeth Ledoux: Yeah, definitely . Absolutely. Absolutely. So, okay, so as we wrap up, um, as we wrap up, uh, what one thought would you like to leave our audience with as a successful successor, um, in your business?

[00:25:14] Jennifer Johnson: Let’s see. I would say, um, Trust the process. Um, there’s definitely moments where you think, um, I should be doing something or I should be making some decision. Or sometimes you just have to sit back and you maybe need a new perspective and sometimes things just take more time. So I found it seems like it’s either one or the other.

[00:25:41] And. And so yeah, just trusting that process and, and knowing that it will take time and it may be different than what you think that timeline is going to look like. That’s what I would leave with listening.

[00:25:56] Elizabeth Ledoux: Jennifer, thank you so much for joining us today on our podcast. Um, I, it’s such a pleasure to have you here and, and such an honor.

[00:26:05] So I so appreciate you taking the time to be with us. Jennifer has such a great story and I’m so happy that she was able to share it with all of us today. Um, one thing to think about, I would just echo her last thought is. You do need to trust the process. And it’s very difficult if you think of a, if you think of your transition as just an event, it is very hard, uh, with all of the moving parts to keep it in mind.

[00:26:34] So trusting the process is a big deal. And also, um, to Jennifer’s point earlier in our podcast, being very intentional. About how you walk through it and the conversations and the communication. One of the things I think that Jennifer and her dad Larry had was great communication and a very close relationship.

[00:26:52] So really appreciated that about you. So if you wanna learn more about Jennifer’s company, the link to her website will be down in the show notes. And so feel free to, you know, reach out and learn more about the company. And they have amazing products and lighting and so I encourage you two to check out the store.

[00:27:12] It’s incredible.

[00:27:13] Jennifer Johnson: Thank you so much, Elizabeth. This has been so much fun and I really enjoyed getting a chance to talk about the story and just honor what you, your part in the story for. Together. So thank you.

[00:27:30] Elizabeth Ledoux: You are welcome, Jennifer. It has been my pleasure to know and work with you over the last decade.

[00:27:35] Um, that time has flown. So I’m just so excited for you and for your family and for our community because, you know, one of the things that, um, the reason why we do this work in our mission is to help businesses. Continue to serve the community that they have, the employees that have been there for 40 years and, you know, and all of the Fort Collins area and, and then the greater area on top of that.

[00:28:00] So, um, you’ve just done such an amazing job and yep, very grateful, so. Mm-hmm. , thank you.

The Business Transition Roadmap with Elizabeth Ledoux

How do communities thrive? When businesses experience healthy growth and transition. Join CEO of The Transition Strategists, Elizabeth Ledoux as she and her guests identify what makes a successful business transition roadmap. If you know you want to transition or exit your business “one day”, today is the right day to start planning. This show will give you the roadmap.

If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, you can check out other episodes here: Podcasts – The Transition Strategists
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