Sisters Are Leading W.S. Badger Co. As Co-CEOs

W.S. Badger Co. co-CEOs Rebecca Hamilton (L) and Emily Schwerin-Whyte.

Rebecca Hamilton and Emily Schwerin-Whyte are sisters, but their relationship extends beyond siblinghood— the two have recently taken over as co-CEOs of their family business, New Hampshire-based natural body care product company W.S. Badger Co.

W.S. Badger Co. founder and former CEO Bill Whyte created the company in 1995 and stepped aside last month, leaving his daughters to lead the business into the future. The sisters are no strangers to the ins and outs of Badger’s business, having been with the company for the past decade, with Schwerin-Whyte as VP of Sales and Marketing and Hamilton as VP of Research and Product Development.

Hamilton and Schwerin-Whyte are retaining their previous roles while sharing the title of CEO, which means something a bit different at Badger—chief collaborative officer.

“Emily and I have been here for more or less the last 10 years, and over that time the plan has always been that we would take on the leadership of the company,” Hamilton says. “It has been a slow transition, but the first step in it was to bring us up in leadership side by side with our parents, then to build a leadership team around us. And by the time we’ve actually made this formalized, symbolic transition, we’ve actually created a structure which is far more collaborative than a typical CEO role in a company.”

Chief Executive spoke with Hamilton and Schwerin-Whyte about the challenges of running a family business, the similarities and differences in their leadership styles and how their past experience will help them as CEOs. Here are highlights from the conversation:

How their past experience will impact them as CEOs

Schwerin-Whyte: It helps to understand the structure of Badger—because it’s a small business and we’ve been here for 10 years, we have been part of CEO-level decisions for years. So we do have our specific areas that are kind of our day job, what we do day-to-day in our primary areas, but we have been part of decisions around whether or not we expand our facilities, how we take our product line, what markets we expand into. We really are a part of and have been a part of all of those types of decisions for a number of years. And, yes, we have more of a focus in those specific areas, but I think we really are generalists and have been part of all company-wide decisions.

Hamilton: Additionally, I think what it is really good about the current structure is we have co-CEOs as leaders, but we also have a strategy team, which includes the heads of each department, and we work together on the day-to-day running of the company. So we get in-the-moment input from people who are on the ground in the different departments when we make decisions, and we are able to do what we would call a loose consensus-based decision-making process for day-to-day operational decisions that are beyond a department level, but are not long-term visionary and strategic decisions. And Emily and I have always brought the perspective of our different departments.

The challenges and benefits of running a family business

Schwerin-Whyte: We have worked together, different combinations of our family members, really since the beginning of the business. And probably around seven years ago, as we were working more and more together and ran into just the typical friction you would experience with family members in a workplace, we decided that we should have some coaching around it. And we did a year-long process that was designed to help us work together as family members in the business setting. And it made a tremendous difference in just how we could work through those conflicts you can have with people you’re very close with, but doing so in a way that works professionally for a growing business.

I think we’ve always seen that the benefits outweigh the challenges, especially at Badger which is a mission-based business. When you have family members, we’ve grown up with the values that are a priority at Badger as our personal values in our family. And having leadership that is that aligned around mission and principle, it’s something that I think is a challenge for other businesses, but in our family business, is one of our strengths that we really don’t waver from what we believe is the right thing to do because we have a set of shared values. I think that’s what makes it worth it—to go through that work of figuring out how you work together when you also have all of your personal life together. It’s worth it because of that, the strength of the shared mission and values.

Hamilton: The other benefit that we found—and we didn’t see this right away—is that each family member brings a completely different set of skills and strengths to the company. So when we first started working together, it was frustrating because everyone was different. Even though our mission and values were aligned, we had different approaches, but through working together over time, what we found is that we could rely on each different member of the family for their strength. And by doing that, we’re able to work as a much stronger collaborative team.

The difference now, between when our father was CEO and the shift to having us as the CEOs, is that we’re really taking a lead on decisions. So we still have their support, just like when they were taking lead on decisions they would have our support. We still have the collaborative approach and the strength that comes from each one of us. When our father started the company, his core strength is as a visionary and as an entrepreneur, so he was the perfect person to start the company. We actually have a lot more strength in the larger company operational side, so having the family members come in allowed us to maintain family leadership while adding many different strengths that he didn’t have as an entrepreneur.

The evolution of company culture at Badger

Schwerin-Whyte: I think the best way to describe the culture at Badger is that it’s more like a community than a typical workplace. So we do the types of things that you do when you create community, you find ways to share meals. We provide an organic lunch to everyone. We shut the phones off so everybody eats together every day. And it’s something like that that you would find in any community that you form, you find ways to have communal connections, and so lunch is the key part that I think has built that community feel. But when you walk around Badger, you see it in a lot of other ways.

We have a Babies at Work program that allows parents to bring infants with them for the first six months of their life to work and that’s something that came out of a need of one employee, but it’s something that’s held by the community, because when you bring a baby to work, you need the support and understanding of your co-workers. Oftentimes, you have people who are taking your baby while you’re in a meeting or on a call, and all of the programs help to support the impulse, which is that we are more than a company, that we’re a community. And if we’re going to spend this much of our life here, this should be a place where you have respectful relationships with your co-workers, you have fun as well as have the commitment from everyone to work hard and work as team members. I think it all feeds into that feeling of being in a community, more than just being at a job.

Hamilton: A lot of times people ask us about what our hope for growth is, or whether we have specific ideas of what we want the future to look like, and what we’ll often answer is that “Really, our hope is that we continue to deepen our mission, our company culture and that where we go is less important than how we do it.” We have in our mission that money is a fuel and not the goal, and in brief, our mission is to create genuine products, runs a healthy business, and to make a positive difference in the world. So we’re really striving to hold that and have it actually be authentic, not just something that is a mission that’s stuck on our website but is actually something that we live and breathe every day in all of our actions. We feel we’re successful in each year and in how we’re growing, we’re able to do a better job at that and to have it be more of authentic with each year.

How their leadership styles have evolved over the past decade at Badger

Schwerin-Whyte: I started at Badger really from day one. When I came back at the time, it was after college, and I started just working over the summer answering phones. And I then created our first Customer Service Department out of perceiving the need for more organization around how we answer customer calls and took care of customers. And because of how I started, I’ve always felt that one of the most important values is in authentically understanding the work of the people who work for me and leading out of an appreciation that even if that’s not my job anymore, that every one of those jobs is a job that we would step up to do if needed and that every part in the company plays a really important role.

Rebecca has similarly worked in various departments, and I think that the experience of valuing all of the different parts is something that has played into how we see leadership. And it’s part of our culture, as well, that we see a leader as somebody who is supporting their team rather than more the top-down model. And I think it’s really important to think about it that way because it’s not just the leadership that we are offering in our positions, but it’s the leadership that all of our different team leaders and supervisors and managers, they’re following that example of saying, “Your job isn’t to tell people what to do, your job is to figure out how to support your teams in being successful because you’re an advocate as a leader. And it is your job to see the big picture, but always hold that understanding and appreciation for that day-to-day experience of the people who work for you.” So that’s my perspective. You’ll see because we’re two, unique different people that we have different answers. We’re often very aligned but have a different perspective.

Hamilton: I would agree with a lot of what Emily said. In my team, I have a lot of really highly technical people. And so, in more recent years, as we’ve grown as a company, my focus has been to hire people who I think are smarter than I am and then support them in every way I can to offer them additional training. But I really take their advice on a lot of things, and there is mutual respect. And so I have the experience of having created the structure that they’re working in, but they bring in expertise as well. And so this comes back to our title of the Collaborative Executive Officers, and we see ourselves as having a responsibility for the whole company, which sets us apart. But we see that there’s a leader in every person at every level of the company, and we want to work collaboratively with that. There is a big difference in what our leadership is, but it’s more of a collaborative approach than a typical CEO approach.

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Patrick Gorman :Patrick Gorman is managing editor of Chief Executive magazine and Corporate Board Member magazine. He is based in Stamford, CT.