The Secrets of Corporate Longevity

One of the keys at large, publicly traded companies like General Electric, Kier says, is the practice of identifying and grooming high-potential managers from within. “CEOs come from within and stay a long time,” she says. These annual systems of evaluating high potentials, also seen at Johnson & Johnson, IBM and other top public companies, are essential to building in durability for the company as a whole. “If you know that your future is well planned out and you are part of that planning, it certainly is going to be a sustaining factor,” Kier concludes.

Kier says she sees different longevity formulas in private versus public companies. “It’s a special formula with a family owned company,” she continues. “There is a spirit and almost a faith in wanting to do what’s right, not just for their own family and their ownership structure, but for the people who work for them. There is a soul that emanates from a family company when you realize you have a lot of people counting on you.”
That’s a philosophy embodied by Franklin Park, Illinois-based Bretford Manufacturing. Christopher Petrick’s grandfather founded the company in 1948, just after World War II. His father, David, next ran the company; but at age 48, he stepped back to become chairman of the board. In his place, he installed a non-family member as managing director, while he waited to see if his son, Chris, would be able to take the job.

Three years ago, Chris, after working his way up the ranks, became CEO of the privately held company, which sells tens of millions of dollars worth of technology-compatible furniture for schools and businesses each year and employs 350 people. Now, it’s up to the 46-year-old to continue building the company and hopefully keeping it alive for the next generation. He knows history isn’t kind to third-generation, family-business leaders, who often aren’t as committed or as successful as their forebearers. “Third generations blow it,” Petrick sighs. “That’s been hanging over my head since the day I started.”