FEATURE | Well-Conceived Succession Plans Help Companies Continue Without Missing a Beat
Article Excerpt: St. Louis Construction News and Review, May-June 2022
The art and science of a leadership succession plan manifest when its put into action. Whether scheduled or implemented when the unexpected occurs, leadership succession plans are critically necessary.
In the construction industry, top-tier leadership values succession planning as an integral facet of the overall strategic plan. Leadership succession strategies prove their worth when they are executed successfully, when employees buy into the process and when the plan kicks in without a hitch to keep operations moving forward and morale high. Poettker Construction Company’s succession plan proved its worth amidst tragedy. When company founder Charles V. “Chuck” Poettker lost his life in a tragic accident at Kentucky Lake on a Saturday in mid-July 2021, the Poettker leadership team including Chuck’s four children, Keith, Ryan, Kevin and Kimberly Luitjohan, and long-term employees Tom Albers and Jon Carroll, immediately put into effect the detailed leadership succession plan that Chuck had created years earlier.
“Dad would always say, ‘One day, and I don’t know when, you all will wake up and you will be running this company, and you will run it without me,” said Poettker Chairman and CEO Keith Poettker. We knew that the business was going to thrive even without him, but personally we lost our father, our mentor and leader. For the good of the company, we had to compartmentalize that.”
Chuck Poettker knew how vital a sound succession plan was, his children said, and he proved that with preparation.
Although leadership succession had been part of the boardroom discussions for decades, Poettker Construction’s founder began formalizing the firm’s second-generation succession plan – dovetailing it with an employee leadership plan – in 2010.
“Dad intentionally involved all of us kids in this planning and engaged the help of Dan Beam and the CMA Consultants team,” Keith Poettker said. “The planning included not only the operational facets of leadership, but also strategies for how the board would allow for the transition of leadership and appointment of officers. There’s a lot there in terms of how it all takes place,” he added.
Less than 48 hours after founder Chuck Poettker lost his life on the lake that Saturday in July, Poettker’s succession plan went into full effect. On Monday morning – just two days following the tragedy – all 183 of Poettker Construction’s employees were called together to learn what would happen next.
“We held an all-employee meeting on Moriday, July 19th to reassure everyone that this company would be moving forward without skipping a beat and with all of our strategic initiatives in place,” said Poettker President Ryan Poettker. “I think that meeting really helped a lot in calming our employees. We followed that meeting with a stockholders’ meeting to appoint a new board of directors. Removing uncertainty and keeping everyone calm is paramount.”
Formerly the firm’s president, Keith was immediately promoted to chairman and CEO, the title held by his father, and Ryan was named president, per the dictates of the succession plan. Daughter Kimberly Luitjohan was named executive vice president and CFO, and son Kevin was promoted to vice president of business development. Poettker Construction’s current leadership team totals 12 individuals including a cadre of both family and non-family members. Had there not been a solid leadership succession plan in place when tragedy struck, both Keith and Ryan agreed that the process of moving forward would likely have taken much longer and could have had a different impact on Poettker employees and clients.
“We were able to implement our succession plan within a week and a half of Dad’s death,” said Keith. “Had we not planned for that, it would have been an absolute challenge, a real struggle…and it well could have set the company back, both financially and from a culture and morale perspective. As sad of a time as it was, we really had to push ahead and get out in front of all of that. Because Dad treated all his employees as family, everyone felt the loss.”
No doubt, succession planning is one of the most critical things an organization should have in its playbook, according to Keith and Ryan Poettker. “People probably don’t think about it enough,” said Keith. “Most companies are continually thinking about strategic planning but pairing that with a strong succession plan – one that can take effect at a moment’s notice if the unthinkable occurs – is essential to a company’s ability to survive and thrive.”
A well-crafted succession plan not only serves a company well internally. It also maintains the firm’s relationships with its external partners, Keith said.
“In the construction industry, we have a fairly significant bond and insurance program,” he said. “And we have additional external partners including bankers, our attorney, CPA and others. Succession plans guide us all in moving forward. Conveying the plan to employees and company leadership is essential, but so is conveying it to outside partners so everyone understands what is next for the company and all of us can move forward together.”
A solidified, communicated and understood succession plan keeps a work family together and on mission, according to Ryan.
“You don’t want to have a distraction while you’re grieving and moving through a very difficult time,” he said. “Succession plans that everyone knows and understands keep an organization from becoming dysfunctional.”