Navigating a Family Business Through the Generations

Navigating a Family Business Through the Generations

Growing up with sisters, I longed for a brother. No such luck.

But when I got into the world, I got close to my cousins Keith and Craig Landy, and they became as close as brothers to me. The bonus with my Landy brothers was that they were growing a fascinating family-owned business, Germfree Labs, that I got to watch, and eventually help strategize over.

Germfree is a world leader in manufacturing glass and steel enclosures that contain biological, chemical, and nuclear stuff – think of the most toxic or nasty substances, and Germfree’s the go-to supplier, serving the US Army, NIH, thousands of commercial, government, and hospital customers with products ranging from small gloveboxes you stick your hands in, to fully mobile labs transportable anywhere in the world.

The company got its start thanks to Keith and Craig’s dad, Dr. Jerome Landy, a pediatric surgeon who was unhappy that he had to operate on preemie babies in non-sterile conditions. So, in 1962 he invented a small glass and steel enclosure, now referred to as a glovebox, where he could stick his hands into custom built rubber gloves, and operate on bambinos without contamination.

Fast forward 58 years, and Jerry’s invention had morphed and exploded into hundreds of product lines serving various uses and markets worldwide.

Keith Landy trained as an engineer in college, and his mind naturally gravitated to how to build better and better solutions for more markets. How do you make sure poisonous fumes stay in the enclosure, for example? Laminar flow and negative air pressure solved the problem. Challenges kept delighting Keith. Authorities in Canada were worried after winning the bid for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver – what if a terrorist tried something? They went to Keith to see if he could build a rapid response lab. Keith’s response was the first high security mobile lab helicoptered onsite, ready just in case. Avian flu in Asia – without enough lab test facilities? No problem for Germfree.

I saw Keith navigate those engineering challenges with seeming ease. What was tougher for him was the other dynamics of running a family business. He was close to his father – adored him – but juggling family demands forced him to become deliberate in how and who had authority within his growing company. His role as CEO once his father stepped down was not in question – but everything else about family input was up in the air.

Many family businesses struggle when the business passes to the next generation, and I thought there would be an even bigger challenge in rising above his father’s legacy. Jerry Landy was off-the-charts brilliant, quick witted, sporting top medical credentials – how could Keith ever step into those shoes?

To Keith’s credit – he didn’t even try that approach. He had two saving graces as a second generation CEO. First and foremost was his own set of passions and curious nature as an engineer, which far surpassed his father’s. His mind could work out complex engineering solutions no one had thought of. Having his own journey firmly in place, he never had to second guess himself, even though he had tough years in business as competition came against him with inferior products and inflated claims – something Keith would never allow in his own company.

His second saving grace was an easy, gracious manner, no doubt a product of growing up as a good ‘ole Florida boy.

The Germfree team is beginning a long celebration of Keith’s life and leadership – he was taken from us recently and way too soon. Keith’s leadership of a fast growing family owned company has lessons for all of us.

Next Generation CEOs Need Their Own Passion.

I’m not sure steady-as-she-goes is a strategy for anyone anymore. It’s not that a widget maker has to pivot to veggie burgers, but to the extent a CEO can put their entire force of personality and leadership behind the company’s new or reinvigorated mission – so much the better. Keith never stopped selling gloveboxes to thousands of hospitals and pharmacies around the world. He just expanded the business with his own product lines to keep himself and the company growing and at the top of his industry.

Gentle and Firm Counts for CEOs Dealing with Family Members.

Many family owned businesses get caught up in relationship problems or internal conflict. Keith wasn’t wired to argue, and he wasn’t wired to try to win every argument. Perhaps it was just a natural advantage in having a laid-back demeanor, but it didn’t stop him from being decisive, and growing a $100 million company employing hundreds.

Family Business CEOs Need to Know their Strengths.

Keith had a plan, and he knew his strengths. From the creation of new industry categories of mobile and modular labs, to his decision to recruit a professional board of directors, to his decision to hire a professional president who was not a family member, Keith kept his eye on the long term health and future of Germfree. It can be deceptively easy to slip into too many roles and responsibilities when it is both your family and your business merged into one. Keith mastered both, and so his legacy thrives.

About the Author

Robert Jordan

Robert Jordan is CEO of InterimExecs. He has been launching and growing companies and helping other entrepreneurs do the same for 20 years. His first company, Online Access, put him on Inc. magazine’s Inc. 500 list of fastest growing companies. Online Access, the first Internet-coverage magazine in the world, ran for 10 years and after its sale Jordan launched an interim management team that specializes in corporate development work before beginning InterimExecs to help other companies around the globe.