The Best-laid Plans

Bringing Succession Plans to Life

John Coon

May 6, 2013

Tom Carlin knew one day he would take on a new role as CEO at Inovar. Wedding bells caused that day to arrive much sooner than he originally expected.

Blake Kirby, a majority owner along with Carlin, decided to step aside as CEO after 13 years when he got engaged. Kirby wanted to move to California with his new wife and leave the day-to-day operations in Carlin’s hands.

The good news is Carlin was perfectly positioned to take over running Inovar. For four years, he had worked as president of the Logan-based electronic manufacturing services firm. Carlin began his transition to CEO a full 12 months before he officially took on that role last November.

It became the worst-kept secret at Inovar. But it also allowed the company to train Carlin’s replacement at his former position and prepare other employees to step up into new executive team roles.

 “We did a very good job of preparing people for their roles,” Carlin says. “People were excited to get into it and we counted on that well.”

Formulating a succession plan is a basic part of doing business. But those plans can take on new life once they are executed. While a succession plan starts out in a certain direction on paper, it does not always end up going that same direction once put into action.

Cultivating the Right Talent

Succession plans are impossible to execute properly without doing a significant amount of groundwork ahead of time. It starts with a company making sure it has recruited the right talent within the ranks.

 “The way to build succession plans is to build the individual, and then the individuals build the business,” says Joe Atkin, CEO of Goal Zero, a creator of portable solar power systems.

Atkin knows firsthand how this process works. He traveled a careful road to the top post of Goal Zero. Initially, Atkin worked as a senior manager at Sorensen Capital, a shareholder in Goal Zero. He came to the company on loan and worked in various executive roles.

When Atkin was named company president in October 2010, he possessed a deeper understanding of how everything worked at the Bluffdale-based company. His predecessor, Goal Zero founder Robert Workman, put Atkin’s knowledge to the test right away by moving to Europe for three months and leaving the company completely in Atkin’s  hands.

The move worked out brilliantly. Atkin helped Goal Zero grow by leaps and bounds—going from generating less than $1 million in revenue before he took over as president to $60 million in projected revenue for 2013.

Atkin had the right background to inspire this sort of faith. He started four businesses before joining Goal Zero and had previously served as an executive for several businesses that generated $1 – $70 million in annual revenue. Still, Atkin felt like it was a smart move for Workman to bring him in and let him take smaller steps to learn the inner workings of the company instead of handing Atkin the keys to the car right away. 

 “You don’t need to do every function in the business, but you need to be willing to do every function,” Atkin says. “It’s good that you have that experience and you’ve been able to see those pieces of the business. It allows you to lead so much better because you can relate. It’s a symphony. It takes everyone to be excellent at what they’re doing.”

A similar philosophy guides the development of each CEO at Standard Optical. Four generations of the Schubach family have run the business since it was founded by Henry Schubach in 1911. Each time a new generation has taken over company operations, they have followed an identical blueprint in getting to the top.

It starts with earning a college degree and continues with earning relevant work experience in the family business. For the Schubach family, leadership is not an inheritance. Each family member has had to earn the right to lead through working at the company and taking a hands-on approach to building Standard Optical.

 “There were no surprises when we came to work here,” says Stephen Schubach, president and CEO of Standard Optical. “We knew what it took to work in it. We knew how to work in a retail environment or in a lab environment. It was good for all of us because we did it. I knew I didn’t just want to be a production guy in the lab. I wanted to aspire to something more than that, but I also knew I needed to learn it. I wanted to sell eyewear. I wanted to understand finances.”

Building talent within the ranks creates the strongest succession plans. Internal employees typically already know the culture and needs of a business. It also creates a secure environment for employees because they know career development is possible within a company.

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