CEO of the YEAR
Meet these 12 chief executives who fearlessly pursued the opportunities presented by a strengthening economy.
If you meet Scott Altman, chances are the first thing you’ll notice about him is his voice. “He has a wonderful, powerful and commanding voice, which immediately is recognizable,” says Ballet West Artistic Director Adam Sklute. “This gets attention in a room, and it’s very exciting to watch him work.”
That powerful voice is no coincidence: Altman was a professional opera singer for 20 years before starting his career on what he calls “the other side of the desk.” Altman toured and enjoyed a successful career—but ultimately decided to leave performing when he realized other things in his life were more important than that aspect of the arts.
“I have two boys. I’d been married for a couple of years at that point, and it was very difficult to go away as a performer and leave my wife. It simply became impossible to go away when the family came along,” says Altman. “It was right at that same time that I discovered that I could have an impact and find as much joy and fulfillment in the arts from an administrative standpoint.”
Now Altman uses his distinctive voice to move others in a different way—he creates the possibility for art, and specifically Ballet West, to flourish unimpeded by fears that the company won’t be able to pay the bills. Since Altman took over as executive director in 2013, Ballet West, now in its 53rd year, has undergone what Altman and others calls a renaissance: growth in donor development, a 21 percent increase in ticket sales, an expanded tour schedule, a reinvigorated endowment fund, and the continued development of the Ballet West Academy by some 70-80 percent in size. Most importantly—and impressively—Altman eradicated the nonprofit’s longstanding burden of operational debt.
“One of the big priorities was eliminating that debt, which had sat on our books for about 33 years. We completely eliminated the debt,” says Altman. “We have reinvigorated our business infrastructure and sustainability and surrounded the organization with extremely talented individuals in all areas of administration and art… [This has been] a culmination of a renaissance for the organization.”
It’s Altman’s past life as a performer, says Sklute, that gives him a valuable perspective in running Ballet West. Altman is capable of understanding the artistic needs of the company while balancing the business and keeping it sustainable.
“Because he understands the art form of ballet, he’s driven to bring Ballet West to the same heights that I am driven to. This is something that’s very special about his work,” says Sklute. “He knows how to motivate his entire team—all the members of the administration—to really understand the art form and to really help build Ballet West to the greatest heights possible.”
For Altman, it’s all akin to building a house. Only with a solid foundation in the basement can a house remain standing. “The rest of the house is the artistry,” says Altman. “…Nobody needs to see the business. They just need to see the great ballet. And in order to do that, the business has to be sound.”
After moving to Utah in 2005, Jeremy Andrus began his career in the Beehive State with a bang. He joined headphone and speaker company Skullcandy and, under his guidance, that company went from $1 million in sales to $300 million, went public, and the brand was introduced internationally in more than 80 countries. Now Andrus wants to do it again with his new project: Traeger Grills.
“There was one thing about Traeger that really, really compelled me to get involved—and that’s when I called consumers who owned Traeger grills, they loved it. There was a level of passion that I’ve never seen in consumer products before,” says Andrus. “They didn’t say it was the best grill that they’d ever owned; they said it is the best product they ever owned. I loved the passion that existed among Traeger owners.”
Andrus became CEO of Traeger in 2014 and embarked on what he calls “pulling the business apart and putting it back together.” While taking pains to keep the quality and essence of the company together, Andrus set about growing the brand, reforming the company culture, and moving the company’s headquarters from its 28-year home in Oregon to its new headquarters in Sugar House. The company grew nearly 30 percent in 2015 and has negotiated to add 2,500 additional points of distribution.
It’s Andus’ ability to make tough decisions and invest in company culture that makes him particularly effective as a CEO. “Jeremy is a fantastic leader. He leads with team and culture. Jeremy inspires us every day,” says Denny Bruce, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Traeger. “The best thing I can say about him is that he empowers us. He’s not risk-averse. He builds a remarkable team and then empowers us to execute on what we need to get done.”
“I’ve realized that a CEO focuses on vision, team and culture,” says Andrus. “If you can get those three elements of a business right, you win.”
It was Andrus’ experience at Skullcandy that really spurred his passion in the industry. “I love consumer brands, I love consumer products. I love the whole process of concepting a product, developing and building it all the way into the hands of the consumer,” he says. Indeed, Bruce says that part of Andrus’ success is due to his true excitement about the products his company provides.
“He’s really a consumer product guy. In most companies, as you move up in the organization, you become less and less connected to your end consumer,” says Bruce. “What makes Jeremy so good at consumer goods is he just knows what the consumer wants, what they expect from a company, how to be authentic in our communication and marketing to that consumer. He really just gets it. He knows his customer and he knows what it takes to win with them.”
Although Richard Beard came from a banking family—his grandmother was a Barnes from the Barnes Bank family—his route into the banking industry was somewhat circuitous. Beard started his career as a lawyer focused on finance. Bank of American Fork became his client in the late ‘90s, when he helped it form a holding company, People’s Utah Bancorp. From there, he became a legal advisor to the company. In that role, he sat in on board meetings during the bank’s effort to find a successor to the president, Dale Gunther.
That two-year process “came up empty,” says Beard. But the board members quickly embraced a new idea: Beard, although he had no direct banking experience, would make an ideal president of the company. Beard says he was hesitant to take on the challenge and responsibility, but received a great deal of support and mentorship from Gunther, who now serves as vice chairman of the board.
Beard was appointed president and CEO of Bank of American Fork in January 2005, and he has steered the company through boom times and through the Great Recession. Beard says the impact of the recession on the banking industry was devastating, and his goal has been to help community banking survive and thrive in a post-recession world.
“Banking has changed dramatically,” he says. “Twenty years ago, there were about 19,000 banks in the U.S. About 10 years ago, there was about 9,000. Today there’s just over 6,000. So they’re rapidly disappearing—particularly community banks.”
One way to help community banking, he says, is to bring banks under one umbrella in order to consolidate and streamline back-end operations. To that end, People’s Utah Bancorp merged with Lewiston State Bank in 2013. Now, the two wholly owned banks (Bank of American Fork and Lewiston State Bank) are able to operate in their communities—preserving their brands, each over 100 years old—while sharing back-office functions through the holding company, People’s Utah Bancorp.
Just last year, Beard took People’s Utah Bancorp public, with shares selling above the initial offering price. The company, which has 18 branches from Preston, Idaho to St. George, is now the largest community bank in Utah. And despite the recession, it has grown consistently over the past decade and now boasts $1.6 billion in assets. “That gives people a lot of opportunity to grow. It gives our customers an opportunity to do a lot more financing and grow their businesses,” says Beard. “In effect, we are stewards of the community.”
Gunther says a key to Beard’s effectiveness is his keen focus on helping people grow. “Rick has a unique ability to place people first. Customers at the bank come first, and employees are right up there with customers,” says Gunther. “He’s very good at recognizing talents of people, and he’s got a great ability of putting those talents to work on the right seat on the bus.”
For earning a reputation as a businessman with a penchant for exploring new frontiers in the market, Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne’s philosophy hails to the classics.
“It’s all been about old-fashioned principles: sticking to the bottom line, managing tightly and not chasing the latest fad—not chasing what everyone else thought the idea du jour—and just sticking to what we know,” he says.
That doesn’t mean there’s no room for innovation. Among its more recent ventures is the company’s acceptance of cryptocurrancy, such as bitcoin, for purchases. In its early days, Overstock.com was one of the pioneers of data-driven marketing—in 1999, Byrne and Overstock.com marketers discovered each visitor’s location and clicks could be recorded, allowing more targeted ads.
“By that you could take so much of the guesswork out of marketing. You could see where you were spending money and where traffic was coming from, and just optimize that,” he says. “So instead of us fighting about what the best slogan is for some ad, let’s do all five versions that we want to do, put them up and in six hours we have enough data from the people’s click behavior to know which is the best one.”
Overstock.com’s targeted marketing and focus on overstocked goods—a then-overlooked corner of the market—has helped it grow into a juggernaut in the industry. The company has been profitable for six of the last seven years, which is more of an accomplishment when one considers the thin profit margins online retailers operate under, and recently reached $2 billion in revenue.
Byrne’s analytical approach to problem-solving has been a major factor in Overstock.com’s success, says Saum Noursalehi, senior vice president of product development for Overstock.com.
“There would be no Overstock without him. In online retail, margins are really thin, and he’s very data-driven and knows how to solve data-driven problems. We’re one of the few retailers that can produce profits, and it’s because of that focus on data,” he says.
Byrne says he tries to balance trusting managers to do their jobs with maintaining enough of a hands-on approach to keep from becoming a distant figurehead.
“The last thing I want to be is the Dilbert manager in the corner—the pointy-haired guy in the corner who thinks he knows everything and is issuing stupid orders. I want decisions to be made. I know the smartest people, the most informed people, are the people on the front lines. I want to give them all the knowledge and the tools, the technology, the information they need to make decisions, and then free them to make decisions,” Byrne says. “I still have to step in and nudge and cajole a little bit, but it’s really about building institutions and then watching the institutions come to life.”
Beyond the bright possibilities in the future, Byrne says he’s also excited about the expansions the company has been able to launch, such as World Stock, a global marketplace of artisans, and Overstock.com’s tab for animal adoptions, which partners with more than 13,000 groups nationwide to help would-be owners find their perfect pet.
“That’s my ticket to heaven,” he jokes. “No matter what I do, if I’ve got 60,000 cats and dogs who had loving homes because of us, I’m getting in.”
Lew Cramer’s decades-long career has spanned industries and continents. He started out as a lawyer working in Silicon Valley, then became a partner in a Los Angeles firm. During the Reagan Administration, Cramer was selected as a White House Fellow, focused on international business. He served as a sub-cabinet officer to both President Reagan and President George H. W. Bush.
After that time in public service, Cramer joined U.S. West, where he helped bring telecommunications to about 20 countries around the world. After U.S. West was sold to AT&T in 2000, Cramer came to Utah, where, working with Gov. Jon Huntsman and Gov. Gary Herbert, he helped establish the World Trade Center Utah and grow Utah’s export share.
In January 2014, Cramer made the leap back into the private sector, joining CBC Advisors as CEO. Brandon Fugal, chairman of CBC Advisors, says Cramer was the perfect fit for the growing commercial real estate firm. “He’s really one of those few executives that is at the intersection of public and private partnerships, and has demonstrated that over his entire career,” says Fugal. “The ability to bring community leaders together and to help forge relationships with developers and companies in order to help bring growth to the Wasatch Front is really exciting to watch.”
Indeed, Cramer’s tenure with CBC Advisors has ushered in a period of rapid and aggressive growth for the firm. CBC Advisors has been the largest Coldwell Banker Commercial office in the world for the past 12 years running. But in just the last two years, it has grown from 120 brokers to 450, and the number of offices has grown from six to 27 coast to coast.
“[We] look at opportunities of providing high-level advice and counsel to our wonderful clients,” says Cramer, “and that’s resulted in a lot of synergies, because the property business and the brokerage business and the investment business and the mergers and acquisitions business—all those kinds of things we do work together to build a greater company.”
Fugal describes Cramer as “an ambassador to business,” and Cramer views his role in much the same way. “My role is to make sure that people realize—around the world—that Utah and the Intermountain West—and now as we expand around the country—that we’re open for business here,” he says. “And we want to ensure that real estate is one of the investment opportunities that people take advantage of.”
Cramer’s national and international connections have enabled him to guide international investment funds, national institutional investors and Fortune 500 companies to the Utah market. In 2015, CBC Advisors posted historic financials and essentially quadrupled the size and scale of every department in the firm. Cramer also spearheaded the acquisition of CBC Alliance, a firm with offices in first tier markets within New York, California, Florida and others.
“We want to be a top five national firm someday,” says Cramer. “That sounds audacious today, but with the consolidation that’s taking place in America, we believe we have the platform and the individuals and the philosophy and the values to make that happen.”
You won’t find Wallace T. Davis, founder and CEO of consumer reporting agency Peopletrail, hanging out in what he calls “the O-zone.” That space, where Davis says executives often linger, separates the c-suite from the rest of the company—and is exactly where a good CEO should not be.
“I like to get down and meet with people, see how things are going, understand what they’re doing every day,” he says. “The bottom line is the work that gets done is done by the regular workforce. While I can make strategy decisions and high-level decisions, really, the work that’s being done directly with our clients is by the employees down there working every day. A good leader is one that isn’t afraid of getting down and making things happen.”
Staying involved is a huge part of Davis’ philosophy. His company, Peopletrail, now 10 years old, is now one of the fastest-growing and most highly rated firms in the industry. In 2015, revenue was up 48 percent, nine new positions were added, and Peopletrail is now in the process of implementing a new business intelligence program with proprietary data analytics. Peopletrail is also accredited by the National Association of Professional Background Screeners’ rigorous program.
“[Davis] expects excellence,” says Bryan Jensen, COO of Peopletrail. “He always wants to push us to the next level. He sets very clear expectations and goals for the company, including himself. It’s nice to have a leader that’s leading by example.”
That high level of quality control is particularly important for Peopletrail, says Jensen, because of the type of company it is. “In the type of business we’re in, quality really matters, because we’re dealing with individual’s lives. As we do background investigations, we want to make sure they’re accurate, complete and thorough. There really are no shortcuts. With that leadership style of excellence … it carries through all levels of our corporation,” he says.
To continually improve, Davis says he is constantly striving to learn more. Only by staying grounded and frequently refreshing their education can a person stay on top of industry trends and changes, and continuously better their company and community.
“Even though you’re at the top, the CEO level, there’s always something to learn,” Davis says. “You can always learn more about your industry. You can learn more about products. You can learn about industry trends. You don’t always know it all.”
Still, for Davis, success is not only measured by the high performance of his company. Jensen says he is continually impressed by Davis’ ability to be balanced in all measures of his life: as a father, a husband, in his community and hobbies. “Wally is very active in many facets of life. He doesn’t just run a business,” says Jensen. “He’s very much a family man, which I respect. I think his life is extremely balanced, which I look up to.”
For Dave Elkington, success means helping others succeed—literally. The CEO and chairman of InsideSales.com has made a business of helping other businesses sell more, and Elkington enjoys the opportunity to help others reach their goals within his organization, as well.
“It’s very challenging to create the alignment and the strategy and empower people at the same time to drive that success and help people achieve those personal goals while still driving the company’s initiative,” he says. “I love when I see somebody accomplish their goals, I love when I see somebody overcome a challenge, but it’s also one of the hardest things I do.”
InsideSales.com started in 2004 when Elkington and a partner saw a new way to spur sales through scouring data to help target customers most likely to be interested in the product. Their analysis of that data has helped some of its clients increase sales by more than 30 percent.
Zeta Venture Partners was the company’s first investor in 2011 after it had been bootstrapped for several strong years. Mark Gorenberg, managing director of the firm, says Elkington’s connection with his employees, clients and partners, and his dedication to the job have worked hand in hand as strong contributors to his success.
“Dave is immensely charismatic. He is very driven, but he always backs it up. He is always able to set a high bar, he’s able to get a team together to mount that hill, to achieve that bar … He has great loyalty to his people, and the people in the company have great loyalty back to him,” Gorenberg says. “[Dave] views everyone as a partner. We as investors feel like partners, the executives feel like partners, everyone at the company feels like partners, the companies that they work with feel like partners.”
In March 2015, InsideSales.com scored valuable partnerships with Salesforce and Microsoft, including a $60 million investment round. The year also brought two acquisitions and revenue growth near 100 percent. The company opened a London office and now has 650 employees in Utah, California and the UK.
Elkington says the journey has been fraught with challenges, including a loss of a line of credit with the economic collapse in 2008. But times of trouble can also be times of great opportunity and growth. “Every time you’re faced with a challenge, whether it’s in your career or in your family life or with your friends, I think those who succeed have to pivot and have to kind of take the lessons learned from that.”
Of course, learning those lessons before the crisis would have helped to avoid it, Elkington says, but that’s the funny thing about hard-earned knowledge.
“The irony of being an entrepreneur and being a CEO is if you knew then what you know now, you’d never do it, so you have to go through these lessons,” Elkington says. “You have to have some degree of blind ambition, coupled with belief and faith. You have to be an optimist. I wish I knew everything but I’m glad I didn’t know any of it.”
For Richard Hunt, a lifetime spent in the electrical contracting industry was a natural fit. “I’ve always been interested in mechanical things,” he says. “At an early age, my grandfather had a workshop and he was generous enough to allow me to go down and work in his shop and, as he would say, dull his tools.”
That early tinkering developed into a teenage fascination with cars and their engines. “Electrical is really a progression,” Hunt explains. “It’s assembly of parts and pieces; and you put things together and hit a switch, and a light goes on or a motor starts. It’s the ultimate in immediate gratification.”
Hunt became an apprentice in the electrical industry and landed an opportunity to wire multi-family complexes as a piece worker—he was paid based on the number of units wired. That experience, he says, laid the foundation for the productivity-based culture at Hunt Electric.
“A lot of our processes today stem from those early days of being efficient,” he says. “Later the term ‘lean construction’ was adopted and became really popular in the construction industry. And really it’s no different from being a piece worker: You’re basically being efficient with how you’re moving materials and completing work—and no wasted time.”
After 10 years working in the electric industry, Hunt founded Hunt Electric in his garage. The company is celebrating its 30-year anniversary this year, but most of its explosive growth has come within the last decade.
Troy Gregory, president of the company, says Hunt Electric only had 20 employees when he came onboard 13 years ago. Since then, he’s watched Hunt grow the company into eight divisions with more than 400 employees. “[Hunt is] very keen on picking up what the needs are in the industry and being able to grow into those different areas,” says Gregory.
Just within the last year, Hunt Electric expanded its footprint in the Denver area with a new office, entered into a joint venture with Brahma Group to focus on renewable energy projects, and grew its employee base by 148 percent.
Gregory says one factor that’s enabled the success and growth is Hunt’s focus on mentoring leaders within the company. Several years ago, Hunt began a process of cultivating young leaders and positioning them within the organization in order to ensure the health and longevity of the company.
Soon after that process began, Hunt decided to sell shares in the company to his key employees—and he says that proved to be one of his best business decisions. “I wanted to sell stock when I was still engaged in the day-to-day operations and still felt that I was viable,” he says. Hunt Electric now has 11 shareholders who are committed to its success.
Of the company’s many achievements, Hunt says he’s most proud of its safety record. “We set a goal of 4 million man hours without a lost-time accident, and we achieved that goal last year, which in our industry is very difficult to do.”
A few years ago, Pluralsight co-founder and CEO Aaron Skonnard was on a flight back home to Utah from Europe when he had an epiphany—the company could take its already-successful technology education model and make it accessible to a much larger group of people.
“I realized there was an opportunity to take instructor-led training—teaching people about technology in a classroom—and take it online,” he says. “It was a key moment in Pluralsight history.”
That move has led to Pluralsight’s explosive growth, putting the CEO who is passionate about education on a pretty steep learning curve—and he loves it.
“As a first-time CEO in a fast-growth company, I’m constantly navigating uncharted territory. Every day is a new experience; there are new things to learn. That’s what really gets me out of bed in the morning is that chance to learn new things and learn more things as an individual and an organization,” he says.
Skonnard’s passion, coupled with his clear vision of what the company could be, is infectious among his employees, says Pluralsight CFO Greg Woodward.
“Aaron motivates people in a way unlike I’ve seen other CEOs do,” he says. “He is very clear on his vision with people in such a way that everybody in the organization knows what the vision of the organization is, what our strategy is. He gets people excited about that vision, as well, and it is easy to get excited about our vision because we are democratizing professional technology learning and … [that] impacts people’s lives.”
Just in the past year, the company’s revenue has grown by 60 percent. This comes on the heels of some significant acquisitions for Pluralsight—seven in the past two years. Some of the more recent acquisitions include learning assessment company Smarterer, live mentoring program HackHands, and Code School. In addition, Skonnard led the company’s expansion with a new category of courses—computer-aided design and engineering.
Although Skonnard relishes the challenges that come along with rapid growth, he admits there are hurdles he could never have anticipated. “There’s just a lot of change that happens,” he says. “It’s one thing when you’re 20, 30, 40 people; it’s another thing when you’re 200, 300, 400, 500 people, and going through that has been a big challenge for us. It’s been fun, it’s been exciting, but it’s definitely been challenging.”
In a way, though, tackling seemingly impossible goals—and then making new impossible goals—and overcoming the accompanying challenges is the only way to succeed.
“You have to think big and have big, hairy, audacious goals and have a big North Star; you have to have a lot of clarity. And then you have to lead your organization around that vision with clarity—over-communicate what you’re doing, why you exist, what you’re trying to accomplish with this company. The last thing is you have to do, as a company, as a leader, is to learn faster than anyone else, and that’s your biggest advantage by far,” he says. “If you have a big vision and you’re happy and you’re making progress, the other metrics will follow—revenue and profits and the accolades of the community.”
John Sperry co-founded InMoment in 2002, at a time when investment funding was essentially non-existent in Utah. So he bootstrapped the business, a decision that he says laid the foundation for the company’s long-term viability and for its unique culture.
“Because we bootstrapped the company, that creates a certain kind of in-the-foxhole mentality where everybody has put in something to make the business successful,” says Sperry. “So it’s not just me trying to be concerned about the culture of the company—it’s everybody.”
The customer experience optimization firm has grown from a small startup to a global operation with offices in Canada and the UK. Even with a workforce of over 320 people, Sperry says it’s still important to vet every new hire to make sure they will fit into InMoment’s culture and help move it forward.
One challenge to preserving that culture came in 2013, when the company purchased its largest competitor, Empathica, and faced the task of incorporating that company’s 180 employees into the InMoment culture. But Sperry says Empathica had “complementary technology and people,” so the integration was painless.
Lonnie Mayne, president of InMoment, says Sperry keeps the entire team motivated with his upbeat, can-do attitude. “John is incredibly loyal to people and gets the best out of them by building trust,” says Mayne. “He’s also one that believes in having a good time. He works hard, but he plays hard, as well. And people want to be part of that. … Working with him, you feel like you can fly to the moon and back, multiple times a day.”
That focused effort has led to 115 consecutive months of profitability for InMoment. The company had a remarkable year in 2015, growing its revenue by more than 15 percent. It launched a new product, the Active Listening Suite, and seven months later issued it in 90 languages. The company also forged a partnership with UK-based Voxpopme to provide InMoment’s clients with a complete range of video capture and analytics capabilities.
“I’m so appreciative of the people that put their time in to help grow the business—and put their hearts in,” says Sperry. “You can always pay somebody to work, but it’s really hard to get their heart. I’m lucky enough to be with people that have put their hearts in.”
Sperry’s appreciation for his employees is more than just lip service. At last year’s company Christmas party, for example, Sperry sent employees to Costco with a $500 gift card, and then he dressed up as Buddy from the movie Elf and gleefully distributed bags of candy to employees’ children, posed for pictures with them, and took the time to get to know employee families.
Looking into the future, Sperry says he’s bullish about his company’s prospects. “Ten years ago, how much power did the consumer have versus what they have today? That’s our industry. We’re in the industry of empowering the consumer, and of helping businesses listen to that feedback,” he says. “Well, fast forward 10 years now to the future, and say, what’s the consumer going to be able to do? And businesses that truly listen to the consumer, what are they going to be able to do?”
Someday ended up being December 2009, and since then, Whitehead has brought her energy and tenacity to Citywide, helping guide the company toward immense growth. In the last year alone, Citywide saw an increase in assets by 40 percent, a 47 percent growth in equity and a 37 percent increase in production. When Whitehead began working at the company, Citywide had 100 employees—now, she oversees 700.
“When Teresa came to our company, it was a very small company. When she took over being CEO, the company probably grew at least three to four times,” says Gorman. “How she achieved that was just consistent hard work, dedication, [and] the ability to force people to really look at themselves and see how they can continue to grow.”
Her work ethic, integrity and stellar memory have also led to her becoming what Gorman calls the company’s “den mother,” a moniker Whitehead embraces.
“Our joke around the office is that I’m the work mom to 700 people. That’s really what it feels like,” says Whitehead. “…We put people in houses. It’s very gratifying. We have made a lot of people’s lives better than they used to be. If you go with the mom analogy, there’s nothing better than watching your kids get bigger and better. And that’s what it feels like, every day.”
Still, the industry has certainly had its ups and downs. With the perspective of having worked with mortgages for nearly 25 years, Whitehead says the past nine years have been particularly trying. It was Citywide’s ability to adjust, have a plan and put that plan into motion that kept them afloat, she says. Furthermore, she says learning from challenges makes planning for the next one easier.
“[Challenges] happen all the time. I think the biggest thing is when something not good, something hard comes at you, to take a breath and think it through and give yourself a minute before you react and do something,” says Whitehead. “The natural inclination, at least for me—and I think for most strong-willed people—is that something happens and you just dive into it. I think I would have done that more five years ago than I do now. Just slow down for a second. Let the dust settle. Then make the decision.”
Gorman says it’s Whitehead’s thorough knowledge of the industry that keeps Citywide Home Loans growing when others have faltered. “She’s been around for 25 years in our industry. She didn’t come into our company as a new person. She’s really fitting because it’s in her DNA,” he says. “She bleeds and lives mortgages. She knows more about mortgages and banking than any person in our whole company, including any underwriter [or] processer … She can do anybody’s job, if she wanted to.”
It’s one thing to run a successful business, but it’s quite another to run a successful generational family business in a rapidly changing market. Spencer Young is doing just that as the third-generation president of Young Automotive Group, leading the 91-year-old company while preparing for the fourth generation to take it into the future.
“Generational businesses are very dynamic. They have unique issues and are very delicate, and [the question is] how to mesh family issues and succession planning with other managers that are equally important,” he says. “Right now, our short- and long-term vision is transferring from my generation to the fourth generation successfully, and then continued growth to give the next level of managers opportunities to grow.”
Continued growth has been a hallmark of Young’s tenure as CEO. When he became CEO in 1985, the company was a single Chevrolet franchise. Now, Young Automotive Group includes nine dealerships representing 13 vehicle brands, the Rocky Mountain Raceways, a portfolio of related companies and more than 100 acres of commercial real estate.
Ideally, the transition from the third generation to the fourth will be a little smoother than when Young took the reins—his father, coming out of a difficult divorce, gave the keys to Young while he took five years away from the business. With that baptism by fire, Young learned the ropes quickly. One early lesson was that while cash flow is necessary to pay the bills, the correct encouragement and handling of personnel is vital to make a business succeed.
“My passion is taking a group of people … and bringing them to a level of success and profitability and making that business work. My passion is team effort,” he says. To that end, Young created the Young Automotive Group University, an internal training program available to all employees that allows them to become qualified for advanced roles within the company.
Winslow Young, marketing manager for Young Automotive Group and one of six fourth-generation Youngs working at the company, says self-improvement is a lesson his father has taught throughout his life, both by word and by example.
“He sets goals for himself year by year, and every day creates steps and is relentless about making progress in every aspect of his life,” Winslow Young says. “Growing up, he helped us be very goal-oriented. Every year we’d have to set goals, as young as when we were 5, and write those goals. He’d hold us accountable and make sure that we held ourselves accountable to those goals, and he helps people do that in our organization, as well.”
Young says he’s confident in the future of the company, and the tweaks the market has demanded be made to the business model are exciting challenges to be overcome. The company recently devoted more resources to developing its fleet program. As alternative fuels and power sources become more available, the question of what will drive the cars of the future is still unanswered. The emergence of autonomous vehicles and speculation around car-sharing services raise questions about the long-term viability of dealerships.
“What’s exciting and what I get passionate about is how to change with those things coming close to us,” Young says. “Those changes are kind of fun to look at and anticipate and build a team around to address and change with what’s changing the business.”