An advisory board or consultant also can help companies weigh the importance of industry-specific skills versus leadership qualities. “Family-owned businesses often will look to the outside for the technical skill set needed if it is not currently found, or being developed, in the next generation,” says Brad Baumann, CPA, principal of CliftonLarsonAllen LLP, a wealth advisory and accounting firm. “An outside perspective can bring a lot of value to an organization, but that must be tempered with the culture of the businesses. It is also important to realize that there can be a significant difference between technical skills and leadership.”

Given the technical nature of the composites industry it may seem tempting to hire based on this skill set, but often these processes are so niche that it’s necessary to provide product-specific training to new hires. For this reason, Mar-Bal, as well as manufacturer Strongwell Corporation, passed to leaders who fit the company culture and could provide a broader perspective based on market need for growing these companies in the future.

A Competitor Comes In

While Strongwell traces its roots back through predecessor companies as far as 1924, it was in 1993 that John Tickle acquired the company from Shell Oil Co. He relaunched it as an independent, private company, then later renamed it Strongwell in 1997. Tickle had worked for the company since the early 1970s and created a strong vision for it, focused on pultrusion. But when it came time to develop a succession plan, Tickle looked to an outsider – from the aluminum industry.

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Strongwell CEO David Oakley, right, speaks with Dennis Martin, director of Virginia operations, about a pultruded fiberglass profile in the company’s Bristol, Va., corporate offices. Photo credit: Strongwell

“The Tickles and my family had been family friends for years, so I’ve known John since I was very young,” shares David Oakley, who took over as CEO of Strongwell in 2011. Oakley’s early background was in the appliance industry. He worked in marketing for Maytag fresh out of the University of Tennessee before taking positions in sales and marketing and, later, as president of aluminum pole manufacturer HAPCO Pole Products. As Tickle and Strongwell COO Keith Liskey began building succession plans, they turned to Oakley. “We talked for three or four months, and the rest is history,” Oakley says.

Oakley’s perspective coming from a competitive industry has provided unique insight into his current position. “A lot of the markets and some of the customers are the same,” he says. “I was familiar with the material because I competed against it, so I knew the advantages of fiberglass.” Moreover, Oakley had worked on the Strongwell pultrusion floor in high school and did his college marketing internship with the company as well. “I was a little more familiar with the process than some might be,” he says.