Exiting: In a Family Way

Exiting: In a Family Way
by Barbara Manzi

In 1991, when I was laying the foundation for the company that would become my metals distributorship, Manzi Metals, Inc., I was making my routine cold calls when I reached a buyer for a local company that gathered raw materials used in computer circuit boards.

The buyer just happened to be my son Louis’ supervisor, and he confided that he was planning to groom Louis to become an assistant buyer, having found him to be a diligent and intelligent worker. At that moment, a light bulb went off in my head: “Bingo!” I thought.

I was looking for a sales person myself – to learn the metals business – and who better than my son? Louis was 22 at the time, just out of a four-year stint in the Navy, newly married, and chafing under the restraints of a salary that didn’t go far enough to support the needs of a young family.

An Offer He Couldn’t Refuse
So I made Louis an offer he couldn’t refuse – actually, I paid him part of the New York-sized salary that I was earning as the majority partner in another metals distributorship. My husband and I had just relocated to Florida, and Louis realized that the sum would go much further in our new locale than in the New York City area.

That was about a dozen years ago. These days at Manzi Metals, Louis is vice president in charge of sales and operations – indeed, he is the company’s only vice president. More importantly, he is my designated successor to take over the leadership of the company.

In short, you might say that Louis is the succession plan that I have put in place for Manzi Metals, which specializes in distributing steel, aluminum and high-temperature exotic alloys to the aerospace industry, the Department of Defense, and other large corporations. In a broader sense, it is family to which I have entrusted the future of my company.

Two Banned Words
A family-centered succession plan has a lot to do with two words that I’ve banned from my vocabulary. The first is “sale.” As an African American woman who grew up in a Cape Verdean family of 12, I had always dreamed of having my own business. Thus, I couldn’t imagine selling unless the company was doing so poorly that a sale was the only way out, which is definitely not the case.

In the past year, annual revenue has increased to $3.25 million. We have a staff of 13 talented and dedicated workers. As for profitability, our accountant recently remarked that we should consider reinvesting – in upgraded equipment, better benefits, perhaps to buy our building – to avoid paying more than our fair share of taxes.

My second banned word is “retire.” I’ve worked for the better part of a decade to secure the clients that are my company’s backbone and to put in place a mandate for the highest quality service, which for us is ISO-9002. Only recently have I begun to enjoy the entrepreneurial day to day experience- doing the presentations, talking to buyers – from the perspective of an owner who now has the wisdom that comes with maturity. Though the calendar might indicate that retirement should be in my not-so-distant future, I have no current plans to leave.

In sum, the words I’ve banned from my thinking rule out the most typical exit for company founders – and point to the alternative that I have chosen.

Keeping the Faith, Striving for Trust
Other factors have also influenced my decision. A decade ago, in the partnership in which I had a controlling interest, I was chagrined to find myself tied to a partner who turned out to be unethical. It was all I could do to break from that arrangement as expeditiously as possible.

Subsequently, I entered into a partnership with a second individual, who sold our metals in Massachusetts, and I found that this person’s emphasis was solely on profit. In my business, I have put the emphasis on the highest quality service to customers, believing that the money will follow if that business basic is in place. Similarly, I felt compelled to break off that association.

In turning to a family member, I have eliminated a host of complicated or unseemly issues with partners that I simply don’t need. I’m not worried about my son learning the business on our dime only to take off – perhaps with a client or two – for a company of his own. And I can be fully assured that his standards mirror my own when it comes to our commitment to setting the gold standard for service in our industry.

In a Family Way
I can’t say there aren’t issues when you’re grooming a family member for the leadership of a company. From the beginning, Louis threw himself into every aspect of the business, from learning the metals to mastering the nuances of cold calling. From my son-in-law, who has a degree from MIT, Louis gleaned insight into technology and has since taken over handling our computers.

That is all to his credit. Yet parents tend to consider even their adult offspring as children still, and undoubtedly that has colored my efforts to groom my son. Although I respect informal learning as much as the book type, I do wish in the early days that I had provided Louis with formal as well as on-the-job training, such as courses in business, computer science and perhaps a Dale Carnegie course in how to present himself.

Another issue is the matter of authority. In our business, doing a good job is a matter of crossing the i’s and dotting the t’s. When something needs to be done, it needs to be done in a timely manner. And that will always be an issue for Louis, as it is for me. When he says he didn’t get to it because he was doing something else, I say, “I don’t want to hear it. If you were working for someone (other than family), you would get to it.”

A Last Word
Tensions aside, I believe that Louis has been doing wonderfully in preparing for the role that he will one day assume.

As for myself, having chosen this exit route, I can take comfort in knowing that my business is not just today or tomorrow but forever. I have eight grandchildren – three of them Louis’ own sons – and I want the company to go to them.

Only through family can I be assured that what I have created will endure. In grooming my son, I have given him this message: “Running Manzi Metals isn’t a job, it’s something you believe in.”

As I do.

And as only a son could.

Barbara Manzi founded Manzi Metals from a home office in 1993. Today, the distributor of aluminum, stainless steel, titanium, brass and other alloys has annual revenue of $3 million and prestigious clients in the aerospace and defense industries. 

Manzi’s work has brought her many honors, including the Business and Professional Women Achievement Award and, in June 2000, the Avon Women of Enterprise Award. Growing up on Cape Cod, the third of 12 children in a Cape Verdean family, Manzi developed a drive to achieve that led her from high school to retail to hands-on training in metals distribution. She bought an existing business in the 1980s.

In 1998, Manzi and her husband, a retired New York City police officer, relocated to Florida, and merged her business to establish the present company. Manzi’s husband now oversees warehouse operations. Son Louis is a vice president in charge of sales and management training; daughter Valerie and two granddaughters provide moral support.