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Vets’ Affairs: How Sean Rayner rose to the top of the family business

Rayner’s rise to the top wasn’t planned, but it was a success. Here’s why

Aug 12, 2014

by Allison Myggland

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Sean Rayner, CEO of Vets Sheet Metal (with Loki, left, and Kona) took over the four-generation family business following his father’s sudden illness
Photograph Ryan Girard

Sean Rayner was in Toronto working in the telecommunications industry in January 2004 when he first got the call from his family. His father, David Rayner, had been diagnosed with cancer. The elder Rayner was the owner-operator of Vets Sheet Metal and, whether he liked it or not, it was time for him to retire. While passing the family business on to his children had always been a possibility, it wasn’t something that David or either of his children had been actively preparing for. Because the company’s future hadn’t been up for discussion prior to David’s illness, the conversations that were necessary to steer the business forward had to happen with the ­added pressure of knowing that the elder Rayner was sick. Happily for the Rayner family, David’s treatments were successful and he’s taken his retirement as his opportunity to live life to its fullest. But the company’s leadership transition was, to say the least, abrupt.

“Without a good network of family business successors who had gone through what I was going through, who had seen the challenges I was about to see, I wouldn’t have survived.” – Sean Rayner CEO, Vets Sheet Metal

Their situation isn’t uncommon. Like so many other businesses, the discussion around who would take over began in earnest after a health problem forced the issue. John Howard, a chartered accountant and managing partner with Howard Gardiner Associates, says for businesses without a clear plan of succession, a critical health issue is one of two events that bring succession planning to the top of the agenda. The other is a sudden, overwhelming desire for a lifestyle change.

In the midst of surgeries and treatments, Sean and his sister, Erin, began to look at the family business as their immediate future. After flying to Toronto to collect his things, Sean moved back to Alberta to learn the family trade. He began working in sales to familiarize himself with the day-to-day operations and set to work, with Erin’s help, to put together a one-year and a three-year business plan of their vision for Vets.

Ultimately, Erin decided not to join the family business. So, it was up to Sean to keep the 80-year-old business running, and he had a lot of catching up to do. And there was conflict surrounding the young man’s entrance into the business. Mostly, he says, tension flowed from “my dad’s expectations of the business and his comfort level with risk and my expectations of the business and my comfort level with risk.” The outgoing leader had a very different vision for the future than the up-and-comer.

However, with the help of his family and a number of mentors who are now his peers, Rayner’s transition to Vets fourth owner-­operator has been a success (the company was named, by his great-grandfather, for the veterans he fought with during the First World War and employed in the years after). He has turned Vets from a mature, stable operation into a bustling business that, this year, ­employs nearly four times the employees and will earn 10 times the revenue it did when he took charge of the business.

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For Rayner, part of his success is thanks to his career outside of the family business. For young people who may take over the business one day, he advises, “Always, and without ­exception, go and work for somebody else first.” Learning skills and competencies without the influence of family politics can help build confidence and independence, qualities every leader needs in order to hold their own when entering a senior role.

It may not seem like an impressive feat to build upon the successful legacy David was leaving behind. After all, the structure was already there. But as Manchester United fans may recognize, sometimes even the strongest of legacies can’t hold up to the weight of a poorly executed succession of leadership.

So, what was the critical element that enabled the company to survive the hasty transition? In one word: Communication. Family businesses often struggle during transitions because those involved try to keep all conflict and concerns under wraps, which ends up isolating them from the people who could help the most. “I think it is important for family business successors and founders to hear that they’re not alone,” Sean says. “They deal with these issues, whether they are family-related or business-related, usually very quietly.” Howard agrees that the key element of any successful succession is talking about it. “There is an honest reluctance to not talk about people’s view of themselves and their mortality but that discussion should happen,” he says. “We have to talk about it.”

While a stoic demeanour may be an asset in a war zone, a transition into leadership shouldn’t leave you wounded. Rayner credits the support he received from other family business owners during the transition with his and the company’s health. “Without a good network of family business successors who had gone through what I was going through, who had seen the challenges I was about to see, I wouldn’t have survived, and neither would the business,” he says.

Using their existing network, Rayner and his father created a board of advisors so he had people he could go to and discuss the challenges and successes of the business without relying solely on the outgoing leader. Knowing his son would remain accountable to a group of people he knew and respected reassured David and eased his transition away from the business.

How do you reach out to other business owners, especially regarding something as sensitive as a succession? Rayner insists it’s simple. “If you ask somebody for help, you’ll be amazed at what you will get back,” he says. “People are more than willing to help, and they want to see you succeed and they want to see your business succeed.”

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