#1 Dad

Sean McGlynn wasn’t so sure he wanted to start working with his dad again.

The 37-year old tried that once before, and it didn’t turn out so well. Of course, that was immediately after graduating from Radford University with a degree in business. At the time, working for his dad’s drug testing company seemed like a good idea.

Sean lasted three months.

“I was living at home, and it was just not the right fit,” Sean said. In particular, he recalls his immediate boss at the company telling him to do one thing at work, and then his father asking him if he accomplished something else at home.

But last summer, Sean decided to takeover his father’s company. He left his job as a business analyst at the law firm McGuire Woods to become president of SanAir, a Powhatan laboratory that tests for mold and other pathogens. The company, which his father started in 2003, has around 15 employees and plans on adding two more lab technicians in the next year.

The difference from the first attempt at working with dad: this time around, Sean is the one dishing out the orders.

Sean and his dad, Tom, were lucky. Their first attempt at working together proved difficult, but by no means disastrous. When Sean was at the law firm McGuireWoods, he would still talk to his dad almost every day about business issues. And since taking over the reins of his father’s business during the summer, that practice has continued. But come decision-making time, Tom sticks to the refrain, “You’re the president, you decide.”

So far, Sean has flexed his decision-making muscles on dozens of cost-cutting measures. For starters, he put the shipping contract back out to bid. SanAir tests samples from all over the country and pays for shipping. So when he dumped UPS in favor of FedEx and immediately started saving 20% on shipping, it was kind of a big deal.

Sean has cut back in other ways. Recently a pricey accountant was relieved of his duties in favor of a cheaper one. The savings: $18,000 per year. A bookkeeper was also shown the door, and now someone comes in once a month to look over the ledgers. Overall, Sean has cut expenses around 25%.

“He watches every penny,” Tom said. “I was too far away from it to see a lot of that.”

After losing money each year since the company was founded, SanAir is now just about breaking even. Business could be better, Sean acknowledges, but the company is weathering downturns in home inspection business tied to the sluggish housing market. The company is trying to grow into environmental testing market, which would include bacteria testing and virus testing for environmental engineering firms.

And under Sean’s leadership, the company is looking to acquire other testing operations and to expand its client-base.

According to Chuck Gallagher, a VCU professor who runs the Virginia Family & Private Business Forum, family businesses can get sticky when it comes time to a changing of the guard. Founders are often hesitant or unable to part with their companies. Gallagher said he knows one business owner in his 80s who says his son, (who’s in his 60s) isn’t quite ready to take over.

“For the founder, it’s his or her baby. It’s his or her life. They’ve created it and hate to walk away from it,” Gallagher said.

But the fact that Sean worked for more than 15 years outside the family business bodes well, Gallagher said. “You want children to have experience outside the business. If a child goes directly into the family business, they may not really understand the business world.”

The son or daughter about to take over the business also needs to understand it is different from clocking in to work at someone else’s company. For Sean, his jump into the family business required a pay cut. “It’s a lifestyle change and much more responsibility,” Sean said. “Now I shop at Wal-Mart instead of Ukrop’s.”

Still, it was a change he was ready to make. Working at McGuireWoods was a pressure cooker (three people have already quit the position since Sean left) and now he has the security of knowing he can never be fired, he said.

As for Tom, he hasn’t said adieu completely. But he says the reason he was ready to turn over the company was that it just wasn’t as much fun to manage. “I used to be up in the middle of the night trying to figure out how to solve problems,” Tom said. “I thrived on problem solving.”

Tom is still the chairman of the board of directors, and still comes in to the office a few times a month. But now he can’t watch TV in his office.

Sean cut off the cable.

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