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  • by Lee Eisenstaedt

Never Too Proud Not To Ask For Help

A conversation with Maureen Beal Chairwoman Emeritus National Van Lines (https://www.nationalvanlines.com/)


Maureen Beal is the third-generation owner of a family business, which has become an ever-more rare occurrence in the world of business succession. In leading National Van Lines, a company her grandfather founded 90 years ago, Maureen found her footing in remarkable ways. She has grown National from $45 million in revenue at the time she became Chairman and CEO of the company to over $105 million in revenue. Today, National employs over 140 people and serves an average of 20,000 residential and commercial move customers per year.


We caught up with Maureen a couple of months before she was going to be retiring and assuming the role of Chairwoman Emeritus.


Leading With Courage® Academy: Before we really get into this conversation, Maureen, it appears you recently received something very special from your employees, correct?

Maureen: Yes. It represents the most memorable recognition I’ve ever received. My team just erected a billboard outside my office to honor me as a leader. Of all the things I've been lucky enough to receive as far as recognition, this one may well turn out to be my most favorite.


It’s funny how things like that stay with you. I remember organizing a very big meeting in New Orleans. It was a family shareholder meeting that took about two and half years to organize and I was spending about a third of my time down there. At the end of the conference, everyone has left and I'm there kind of “sweeping up after the elephants.” As I left, I walked through a long hallway to Canal Street and there must've been 100 people from the hotel, kitchen, maid service, everything. All different levels lined up to say goodbye to me. And I knew most of them by name because I had spent that much time there. But I remember that. Like your billboard.


Oh, yes. That'll be my most treasured one because you know it came from the heart. And that's the most important. They didn't do it because they thought they should or whatever. It's just something they didn't have to do, like your people at the hotel.


Why don’t we start with a few minutes of background on you and how it came to be that you’re running National Van Lines.


Sure. Let me go really far back first. I was born here in Chicago but when I was 13 years old, my parents and brothers moved out to California. When I graduated from high school, of course, my parents wanted me to go to college, but I was in love. I didn't want to go anywhere. So I got married at 18 and had a child at 19. In those days, that was the more acceptable thing, because if you were 25 and not married, you were considered an old maid.


However, I became a single mother and started to work at National in the Claims Department, Operations, Bookkeeping and doing a little bit of everything. Prior to that I had worked on the Switchboard whenever I returned from Los Angeles to Chicago during vacation from high school. In those days, they had the plug-in switchboard. I would come back for about two or three different summers and work in the office. I could've done that for the rest of my life, but then of course those went away. Then, in 1970, my Dad closed the office in Los Angeles.


By that time, I was remarried, and went to work in inside sales and customer service. Then in 1981, my dad asked me to open up a sales office in Los Angeles, which I did. Then in 1982, our Vice President of International came in and told my dad that if he didn't get his office redecorated and if his girlfriend who worked for him in the department didn't get a raise, he was leaving.


Our family knew nothing about the international side of business and this gentleman knew that, so he considered himself a key asset and indispensable. Of course, my dad, being a good Irishman, said, "See you," in so many words. So it created a good opportunity for a family member to learn about the international side of the business, which I stepped up to when my dad asked me to come back to Chicago and take on that role. There were four people in the group, three of whom knew way more than me and thought they should have the job.


Talk about that. Did your father agonize over that decision at all? Because one of the struggles of the leader is sticking with under-performers too long or people like this head of international.


My dad was the type that the building could be falling down around him and he would go, "Hmmm." Nothing really got to him. He was the same personality with big problems as he was without big problems. So I think he probably saw it as an opportunity to get his family more involved in the business. But I remember when he and I discussed it, I said, "Dad, I'd rather learn brain surgery than international, because it's complicated." It's nothing like domestic, which is what I was used to. And he said something along the lines, "Well, nevertheless, Sweetheart, that's where I need you." Looking back, I think it was a test. I don't think he planned it as a test, but it was because the department was in a terrible mess.


As it turned out, I loved the international side. I was in it for 11 years and I really thought this was where I was going to be for the rest of my life. A couple of months before I arrived in that area, there was a young woman who had left and went to work with one of the steamship lines. I called her and asked if she would come in the evenings and teach me all that she knew about the department. She did and we worked together for probably three or four months. Three nights a week, we would go through billing and operations. She's really the one who saved me from going crazy because the other people didn't want to teach me.


There’s a theme I'm already seeing with you in that you're not afraid to ask people for help, as opposed to what a lot of leaders do, which is just fake it or muddle through.


Absolutely. I can remember having a conversation with a sales representative of a supplier to international moving companies. He was a real veteran of this industry and I said, "You know, I've only been here for two weeks and I know nothing about international." He said, "Oh, my goodness." He then proceeded to sit with me for eight hours that day and tell me everything that I should know, such as foreign exchange. I mean, I took notes like crazy. He's been my friend ever since. He says, "Now if you ever have a problem or anything, you call me. I will let you know what I know." And I called him a number of times. You just don't forget people like that.


The timing was good for you to obtain all that knowledge because you were about to be thrust into another role you never anticipated, right?


That’s right. My father passed away in 1993 and I found myself taking over National Van Lines, including control of his shares and voting rights.


So if learning the international side of the business was a challenge to get up to speed, this learning curve must have been profoundly intimidating. What was going through your mind during this sudden transition?


I almost didn’t have time to feel intimidated. But what saved me in the early going was my listening ability. I learned that when I had meetings with people where we were discussing situations and problems, it was in my best interest to keep my mouth shut until everybody else talked. I was happy to absorb as much as I could early on. I even asked a seasoned executive from Allied Van Lines to be my coach and mentor.

The change wasn’t without me making some very tough decisions during the transition, including terminating some people – which was necessary but is never easy.


I've always asked this in a workshop: "How many of you have struggled with terminating someone?" And they all raise their hands. We've all struggled with that. But then I also ask, “Once you got past that, did you regret it? What was the reaction of the group?" They always say that when they look back at what happened, the morale of the team went up. Everyone winds up saying "What took you so long?"There’s never any regret over doing it. The only regret was that it took too long.


Yes. And that has happened. I think what happens is when you finally come to the conclusion that you have to ask someone to leave, everybody else has figured that out long before you have. But you don't have regrets because you see afterwards all the bad things that were happening. It becomes clear.


As you've gained more experience, have you gotten better at saying, "Oh, this isn't working out. I need to move sooner than later on this issue or person." Has that gotten any easier for you?


Yes. Actually, I've always been the type to say, "No matter who we are, the company comes first.”


Laying off or terminating people is the most difficult part of the job. Each time it has been a gut wrenching decision that’s only been made a bit easier by reminding myself that I’m doing what’s best for the company, our employees and our customers in the long run. If it hadn’t been, then I shouldn’t have done it.


For example, there was an instance four or five years into my job where we had to lay off five people. I just felt so terrible because these were such good people. They just were in the wrong position because we had too many people and we could do with less if we had to and we had to because times were tough. But we stayed friends with all the people we laid off. They, for some reason, didn't hold it against us, largely because they also realized we had no choice.


That's a great sign of how well you treated them with respect. You were fair and people know that.


Slightly shifting gears, what has it been like to be in a leadership position in a male-dominated industry as this one tends to be?


I have really been so lucky in all these years, because truthfully, I never had a problem with it. When I started out in this position, I became a director on the American Moving & Storage Association and I was the only woman among 55 men in the board meetings. I was smart enough to get the lay of the land first before I started thinking, "You know, what that guy just said was kind of dumb." Or, "But what that guy just said, really, he made a good point." I think what helped is that I started it right and I did not burst out into the scene trying to make a name for myself.


That never works.


No. And a lot of times, people do that. Their ego drives it or they feel threatened. There's one guy, now I know to avoid him, but whenever you're with him, he dominates the conversation and he just wants to talk all the time because he's trying to show you how much he knows.


Isn't that sad?


At some point, it's your talent that gets the job done and allows you to gain the respect of the people. They just can't say, "Well, she's the daughter of the owner or she's the owner." That goes just so far. That may get you the position, but you have to deliver some results.


It has to be kind of hard on a family member too, because they feel an incredible amount of pressure. Everybody is looking at them and if they make a mistake, everybody's laughing behind their back.


At one company I worked for, two out of the four children were driven by a great need to have the approval of their father, even after he has passed away. And he's been gone now probably 15 years.

Imagine that. You may have way more money than any of us are ever going to and what’s it gotten you if you're still trying to get the approval of your father?


You never know what someone's problem is just by talking to them for a short while. It taught me there's more behind the story than what you're seeing.


I think what happens with a family business is the person who's running the business – whether it's second generation, third or fourth, has to have the original dream of the person who started it in their psyche. Because if the business doesn't come first in your mind, then you're not going to run it fairly and for the best of all involved. You have to sit there and think not only does the business have to stay healthy, but also how you're responsible for the lives of the many people that work for the company.


And the communities you're serving. There's a lot more people you're touching than the employees if you look at it.


True. It's a much bigger group, whether it's their families or the communities you're serving or your suppliers who are dependent on you. And if you think of it that way, it could scare you. Fortunately, I’ve come to recognize it as a healthy fear because it’s based on the people and principles that matter most to you.


Another change in direction. I'm curious – how long ago did you become an ESOP? You're 100% owned now, right?


Actually, we went 100% from the get-go. That was in 2011. And that's really what we wanted to do because a good part of this was my retirement planning.


The main reasons that we wanted to get an ESOP was there no one else in the family to transition the business to and because I was afraid if a big conglomerate came in and bought the company, they would lay off all the people who had worked so hard to make it successful. Our employee base is a little on the older side because we have so many people who have stayed with us for so many years. That’s slowly changing because of retirements over the last five years. But I was concerned that there would be some very talented people who would be shoved out prematurely. So I just find myself so lucky on how everything has turned out, because in my mind the company is positioned to survive and grow.


So it was a succession plan that drove the ESOP. What about leaving the legacy of National Van Lines and your family - or was it more a succession plan?


It was a succession plan. Throughout the planning, my brother Ron has turned out to be one of my best supporters. He's been wonderful and has always put the interests of the company above his own. He’s done a great job of running our IT department and for the company and our employees.


In your corporate governance, is there an anti-nepotism consideration in it? That you limit it to so many family members or are you silent on that?


Not really. If I would've had children or nieces or nephews who were interested in the business, it probably would still stay in the family. But I just love the ESOP because to me it makes the employees feel like they're really a part of this whole thing. I do believe that my retirement will even be better for that, because I think in the employees' minds, especially the ones who were here before the ESOP, still think of me as the owner. People sometimes say, "Well, we need to talk about spending your money." And I'll say, "It's not my money. It's your money."


Did you have to invest a lot of time and money in developing that culture of ownership?


Yes. Setting up an ESOP is not cheap by any stretch. But we have a third-party administrator who works with us about doing all the proper reporting, speaking to our people a couple times a year, etc. The timing to move to an ESOP was terrific because our finance person for 37 years was going to retire. We brought in a new controller a year before the finance person retired. Explaining the ESOP to people can be complicated but our new controller just ate it up and is now our vice president of finance and. Whenever anybody has a question, he knows the answer.


Plus, in the person who is going to be taking over for me, I couldn't have asked for a better fit. He's worked for us for 23 years. But he worked in the military division and not the commercial side as much. From the very beginning, he never said, "I know all this." However, even with his "I don't know it all" attitude, he’s not afraid ask questions and to make a decision. He’s got all the elements of someone who has a passion for learning and being an inclusive decision maker.


What sort of a mindset do you think an ESOP leader needs to have that's different than a non-ESOP company? Is there something that you see that differentiates the two as far as the mindset of the CEO or a leader in an ESOP company?


I don't think it’s the mindset of the CEO that is different as it is that the mindset of both the CEO and the employees needs to aligned. Both need to be concerned about the long-term health of the company, it’s culture, and doing what’s best for all the shareholders / employee-owners.


So it becomes more of a commitment to communication and transparency, sharing the vision, getting people on board and building that support?


The employees have always understood our vision for National, which has been wonderful. I don't always know that they understand some of the finer details of the ESOP and we’re always working on improving it. It’s among our top priorities.


What's the biggest stumbling block or obstacle with the employees understanding it?


It’s probably me! I think when I'm gone, it will change their mindset, because the so-called owner is no longer here and they will understand more and more that what they do will have an impact and make the company better. When they start realizing it's their money, along with everybody else's that’s at stake, they can appreciate that they have a role in this.


Have you had any concerns or issues yet about managing the ESOP’s repurchase obligation? That as more employees retire, they're going to be redeeming their shares and how you’ll meet that cash flow requirement?


It’s always going to be an issue, but it can be planned for and budgeted which reduces the potential for a surprise. It’s critical to the company and the participants in the ESOP that we take the time to anticipate this liability and manage it in a way that’s fiscally prudent and responsible.


When you're hiring a new person, what do you look for in particular? Let's say you had two equally qualified people technically, how do you determine whom you're going to hire?


After a while, I finally sat down with management and said, "From now on, I don't want people walking in who have 10 years’ experience or 20 years’ experience in our industry who are just going to relive it all over again. I want you to concentrate on the person's attitude, because they can come in and know nothing about our company or business and we can teach them. In fact, it's better to teach them our way than somebody else's way." That was always the most important to me – their attitude. In the interview, you can tell somebody's disposition and way of thinking if you ask them the right questions. So that has always been the most important.


We've been doing a lot more along the lines of emotional intelligence and screening for that. It alerts you that you're not going to have to rehab this person or to be careful because this one's going to come in with rough edges that may not fit with your culture. The assessments reveals red flags. We're finding emotional intelligence is gaining a lot more interest or credibility within the hiring community because of how it helps them make better hiring decisions.


I'm a firm believer in emotional intelligence, because to me, someone can be very smart, but if their emotional intelligence is low, there's nothing that's going to be successful about them.


For hiring purposes, we’ve been in situations here where we’ve had two candidates for one high-level position. We liked both of them and they both had excellent backgrounds, so we had a hard time choosing.


It's a good problem to have.


Yes, but the one thing that really stuck with me was how we believed one of the candidates would find this place to be his home and stay whereas the other candidate might not. That sealed it for me and I've been very happy with that decision because he's good at what he does and fits into our culture.


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