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A Bridge Over Trouble

By March 4, 1997July 12th, 2023Management and Leadership6 min read

They may only exist as a footnote in the annals of business history books, but Ernest Breech and Thomas White have possibly occupied the most meaningful of all management and leadership positions in a family-owned business. Ernest and Thomas were interim managers or bridge managers in the family-owned businesses, Ford Motor Company and Crane Papers, respectively.

When Edsel Ford passed away unexpectedly at an early age, Henry Ford, the founder of Ford Motor Company, re-entered the family business at age 80. After a short struggle for control, Henry agreed to grant control to his grandson, young Henry Ford II, who at age 28, became one of Americas most powerful young business leaders. Henry II’s wisdom surfaced when he recruited Ernest Breech to serve as his mentor and de facto bridge manager until he became savvy enough to assume full control of a multi-billion dollar enterprise. Once confident in his own capabilities, Henry II removed Ernest and signaled to the organization that he was now its sole leader.

Before Henry II passed away, he recalled with high praise the Breech-Ford partnership, “He was really the chief, and I was watching and learning, hopefully. He knew a lot more than I did and so the major operating decisions, he made them.”

One of the most difficult decisions family businesses face in times of need is whether to place a person from outside the family into the ranks of senior leadership. Bridge managers are usually summoned in five scenarios:

ONE – During a time of an unexpected dramatic change in the business.

TWO – As a result of an untimely departure or death of a senior executive.

THREE – An heir receives the call to assume the leadership position before they have built their toolbox of management skills and experience.

FOUR – When family members are fighting for control and devaluing the business in the process. A bridge manager that understands the unique issues of a family business may step in until the conflict is resolved.

FIVE – When the owners and directors decide to place a non-family CEO or president and are having difficulty choosing the best matched person for the job. Often in these situations the owners may “road test” a bridge manager with the possibility of offering the candidate a permanent position.

Sometimes the call is easy. Quantum growth or the decision to go international are prime situations that may force a family-owned business to look outside for management help. There are however, many other times in the life of a family business when the decision to open the management ranks to outsiders is more difficult.

The question facing family businesses of all sizes and stages of development is how to address the issue of importing outside leadership without losing control of the business or causing strife. Consider the following ideas if hiring a bridge manager is a possibility in your family business.

First, get good counsel. Good counsel will help every family member see the situation in an objective light. Advisors who specialize in the dynamics of family-owned businesses can be valuable guides to help everyone involved to evaluate the situation and analyze the options. Outside counsel can also help family members come to a consensus on the course of action they should take. By deciding exactly what kind of leadership and expertise is needed, the family can develop a better understanding of what is required and shape their expectations accordingly.

Next, take time to make sure the “fit” is right. The understanding that a non-family leader must have access to family secrets as well as an insider’s view of the business suggests that the candidate have credibility not only with employees but also with family members. The family should provide the newcomer with a clear set of expectations and a well defined system of accountability. Doing this at the onset should prevent major misunderstandings and help the individual understand what is expected.

Finally, understand that things will be different. Change of any kind causes anxiety and since bridge managers are often called during times of change, you can expect some organization anxiety. Preparing everyone involved for change is important. Letting go of control is perhaps the most difficult part of bringing in outside leadership. For leadership to be effective, the communication process should be open both ways: Family to newcomer and newcomer to family. Anxiety will decrease as trust increases.

As a third generation family president of a $25 million West Texas distributorship said concerning his non-family predecessor, “He was absolutely the best thing that ever happened to this business. We hired him for what we thought would be about three months after Dad was killed in a car crash, and he ended up staying almost two years. After Dad died, my brothers and I each struggled for control.”

While in conflict, the brothers could not agree to a direction for the business. One brother wanted to sell but was angry that the fighting was devaluing the company. The other brothers each believed they were the rightful heir to the business. Our solution was to hire an outsider. We didn’t stop fighting but he helped us realize that the position was really a job and needed to go to the someone willing to work for it. My brothers lost interest after six months of having to work, and I kept him on to help me become more effective. My brothers and I did agree to invite him to join our new board.”

When the swirling waters of crisis or competition threaten to destroy a family business, finding someone to bridge the flood can make a life or death difference. The decision to open the family circle to include someone from outside the family can create tension, but it need not be so. With the decision goes the possibility of the infusion of new ideas, insightful problem solving, and a dynamic new leadership equation that can catapult the business to new levels of success.

Like bridges that span the raging waters of a river, bridge managers can make the transitions over the rapids of change in business smooth and safe. As with Ford Motor Company and Crane Papers, bridge managers helped keep both the family and business healthy.

  1. Special knowledge could help us grow in the next few years
  2. Our leadership succession is set into the foreseeable future
  3. Our family business wants to take some dramatic steps toward growth
  4. There are questions about who is going to become CEO of the business
  5. Our family is aware of a leadership gap in the future
  6. We are considering changing our core business
  7. Our family business is considering going public
  8. Conflict among family owners is depressing the value of the business
  9. We want to expand our business into international markets
  10. Current family leadership lacks non-family business experience