Succession issues are becoming more common in small businesses as the wave of Boomer retirement gains momentum. “Businesses that manage the transition successfully are willing to plan ahead, like Eck Industries,” said Colleen Merrill, Director of the Small Business Development Center at UW-Oshkosh.
Eck Industries manufactures high-strength aluminum castings used in industries like aerospace, recreation, and military markets. Started in 1948, Eck Foundries grew on orders from Harley-Davidson and Johnson Motors. Today, Eck parts are found anywhere from hybrid electric cars to medical devices.
Fourth-generation Kiley (Eck) Hayon started working in the office part-time when she was 16. She majored in Computer Information systems at UW-Stevens Point. After earning her BA in 2002 she joined Eck Industries, where her father and uncle were the primary owners. “I started out in Quality Assurance, where I handled our customer returns,” Kiley said, which allowed her to see the company from its customers’ perspective. She took on getting the company ISO-9000 registered; “That gave me a good baseline on our procedures and processes,” she said.
Building support for succession planning
Over time Kiley stepped into an accounting role, then progressed to Vice President of Human Resources and Finance. In January 2016 she was named President. From the start, Kiley’s father brought her into union negotiations, along with her cousin Tyler, who joined the business in 2003. Handling union grievances helped ready her to lead the company’s 250 employees.
“You can feel alone even though there are many family businesses,” Kiley observed. “Friends think you can do whatever you want, and employees think you have an ‘in’ because of the family.”
Kiley found it difficult to interest the company’s leaders in succession planning. Looking for a support network, she came across the Wisconsin Family Business Forum through the UW-Oshkosh. Kiley found what she was looking for in an education series the Forum offered. “They brought in different presenters on topics related to family business and succession planning,” she recalled. “It was interesting to hear how other family businesses had handled succession in the past, what they planned to do in the future.”
Accomplishments with the SBDC of UW-Oshkosh
- 4th generation succession planning
- Building transition team
- Investing in state-of-the-art technology
Finding a counselor with relevant industry expertise
One of the presenters was Phil Florek, a counselor with the SBDC at UW-Oshkosh. “When I learned his background—including foundry work and succession planning—I saw this was just what we needed. After that meeting I said, ‘You need to come to Eck Industries and meet with my father,’ Kiley said.
That was the start of Kiley’s work with the SBDC at UW-Oshkosh, where center director Colleen Merrill seeks out counselors with real-world experience like Phil. “Not only did Phil spend time with the Eck owners discussing succession—he also worked with them to develop teams to evaluate their manufacturing operation,” Colleen said. “He helped the family communicate with middle management and the supervisory teams as well, thanks to the experience he brought.”
Over time Phil helped the family assess the readiness of Kiley’s generation to take over the business, and the readiness of their fathers’ generation to retire. Succession planning has allowed the company to chart a course toward future growth. “It is a very exciting time for us,” said Kiley, who recently completed an Executive MBA as part of the succession process. She has been hiring to build her new team, with some planned redundancy while the older employees train their replacements.
The firm is putting significant investment into state-of-the-art technology throughout the business, “because even though it is a foundry, technology has made it possible to work smarter, not harder,” Kiley said. “All of our employees will benefit when the work is less labor-intensive.”