Meat+Poultry - September 2020 - 33

members because of the overriding mindset
that "we built this, we don't need help; we got
this on our own and we can do this."
Green realized the importance of putting
the right people in the right positions and,
as she said, "hiring people that are smarter
than me. I have to understand as a family
owner that we need to find some really strong
talent to fill those voids, and it started with
Mark Swanson."
Looking back, it's been nearly 12 years
since Swanson was hired as CEO. Green said
that seemingly unthinkable and hotly debated
step of bringing in a non-family member
into the leadership group taught the entire
leadership team the lesson of "leave your ego
at the door," which has become somewhat of a
battle cry at Birko.

CLIMBING THE LADDER
After four years at Grote Co., Bob was
promoted to vice president of sales, filling
a void created by Geoff Rawes, who was
elevated to the role of president at the
company, where he planned to work for a
handful of years before retiring.
Anticipating there would be an even bigger
role to fill in a few years, Bob went back to
his uncle to discuss how he might succeed
the retiring president after he stepped down.
He worked hard to prepare himself for the
elevated position.
"Leading up to Geoff's retirement in early
2008, I earned my MBA, participated in the
company's advisory board meetings, led its
acquisition efforts and did whatever I could
to prepare myself to take over as president in
March 2008," he said.
Fast forward three years into his tenure as
president and it was clear that Grote's business
had grown to the point that Bob needed a
full-time chief operating officer to help him
carry the load. Bob's brother, Jack, joined
the company assuming the role of COO and
president, and Bob's title shifted to CEO.
"We worked out a deal with Jim to buy into
the company, ultimately ensuring that Grote
will remain privately held in family hands at
least for another generation," Bob said.
But climbing that ladder for the first 11
years was not without challenges and lessons
to be learned. Bob said customers and even
employees assumed that based on his last

name, he must be a food industry expert,
which he was not.
"Overcoming this misconception took
effort both in the factory and out on the road.
I am fortunate to be an engineer by education
with a working background in technical sales
and automation. This background helped
me quickly learn the equipment and many
of the applications. With the customers it
was recognizing them as the true experts
and explaining how it was done in their
factory. From there I was able to build on my
knowledge and how I may be able to use our
equipment to help with their application."

SAGE ADVICE
Hess makes a point of telling others who are
considering joining their family's business that
they should know there are risks and rewards
that are different from a corporate job with no
family members.
"A family business is like a double-edged
sword," Hess said. "One side can be the
most wonderful, productive life tool you'll
ever possess. The other side can be the most
destructive weapon you'll ever possess. I've
seen family businesses destroy families,"
he added, which can include irreparable
damage to relationships including divorces,
grandparents not being able to enjoy their
grandchildren and other family dysfunction.
Sometimes small families are less
susceptible to controversy. Less can be more
in some family businesses as more family
participation can create more complications.
"I was very lucky it was just my father and
me," Hess said. "My father and I had a saying
we honored: 'The mutual admiration club,' or
in other words, respect each other. So many
business decisions are not worth jeopardizing
your family relationship."
Bob Grote reminds those considering
going to work with their family business that
expectations can initially be unrealistic.
"Expect that there will be preconceived
opinions of you when you come onboard,
especially if you didn't grow up in the business.
You will have to demonstrate that you are
bringing value to the organization and not just
another name."
Demonstrating a willingness to learn while
advancing through the ranks pays dividends
while helping the company grow, Bob added.

"Family
businesses
are a very
prideful entity."

- KELLY GREEN

www.meatpoultry.com | 09.20 | MEAT+ POULTRY

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Meat+Poultry - September 2020

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