HIGH POINT — Succession of business ownership is a challenge to navigate for companies belonging to any industry, but it’s perhaps even more important for an industry heavily dependent on relationships and handshakes.
Selecting a successor is perhaps the peak of the challenge, particularly for founders or leaders interested in keeping the business in the family. First, their child must show an active interest. Second, they must have a desire to learn and establish themselves within the business. And third, they must be competent enough to perform the job of CEO, a task that’s certainly not easy.
Todd Wanek, CEO of the biggest furniture manufacturer in the world Ashley Furniture; Keith Koenig, co-founder of City Furniture, one of Florida’s largest furniture retailers; and Michael Amini, CEO and founder of high-fashion furniture supplier Aico, are all at different stages of the succession process. Maintaining family ownership is desirable for all three.
Setting the stage
Amini is perhaps at the earliest stage. His 26-year-old son, Kian, is his preferred successor. He’s been working at the company for three years and is currently director of business development and technology. The younger Amini is involved in software and marketing, and he works closely with company President David Koehler.
“He likes to be mobile,” Amini told Furniture Today. “He doesn’t like a desk job. He likes to think about how to bring in business, what we’re missing, etc. Recently, we initiated a project, which is coming to fruition, involving upgrading all our computers and software and servers, and we are bringing in software that’s going to make e-commerce and online ordering much easier. He’s been very involved with that.”
Getting Kian interested though took some prodding.
“It wasn’t one of the things he was thinking about,” Amini said. “But through encouragement, he’s really been involved the past few years. Since he was a kid, he’s grown up in the business. He’s a pretty well-known guy. He’s got a 20-year head start, and he doesn’t feel strange in the industry.
“The younger generation these days though really wants to choose their own path. If they find it fulfilling, they’ll stay. If it’s not, they’ll move on.”
Amini’s perfect outcome would be for Kian and his other son, Iman, to lead the company together. But Iman doesn’t have an interest.
“Iman wants to be an actor and hasn’t shown any desire” for the business, Amini said. “But he has a lot of skills. He makes videos, and he writes. I know he could contribute to the company if he joined. But it’s never been my decision to force my kids to join. It’s the desire of every parent, you know, to have their kids involved in their business, especially if it’s successful. You want to make sure your legacy is there. But I can’t force it, and for Kian, I can’t announce it for him.
“He also needs to earn it. He needs to earn the respect of everyone he works with, and he needs to show that he’s capable. It takes time. It’s a scary role for a 26-year-old. You have to show everyone that you can do it.”
Regardless, Amini says AICO will move forward, with or without his kids.
“A lot of people we have treat it like it’s their own company,” he said. “We have a particular culture. Many people have been here for a long time. I still have my second employee, who’s been here for almost 30 years. I’m very proud to say that many people have retired from here after a decade or two or more of work. We have such wonderful people. These people are loyal and have a passion to help our business.”
A successful transition
Keith Koenig is the furthest along of the three. His son Andrew took over the leadership at City Furniture in January 2022.
“Fortunately, Andrew always showed an interest in City Furniture, so I never had to twist his arm,” Koenig told Furniture Today. “He originally had aspirations to play professional golf but realized in college that was an uphill battle. He became very interested in Toyota and became a student of Lean management, which he brought to me and the City team when he joined.”
Andrew slowly worked his way through the company, first starting in operations with a 12-week stint unloading trucks. He then became a supervisor, a manager and director of operations. By showing great leadership, Keith said he earned the role of chief executive officer.
“He really made a mark, and everyone noticed,” he said. “It was maybe then I realized he would become CEO and a great one.”
Koenig believes it’s important for family-owned businesses to stay in the family.
“We are in the family furniture business, and everyone at City knows that,” he said. “I hope my grandkids end up working here and building fulfilling careers. This family concept allows us to build the culture we have and that benefits our customers and our associates.
“We have a culture that private equity firms simply cannot match. The failure rate in the furniture industry of buyouts of retailers by private equity has been high. Generally, the associates that built the business end up losing. That said, family businesses like City need top notch talent and plenty of innovation and hard work to succeed over time.
“Private equity firms are in the ‘money business,’” Koenig added. “We are in the family furniture business. What’s the difference? We play the long game and do not leverage debt beyond mortgages secured by our properties.”
The third generation is coming
Ashley Furniture needs no introduction: The company is one of the largest furniture manufacturers in the world and is widely respected among its peers and competitors. The company is co-owned by father-son team Ron and Todd Wanek, with Todd having taken over as CEO in 2002.
Three third-generation family members have significant roles at the company. Cameron Wanek, son of Todd, is the senior vice president of supply chain and information technology. He’s worked at the company for eight years, spearheading efforts into automation, data management and A.I. Travis Wagner, another grandson of Ron, has more than 10 years of experience managing the company’s Vietnam operations and is currently the senior vice president of global manufacturing. Laura Forsythe, Ron’s granddaughter, oversees merchandising, interior design and retail finance.
Like Koenig and Amini, the goal at Ashley is to keep the business in the family.
“Our goal is to perpetuate the family business and maintain Ashley as a privately held company by the Wanek family,” Todd Wanek told Furniture Today. “The third-generation family members play a major role in the company’s growth strategies and leadership today, and they will continue to play a major role into the future.
“It is very important that Ashley continue to remain a privately held family business,” he continued. “This allows the company to have a long-term view and consistency of leadership and values of the business.”