Our inaugural Leader With Courage conversation features Joe Poehling, the 4th generation family member to lead First Supply, LLC., a regional wholesale distributor that provides a single source for plumbing, heating, cooling, municipal, waterworks, builder and industrial supplies. Based in Madison, Wisconsin, First Supply was founded in 1897 and employs over 500 people across 27 locations in the Midwest.
Value Drivers: How did you ascend to your role as Chairman and CEO of the family business at First Supply? Was it a given that this was where you would wind up?
Joe Poehling: Certainly not at first. I actually began as Pre-Med major at the University of Wisconsin. Since my brother was a very successful Physician, my parents were thinking I should follow in his footsteps. But it wasn’t long before I realized that my heart wasn’t in it and it wasn’t what I really wanted to do. So I graduated with an Accounting degree and immediately began working in our family business right away as a Tax Accountant. However, I would never encourage anyone to start their career that way.
Really. What’s wrong with going into the family business first?
For one thing, by starting my career in the family business, I’d never proven myself outside of the company. In addition, it can be much more difficult than you anticipate coming into a family business…as one of the family. Being a family member, you can be treated differently. You expect there to be a normal employee or peer relationship but in many cases, you quickly discover that this just isn’t going to happen. That can often put a great deal of extra pressure on you to perform.
So to anyone facing a similar situation, I’ll recommend this – see what it’s like to work for someone else before you leap into the family business from the very beginning. Having a different boss can give you some good perspective.
In fact, we’ve since implemented a rule at First Supply that a family member can’t enter the company without building their career somewhere else for at least five years.
After doing all of First Supply’s corporate tax work, where then did you progress?
It wasn’t long before my father thought it would be a good idea that I get into Sales, so I started peddling a new type of tub in the market that featured a Jacuzzi/whirlpool bath. I traveled all around the upper Midwest selling those tubs to contractors, teaching them about how the tubs worked. It turned out to be great timing because during that period in the late 1970’s/early 1980’s, there weren’t really any whirlpool tubs to speak of in the market. So we enjoyed some very positive results.
From there, I worked my way up from Facility Manager to Treasurer to ultimately being named President of First Supply in the mid-1990’s and Chairman in 2003.
So you enjoyed a good apprenticeship of various functions to see how the company worked from many different angles.
Definitely. Right from the bottom up. Even during my summers in college prior to graduating, I was a truck driver for the company – which, to this day, is one of my favorite jobs of any I’ve held here. You were out doing your own thing and interacting with the customer. I loved it. But it’s also very physical work and I don’t think I could handle that part of it quite as well today!
Having been through such a rotation of jobs yourself, have you thought about a similar variety of work for your children prior to them moving into leadership roles – to see if they want to move into leadership at all?
Absolutely. Whether it was summer work or part-time work during the school year, they had to learn different roles and responsibilities. Of my four children, only one of them actually entered the business while the other three are following different passions that I’m very supportive of.
Since we’re frequently asked to help executives transition successfully into the C-suite at Value Drivers, we’ve found there are no less than nine onboarding pitfalls they could encounter. What advice do you have for incoming CEOs to avoid derailment of their agenda and last well beyond their first 18 months in the role?
First, you have to surround yourself with an excellent team, from your Board to your colleagues in the C-suite. They’ve understood our culture and they never came in trying to drastically change that culture other than a few tweaks.
Culture is important during acquisitions, which we’ve done a fair number of at First Supply. We often hear the term “mergers and acquisitions,” but there’s really no merger of cultures. The reality is there’s only one culture that stands and that’s the one of the acquiring company. To make the transition as smooth as possible for everyone, we do try to assess what that culture we’re acquiring is comprise of, even if we don’t always get access to employees of the selling company prior to the acquisition.
What about the pitfall of “coming in with the answer” and doing things before talking to all the influential parties within the company?
Without a doubt. That’s a big misstep I’ve seen primarily in young and/or new managers, including the ones we’ve brought in. They typically come from a “doer” mentality but as they ascend up the corporate ladder, they quickly learn that they can’t do everything themselves.
Sure, that kind of commanding presence to tell people to do this or do that can be useful when a company is in crisis mode, but hopefully, 99% of the time, the company isn’t in that place. That’s when you have to be in the mode of building consensus and explaining the reasons why you’re recommending a certain path to others.
In the second part of our conversation with Joe Poehling, we’ll dive in deeper to explore how to handle underperformers that happen to be family members, what it takes to ensure family is aligned with your vision and how a certain percentage of mistakes may be a healthy thing.
If you’re challenged by ongoing issues that are unique to a family business, is it possible that some of those challenges are fixable in part by you? Spend 5 minutes to get that kind of much-needed clarity through our free Leadership Self-Assessment from Value Drivers. Then call us at 312.827.2643 to discuss how we can help strengthen these areas for the sake of not only the current generation of leadership but also many more generations to come.