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Episode 91 The Power of Vulnerability and Authenticity in Family Business Leadership

In this episode of The Family Biz Show, host Michael Palumbos from Family Wealth and Legacy in Rochester, New York, engages in an enlightening conversation with Ben Brandstetter, a fourth-generation family business owner from Brandstatter Carroll. Ben shares the journey of his family business, which started in 1979 in Lexington, Kentucky, and has since expanded significantly.

Ben recounts his own path into the family business, emphasizing the importance of gaining outside experience and earning professional licensure before joining the family enterprise. He highlights the valuable lessons learned during his tenure at a large civil engineering firm and how those experiences informed his approach to business and leadership.

The discussion also delves into the challenges and strategies of managing a family business, including the importance of transparency, maintaining a healthy work culture, and adapting to technological and industry changes. Ben shares his insights on leadership, the significance of continuous learning, and the need to celebrate achievements and foster a positive and collaborative environment.

The episode provides valuable perspectives on nurturing a family business across generations, emphasizing adaptability, open communication, and a strong commitment to the company's core values and mission.

Watch the entire episode!

Episode 91 Transcript

Michael Palumbos (00:00:02) - Welcome, everybody, to the Family Biz Show. I'm your host, Michael Palumbo, with Family Wealth and Legacy in Rochester, New York. And today we have been brandstatter from Brandstatter. Carol, Welcome, sir. Welcome, welcome. Thank you, Michael.

Ben Brandstetter (00:00:22) - Appreciate it. Looking forward to the conversation.

Michael Palumbos (00:00:23) - Yeah, pretty I'm looking at going through your website and just taking a peek at what Brandstatter Carroll does. You've got some pretty impressive projects that you've put together through the years.

Ben Brandstetter (00:00:39) - Well, I appreciate that. It's we've been around since 1979, so we really had an opportunity to make an impact in a lot of different communities, starting out in Kentucky, moving into Ohio and really spread that out around the eastern half of the US.

Michael Palumbos (00:00:53) - That's great. So what we'd like to do two things. One is I'd love to hear your story about how you entered the family business. That's a different path for everybody, one and two. From there. I want to talk about when the company was founded. What were the founders thinking? What were they doing? What did the company do then versus what it does today? So give us an introduction of Ben and your journey in.

Ben Brandstetter (00:01:22) - Yeah, so I'm actually fourth generation family business owner going back to my grandfather and great grandfather. They had a asphalt paving business in Cincinnati. Okay. And so we so I'm actually technically fourth generation in that overall lineage, but second generation in our business. And personally, I grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, and the kind of the rule in our house was you got to you can go to school anywhere you want as long as it's not in the state of Kentucky. The whole whole purpose was to get out, do something else, see, you know, explore, find out who you are. And so in September of 95, I moved down to Atlanta and enrolled at Georgia Tech and and got an engineering and civil engineering degree down there. Um, I like say I squeeze four years into five and it wasn't it wasn't it wasn't necessarily the the easiest curriculum but but didn't end up getting getting through that and actually met my wife while we were down there So so that was a lot of fun and getting out of school, you know.

Ben Brandstetter (00:02:42) - Going to school for an engineering degree within that architecture, engineering, engineering space was great. It's kind of the first step, so to speak. But the good and the bad thing about our industry, there is a artificial barrier to entry with professional licensure. And so the way it works in engineering and architecture a little bit different. But engineering, you got to you have to pass an exam when you graduate college, then you've got to work 4 or 5 years and then pass another exam to get licensed as a professional engineer. So I kind of looked around and made a decision to stay in the Southeast and moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, and with a fairly sizable civil engineering firm that had a national presence. But they did not have a presence in Kentucky or Ohio, where Branch two was located. And because the other kind of rule in our family was you can't come back to the family business, the branch you're. Carroll unless until you get license. So kind of that's the the good and the bad of the fair artificial barriers to entry.

Ben Brandstetter (00:03:52) - And so long story short, I passed the exam and got the got those results in early 2005. And my wife was pregnant with our oldest son and we left town and moved to north and into Cincinnati area, which is where our all of our engineering at the time was done in our Cincinnati office. Yeah.

Michael Palumbos (00:04:18) - So you spent how many years and not including college? How many years working for somebody else?

Ben Brandstetter (00:04:24) - About five. So graduated in 2000 and left there in 2005. And and I'll tell you what, that company really I still maintain a relationship with with some of the people there. But from a recruiting standpoint, would they I specifically asked them, do you guys have a problem that there's another firm with my name on it, my family's name on it somewhere else? And they said no. And this is what really stood out. They said, we want you to have such a good experience with us that you don't want to go back. They didn't they didn't see that as a risk factor. They saw that as an opportunity to recruit somebody.

Ben Brandstetter (00:05:08) - And that's what, you know, what pushed me over the edge to go with them. And I'm thoroughly glad that I did. Yeah.

Michael Palumbos (00:05:15) - That's awesome. That's awesome. In twofold. One, you know, every family has and that's why I always ask because I haven't had this journey in a couple or three or 4 or 5 episodes, be honest with you. It's been a lot of, you know, well, you know, I woke up and, you know, after I was born, we started, you know, shucking corn or doing whatever on the farm or in the I was behind the scene an excavator. By the time I was 13 and there was a lot of journey right into the family business. But this is the other side where it's the family has a rule that says you got to go and prove you know, prove that you want to be here, prove that you can be here and that this is not, you know, um, you're not entitled to working here, but you got to.

Ben Brandstetter (00:06:05) - Love it. And I will add a caveat. I did work for the company while I was in high school, Sure, but running blueprints and a blueprint room and being the Rod man on a survey crew. So I did have that at that level of exposure. But it was a different is a different experience. It's a different level of professionalism. And and actually, many of the people that were with us when I was in high school are still with us today. And so it helped having that kind of teenage experience, getting to know various staff on just a very basic level. Yeah. You know, it's it's really been fascinating to see how that has evolved over time. And many of them are now actually now my partners in the business.

Michael Palumbos (00:06:51) - That's great. When you think about your time with the other firm, um, what would you say are a handful of things that they did differently than your business, than the family's business that you were able to bring back and introduce Any new things, anything come to mind?

Ben Brandstetter (00:07:10) - Oh, there was a lot.

Ben Brandstetter (00:07:12) - And, and I thought, you know, when when I came back, I thought I was hot stuff because I came from this big 2000 person firm. They know what they know what they're doing. They they do a they did a really good job of getting me to drink the Kool-Aid that they were that they were making in house. And and so I and it was from being an engineer, it was it was a concept very easy to wrap your arms around. And they have been very successful using that model, you know, But being a 20, 20 something person coming back, you know, I come in the door, I said, okay, well, we need to be doing this, this, this and this, and yeah, and you're laughing. That's great, right? But, you know, and I tried to implement some of that stuff, you know, with the stroke of a pen or overnight and it just fell flat on its face. But I have been able to implement a lot, a lot of those the foundational elements that make sense from a cultural perspective.

Ben Brandstetter (00:08:16) - You know, when I was in my in your 20s, you don't you don't understand culture. I'm not even saying I understand culture today, but how culture influences behavior. And some of the, you know, how and why people do things, especially from an organizational organizational structure. So I did bring a lot of those elements. I had to tweak them and modify them to fit, you know, the type of professionals that that we have within our firm. And but, and it's taken a long time. Um, but it was a, I thought it was a phenomenal learning experience to, to see, to see how, how somebody else does it. And, and, and that was really a two way street because they were open to sharing all that information. That's great. Yeah. Yeah.

Michael Palumbos (00:09:11) - That's fantastic. I love that idea because basically you're going out, you're bringing out, you know, new information and being able to bring it back. And yes, I get at 20, you're not implementing it, but there's a lot of things that you probably learned that late through your career.

Michael Palumbos (00:09:28) - You're like, I remember how we did this there. Hey, you know what? We're having some issues with X, Y or Z. There's let me just show you something that they're doing. It might apply or might not apply. And you probably have implemented some of those things through the years.

Ben Brandstetter (00:09:42) - Definitely. Yeah, definitely. That's awesome.

Michael Palumbos (00:09:44) - No, I appreciate you sharing that.

Ben Brandstetter (00:09:46) - Yeah.

Michael Palumbos (00:09:48) - Talk about the founders for a second. And when was the business started? Yeah, I want to hear a little bit more about the second generation, the fourth generation being in the family business. What was that? You know, what happened to that original business? Where did that go? And if I love this, the history of how did how did we get to where we are today? Kind of.

Ben Brandstetter (00:10:11) - Yeah. So there's a. There's a lot of different elements to that story with respect to with with respect to Branston Carol. We were founded in 1979. I was two years old and my dad, Larry Brandstatter and Mike Carroll, were working at a firm architectural firm up in Ashland, Ohio, and they wanted to go out on their own.

Ben Brandstetter (00:10:34) - And so they actually picked up. Um, picked up the families and drove down to Lexington, Kentucky, and essentially just kind of hung out a shingle. And and it's really something you don't really hear that story a lot today. Um, you're moving to a new town especially with today's communication is know we have phenomenal opportunities. But you know, back in late 1970s that was a lot a much different story and they didn't know a single person in town and they hung up a shingle and said, Hey, here's what we want to be doing. Um, and then a couple of years after that, my my father's younger brother Bruce joined the joined the business and he started this Cincinnati office in 1982. So that's kind of how it grew organically. Um, at the very beginning. And so. You'll be going back to that. The third and the fourth generation. The my grandfather and great grandfather had the asphalt paving business. It was George Brandstatter and son. So I think think believe there were three sons and they were involved in the business.

Ben Brandstetter (00:11:50) - So three brothers, a father and three brothers. And that was mean. That was an operation really up until the last 15 years. Maybe. Maybe, yeah, 10 to 15 years. Um, you know, but my grandfather didn't have a high school education and so the education was very big to him. And, and so he made sure he told his boys, hey, look, you know, go get, go get an education so you're not, you know, slinging a pick and a shovel every day. And so that was kind of the genesis behind that, the original construction business shifting to professional services and really that kind of that generational shift in educational attainment and expectations. So, um, you know, that was, I think that was part of that. And actually, and I think it's really neat. There's a friend of mine in Cincinnati that. He is fourth generation in a construction business. And you know, his great grandfather and worked with my great grandfather and kind of. And we've we just maintain that relationship.

Ben Brandstetter (00:13:00) - And it's you know, so it adds in by developing those relationships, you it gives you a chance to talk about topics with somebody else that at least you feel as though that maybe not in the same exact same boat, but you're at least paddling in the same direction. Yeah.

Michael Palumbos (00:13:18) - So up until about 15 years ago, the asphalt and paving company existed. What was the how did that did it get sold? Was it who was running it at the end?

Ben Brandstetter (00:13:31) - Yeah. It ended up being, you know, the a transitional issue. My grandfather actually got out of business in the early 90s, and so it was his brothers and there was one more generation beyond that. But it just kind of, um, it just kind of slowly faded away and over time, yeah.

Michael Palumbos (00:13:54) - You know, it's we need to hear those things because, you know, there's your grandfather was wise in terms of, hey, let's go get, you know, get you educated, let's change the dynamics a little bit in terms of who we are and what we're doing.

Michael Palumbos (00:14:09) - And I want you swinging the pickaxe, as you said. And at the same time, you know, that generation wasn't always open to planning and conversations and thinking about things differently. And, you know, I don't know a single founder that loves the word succession planning or exit planning. They just won't. And it's because, you know, it's this is my baby. This is I created this, I did this. And so it's kind of interesting when we would do I'm a second generation wealth advisor and so we would create exit plans and help with the succession plan. And just think about it from a technical standpoint. And then we'd leave them this laundry list of here's the 20 things, the systems and processes you can include and how you fix your finances. And you know, you need you need a leadership team that can help take the the load off of you. And we would give them this list and say good luck. And so think about that, right? If they knew how to do those things, they would have done them already.

Michael Palumbos (00:15:18) - They might. If they were smart, they'd hire a business coach. Well, so what we just did is we said, you know what? Yes, we do all the exit planning. Yes, we come up with these plans, but that's one become business coaches. And here's why I'm telling you this is because then it's like when I'm meeting with owners now and especially again, the founders, you go through and you say, yes, we're going to do exit planning, but wouldn't it be more fun to grow the business and then get it to the point where you don't have to do all the work? Instead of being the CEO, all you can be the CEO and they're like, That sounds better than exit planning and succession planning, and they're identical things. It's two sides of the same coin because if you get if you get that where I can be the CEO and not have everything on my shoulders, now you have a sustainable and a transferable business. So.

Ben Brandstetter (00:16:08) - Right. And and I'll tell you what, I've been very blessed to develop some great relationships with other business owners in our industry in kind of in the in the marketplace that I live in and other parts of the country.

Ben Brandstetter (00:16:19) - And, you know, I've I've gotten enough relationship capital built up with some with some of my guys that are in their late 50s or early 60s. You know, I'm challenging them. What is your exit strategy? They don't want to talk about it. They don't want to talk about it. And I get it. But I kind of feel like as though that's my responsibility to them as a as a friend and a colleague is to say, how are you going to get out? And, you know, and they, you know, you know, the third or fourth time the topic of conversation comes up. Well, you know, okay, I'm talking to this person internally, you know, so we're going we're going to start having those conversations. Because what I what I was observed is that even if the the senior leadership or the principal or the or the owner isn't talking about it, the rest of your staff, are they they know that time is going to catch up at some point and you're going to have to do something.

Ben Brandstetter (00:17:18) - So in my mind, planning for that and laying out a strategy and trying to be transparent with your key people is is critical not to retaining them, but also giving them a level of confidence that the organization is going to be around, you know, down into the future.

Michael Palumbos (00:17:39) - Agreed. Agreed. And that's by doing for us doing the growth strategy work and helping them to do that we don't do. Development or we don't do succession plans that are around the CEO. We do CEO plus leadership team. And so when you when you add that second layer in the stage, one is the CEO training and helping the leadership team take more responsibility so that they can slow down and enjoy life a little bit and go back to you started the conversation about culture. I want that CEO being the king or queen of culture, you know what I mean? I want them to really help build that culture and take the culture to to the next level so that people can start to see those organizations are going to be here for another 20, 30 years.

Michael Palumbos (00:18:27) - Right?

Ben Brandstetter (00:18:27) - Yeah. And and I do believe that this the skill set that it takes to start something from nothing is a is a unique skill set. Yeah. It's, you know, you can make the argument that it's very American. Um but but but that it takes it takes a distinct skill set to get that done and to drive the growth from from zero to what it might be ten, 20, 30 years down the line. Um, but I also believe that it takes a different skill set to grow it from where it is today to that next level. And you know, we've all been blessed with different, different different skills and abilities. We're not blessed with all of them. I think that's probably been one of the biggest struggles that I've had, is realizing that. There are things I can't do and things that I need to I'm not going to be good at. So I've got to find people that are better at that or reach out to colleagues, build a relationship and and try to fill in that gap.

Michael Palumbos (00:19:33) - Yeah. Talk about when when the company started. Are they still in the same industry? Still in the same business? As we started today.

Ben Brandstetter (00:19:45) - We are, actually. We are, yeah. I mean, the the simple explanation is the firm was founded to work with public sector clients to implement their projects. And for the most part, we've stayed with that and could probably go back and track over the last even 10 to 20 years. We are a majority public sector design firm that serves, you know, cities, townships, county governments, local recreation departments, um, utility agencies and general aviation airports. But I will say that we as we have grown, we have begun, we have we, we serve larger and larger clients, whether that be larger cities or now or states or even some federal design work. And so that's that's where that growth has occurred in adding on some additional marketplaces while also added layering on geography at the same time. Yeah.

Michael Palumbos (00:20:49) - Tell me about your role with the with the firm and how it's evolved and what are you doing now with.

Ben Brandstetter (00:20:57) - Yeah. So when I when I came back in 2005, I was the I ran our transportation engineering practice in the Cincinnati marketplace and that served mainly Kentucky and Ohio clients. And then in 2017, I took over as president of the firm and my dad dad stepped down and well, step, step over and became chairman.

Michael Palumbos (00:21:21) - Okay.

Ben Brandstetter (00:21:23) - So I think he enjoys that. The title, the you know, the chairman and you know, but essentially that gave him a chance to still be involved in a day to day operations of the business. Um, and so we could kind of transition that overall leadership over a little bit longer time frame. So it wasn't just going to be a, you know, a, a one day shock to the system. Um, but, but in that previous role, I was still still engaged with, you know, nearly all of our division heads within other divisions of the firm. So, you know, building those, building relationships with those people and, and a lot of those people are still with us today.

Ben Brandstetter (00:22:03) - They've been with us 10 to 20 years. So even though I was focused from a practice standpoint on all that engineering side, I was still able to open up my experience and still and build relationships with people that were outside and just the clients that was that I was serving and working with. So I think that I think that that that really helped me as I grew into the president role and, you know, 2017 and kind of help with that ramp up period, so to speak. So to allow that to happen a little bit, a little bit more smoothly or smoother than otherwise just trying to come in on day one and and and take things over.

Michael Palumbos (00:22:46) - Sure. So, Mike, Larry and Bruce started the business there running it. What's their level of involvement today? You know, how what did. Yeah. What are all three of them involved. Not involved that look like today.

Ben Brandstetter (00:23:03) - They're yeah they're all they're all actually still involved in the business. They're still on the payroll and which, which is fantastic and, and you know dad stepped down from his from, you know, full time role a few years ago.

Ben Brandstetter (00:23:21) - Um, Mike Carroll did that a couple of years after him and then Bruce more recently. But they're still involved in the business. They're still out there serving clients. I like to say to oversimplify, I'd like to say they're still doing all the things that they enjoy doing. They're just not doing the stuff they didn't enjoy doing. Right. And, you know, and so it and there's obviously some things that I don't enjoy doing or things that I struggle with. But, you know, at my age, I've got a little a little more energy, you know, a little bit more closely tied to the 20 and 30 something workforce that we've got because we've had a lot you know, there's been a lot of challenges that we've had with adapting to, you know, people. We've got people in our firm don't know what the youngest age is, maybe 19 with a with a co-op or something like that up until their early to mid 70s. And so that's a pretty wide band. And if you think about the things that the workforce, the workplace has been dealing with, especially just even the last three years, remote work policy, um, you know, all, all the technological innovations including Zoom and teams, all that kind of stuff, we could probably have a whole separate discussion just on just on that topic.

Ben Brandstetter (00:24:42) - But, you know, it it was a struggle for for myself and our crew to manage that rate of change that happened so fast in 2020, you know, from March, April, May into June of 2020, the rate of change was so fast. Um, and I think we were uniquely positioned to be able to adapt faster and, and handle the some of that stuff just because of the just the underlying knowledge of the technology and how it was going to work. Now, the the crazy thing is myself and seven of our partners closed on buying the firm from Larry, Mike and Bruce on March 1st of 2020. And then, yeah, thanks for laughing. Three weeks later, three weeks later, you know, Covid hits and the world gets turned upside down. And like, you know, if we didn't think that we knew what we were doing already, we really didn't know what we were doing. But I think that time period we adapted, um, really gave us a chance to kind of come together as a, as a leadership team.

Ben Brandstetter (00:25:55) - We did for the, for about. Don't know at the time kind of shifted during that period. But for maybe 2 or 3 months we were doing daily, 5:30 p.m., conference calls on what do we need to change here? What do we need change here? What's going on? Just because things were changing so fast, then we kind of backed it down to three days a week and then ultimately one day a week. And now now we're not having to do that. But I also had to change my communication style as well. I'm an engineer. I don't you know, I'm words are a challenge sometimes. But there at that time, they were so much uncertainty. I was so I was I ended up writing a firm wide letter every night for probably about 2 or 3 months. And sometimes it was two paragraphs, sometimes it was three pages about what's going on and really and I saw that evolve into as much keeping up morale within everybody because everybody was going through this and there was so much uncertainty that, you know, I would I would layer in, you know, family elements and stuff that I probably ordinarily would not have done because just kind of how my how my mind works.

Ben Brandstetter (00:27:20) - But it really and and it really struck me a few months after that and I was doing daily for a couple of months and sometimes you'd be up to 11, 12:00 at night writing this stuff and then back down to kind of three days a week and then one day a week. And now that's kind of it's gone away. But it was really interesting. Um, one of the people that works for us in Lexington said, hey, you know, we my, our my family really enjoys reading your emails every night. They were they were reading it to their kids. And and it was mostly appropriate stuff for kids in that in that content. But um, you know, it was a it was a kind of a rallying cry. And I think that that, that did a lot for going back to culture. I think that did a lot for our culture.

Michael Palumbos (00:28:13) - That's awesome. I hope that all of your, you know, team members that you have kept some of that personal stuff and that vulnerability with your team alive.

Michael Palumbos (00:28:29) - I think that might one of the biggest gifts that Covid did for business owners.

Ben Brandstetter (00:28:35) - You're right and and think vulnerability because um. That is. I think that's one of the most challenging things because you always want to show, you know, hey, I'm in control, I know what we're doing, Hey, you need to follow me. But being trying to be vulnerable at the same time is very challenging. And so I think you're right. It probably was a very good thing for society because we were about a year and a half ago, we updated our core values, we simplified them and we add and authenticity was one of those. And um, and that was a really interesting conversation to have with our staff firm wide and talk about why is this important. But I think the workforce of today really yearns for that authenticity. Um, and, and the challenge that I've got is we get, as we get larger is maintaining that authenticity, kind of the personal touch with everybody and it gets more challenging every day is we're up to about 80 employees firm wide.

Ben Brandstetter (00:29:48) - And um, and I even talk about that with other friends that are business owners, um, as their organizations have grown, that's something that they, that they struggle with as well.

Michael Palumbos (00:30:00) - Yeah. And that's, you know, what I say is the CEO's number one president's number one job, whoever's running that company, it is culture and it's and it's working really hard and beating that drum over and over again and keeping that rhythm in terms of what is our culture along with I think the two are culture and strategy. It's here's our strategy. And this is we we need it needs to be clear and simple and communicated over and over and over.

Ben Brandstetter (00:30:33) - Yeah. And that and that's a very challenging thing to do, number one, because you because you don't want to have the same content you want, you want to keep things fresh, but then that puts a lot of stress on the person who's developing that content to keep it fresh and keep it relevant at the same time.

Michael Palumbos (00:30:53) - I'll share something with you. I try to, you know, every once in a while, if I get a little think I have a nugget to share with you.

Michael Palumbos (00:30:59) - I had an I had, um, A41 plan that I was managing for one of our families. They had 75 employees would come in for the employee meeting once a year that we would do. And I created the, you know, here's the employee education process. And I use the same slides over and over again every single year. And I was really nervous about it. Somebody heard this from somebody else and they're like, Just trust me, Michael. These are the seven things. These are the five things that every employee needs to know. Just keep using the same slides. And I was the guy that said I need new things. Well, three years into doing it for this group of employees, one of the employees comes up to me that had been at every single one and said, I just want to let you know, Mike, this year was so much better than last year. And you're laughing. And that's exactly it. It's so you know, I don't I would challenge you or just or encourage you not to change the content too often and that it's keeping it that same.

Michael Palumbos (00:32:07) - It doesn't have to be fresh because it's they just people need to keep hearing the same thing over and over again. That's what keeps it clear and concise for them to say, Oh, it's still this great and there's no confusion in that, you know, until it until it does change. So.

Ben Brandstetter (00:32:25) - Right. That's a good point. Yeah.

Michael Palumbos (00:32:27) - I was really that was that was a shocker for me. And so when it happened, I'm okay. Let's keep it simple, keep it on target and and make sure they hear that message repeatedly. Yeah. Um, so you have seven partners today. What's the leadership team look like for the company today?

Ben Brandstetter (00:32:45) - So we've got I serve as a service president and then we've got division heads that essentially report report back up to me. We've got three divisions in Lexington, one in Cincinnati, one in Cleveland, and and then one in Dallas as well. And so we get together over teams every Monday morning at 10 a.m. And we we we go through kind of our normal weekly reporting.

Ben Brandstetter (00:33:15) - And it's very consistent and in terms of the format. But we also it also gives us gives us all a chance to be in the same room together and talk and chat about things that we're working on together, but also gives me that touchpoint on a weekly basis that, hey, if I need to reinforce something or say, Hey guys, if we're having a major IT implementation, we've got, we've got that. Um, and then another thing that I do is I've on Monday morning at 730, I do a, just a teams conference call with, um, with kind of what I consider to be our senior staff in, in our Lexington office. And we, it's, it's just everybody's kind of on their way into the office at that point in time and it just gives us a chance to check in. And I'll just kind of say, Hey, guys, here's what here's what I've got on my radar. You know, this upcoming week, next week, whatever it is. Um, sometimes that phone call lasts for five minutes, sometimes it's 30 minutes, but it gives but it gives us that regular touchpoint because, you know, you get down, you get to the course of the week, people get busy and you're you're tied up, you're working out, you're serving clients or working on projects.

Ben Brandstetter (00:34:32) - Um, so I think those little elements give us a good chance to kind of just, you know, to do a touch base. I try to keep it as, as open as possible. I don't I don't want it to be me talking to them and saying, hey, here's what and just, you know, assigning tasks. It's like, okay, what does everybody think about this? And try to. The challenge is asking open ended questions and trying to elicit some responses. And and we've made it really open. We've opened that up to really anybody on the kind of on the on the senior leadership position within the firm is welcome to join And some do and some don't That's like that's fine. I'm not going to it's not I'm not going to criticize you or if you choose not to. Um, but, but, but that provides an opportunity to give people a seat at the table in the decision making process. So and then other than I have a controller, full time controller that reports to me as well.

Ben Brandstetter (00:35:31) - And so that's kind of the. Basic organizational structure that we've got here.

Michael Palumbos (00:35:38) - When you looking at the last 15 years or so and looking at the projects that you've performed and put together, what are some of the ones that are your most proud of?

Ben Brandstetter (00:35:51) - Oh, wow. Um, you know, some of these are going to sound a little bit odd. We do a lot in the public safety space, and we did a fairly sizable county jail facility in Kentucky, probably about it actually about 15 years ago. And we provided it was a brand new facility. And it and the thing that I'm most proud of about that aspect of that project is the fact that we it was we gave an environment, an environment for the people that work in that facility. We gave them a quality environment. We improved their quality of life because they had been in a facility that has it was it had been long past its prime, and jail facilities are tough to maintain they get. And so I'd frankly I don't know how they recruited people to come in and work in that in that previous facility on a day to day basis.

Ben Brandstetter (00:36:57) - And so, you know, then we we built this new facility and it's, you know, bright open. It provides them a better way to manage manage the people that they are housed in there frankly, gave the people that are spending time in there a better a better space as well. Um, but I think the seeing the impact that it has on the people that work in those buildings is really is really fascinating. And you know, our, our firm mission is we enhancing community and quality of life. And so really everything that we do, whether it be a water line project that provides clean water to a new part of town, um, a public safety, you know, new fire station, the really, the easy ones to identify are the parks and recreation projects because those are all they're fun and the kids are out there and and doing a lot of things, especially on the aquatic side because, you know, they make for great pictures and people, you know, people are rushing to get in.

Ben Brandstetter (00:38:03) - Those are a lot of fun. Those are easy. It's easy to identify how those enhance community and the quality of life. Um, some of the other ones, it's a little bit more challenging, but really at the, at on, at the end of the day, everything we do touches that the community and the quality of life for the clients that we serve. Right.

Michael Palumbos (00:38:24) - Through the time, you know, the again before the transition. What were some of the you know, you're in a family business. You've got your father your uncle you what were some of the challenges of working as a family together?

Ben Brandstetter (00:38:41) - Uh, besides Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Michael Palumbos (00:38:46) - We're interested. So here's a question. Were you the family that, you know, if you were together outside of work, you're you're talking projects and you're talking shop because it was just.

Ben Brandstetter (00:38:56) - You know, I think we did that and we in an appropriate amount. Right. It didn't dominate the conversations. Um, and and I'll have to give my wife a lot of credit.

Ben Brandstetter (00:39:10) - She, you know, she never complained about that at a, you know, when we're driving home from a family function, you know why this why that you know she but you know, but she kind of knew what she was getting into and when she said yes and and and, you know, she had a choice. And so that was she she had a choice. But no, I think we it was an appropriate amount. And we and it it depended on the, the, the location, what it was. But um, yeah. And I think different people have different, different tolerances for how much they want to, they want to do that and everybody has a different manner in which they kind of decompress outside of that Monday through Friday environment. So it's there is no right or wrong answer to that. It's kind of it's much more based on the individual personalities on of that are involved.

Michael Palumbos (00:40:09) - When you know if. If you. And your uncle or father had, you know, didn't didn't see eye to eye on something.

Michael Palumbos (00:40:20) - What was the process for getting from point A to point B for you guys?

Ben Brandstetter (00:40:26) - You know, we Richard Nixon said, you know, agreement should be, you know, what did he say announced in public and and discussed in private or agree with agree in public and disagree in private. I'd say for the most part, we respected that that type of that type of approach things And, you know, fortunately, we I wouldn't say that we really had too many major disagreements, um, amongst everybody. And so I think we've, we've been very fortunate with that. Um, so, you know, think you kind of disagree but then however it ends up, you walk out of the room and say, okay, I'm, I am, I'm on board with this. You know, I may not have this may not have been how I wanted this to turn out, but this is this is the decision that we made and we're going and this needs to be implemented for the for the good of the organization.

Michael Palumbos (00:41:28) - Perfect. You just took a page out of Patrick luncheons. Five Dysfunctions of a Team. It's healthy conflict. Healthy conflict is good. But then regardless of the outcome, we commit to the path forward together. Right? And we trust each other. And it's all based because you guys trusted each other enough to be able to do that.

Ben Brandstetter (00:41:49) - Right? Yeah. And as as that circle gets bigger, the more you're going to have disagreements. And I think that's and I think that is like you said, I think that's healthy. Um, because I call it creative destruction. You've got to get in there and get a little bit and lay everything out on the table. Yeah. Um, but at the same time, I do believe you've got to take emotion out of it. You've got to take emotion out of that decision making process. And of course.

Michael Palumbos (00:42:19) - And it's not personal, right?

Ben Brandstetter (00:42:21) - Yeah, it's not. Yeah, it's not personal. It's okay. And and two people can disagree and that's fine.

Ben Brandstetter (00:42:28) - And, um, but at the same time, we also need to learn through that process. Okay, how can we make this better than next time? Um, you know, we're not that. Not everything we do is unique. There are there are constant themes amongst you across what we do, not only in business and serving the clients, but in running the business. And, you know, we can always make something better. All right. How are we going to do this next time? And doing a debrief? Okay, This is how we did it. This is this is how this went. And I think the Blue Angels are a great example. They do that after every single mission and every after every single show, they go they go around the table and talk about, hey, here's what I here's what I didn't do. But you know what? I'm still glad to be here. And so that that's something that I've been trying to work on the last, last little while is to develop that culture where we do a debrief where it's not it's not a, Why did you do this or Why did you do that? It was okay.

Ben Brandstetter (00:43:31) - Here's how we arrived at that decision. Time has shown either yet that was a good decision or it wasn't. But how do we learn from that moving forward so that we can do better the next time? Because we can't change the past? The only thing we can do is influence the future.

Michael Palumbos (00:43:47) - That's great. You mentioned you have kids.

Ben Brandstetter (00:43:51) - Do.

Michael Palumbos (00:43:52) - Well. How old are your kids and does anybody do you think there's anybody that's doing internships or, you know, doing something with you?

Ben Brandstetter (00:44:00) - They're they're 15 and 17, two boys. So I've got a sophomore and a senior in college. And now they're actually they played in a golf tournament this morning. The older one won his his his age bracket. And the younger one came in second. So they which is which is great. So no, I think the older the older one has an interest in engineering. But, you know, he's 17 years old and and but you know, so he what I've what I've try to do and I think it's something that Karen, I've tried to do or trying to do here in the next next couple of years is to get them a little bit more engaged in various aspects of what we do.

Ben Brandstetter (00:44:45) - Because not only do we have the Prancer Carol Inc, we also have some real estate interests and other other things that we're involved in from a business perspective. And a lot of those things that the the kids have been involved in that or they've seen that or they grew up and they had to go wash walls at the office building or sweep the floors or, you know, do those kinds of things just to get them to understand the responsibility of ownership. And I think the next level that we've got to do is begin to start educating them on, you know, cash flow and value and talking about what what those different things mean. And value is not just I have a dollar in my in my pocket, I've got to go buy something. Um, so I think that's part of that, that evolution of, you know, as, as, as our kids get older, we're blessed. They're kind of a. There are only two years apart. So we can kind of work on similar things together with both of them.

Ben Brandstetter (00:45:48) - But that's actually one of our we need to do during the summer is I'm going to have one have both of them develop a cash flow forecast for for one of our properties and start to see, okay, here's how you manage cash. And you've got taxes. They're going to hit twice a year. And just because you have X dollars in the account doesn't mean that you get to spend it today. And and so we're going to start we're going to start working on that and kind of laying that groundwork, um, to, to have to so that we can have more fruitful generational discussions about these topics. And and I'm hopeful. I think, you know, that the greatest generation probably didn't really have very many discussions about value and wealth. And I think the boomer generation is probably done a little bit better. And I'm hopeful that my generation does does that better because I think there's more people like you that are out there driving those conversations.

Michael Palumbos (00:46:47) - Good as you're looking at. We talked about, you know, the transition and whatnot.

Michael Palumbos (00:46:53) - Now you're sitting in the presidency if you look out over the next 12 months. What are your top three priorities for the business and and where you're going?

Ben Brandstetter (00:47:05) - Number one is people. And I know that's been a consistent theme. I'm in a group and we get together on a once a month and we're we're all dealing with that from, you know, the startup guy to the guy with 500 employees or even a couple thousand employees. How do you attract and retain good staff? Our industry is very blessed right now. There's we've it feels as though everybody is at capacity. We're concerned about employee burnout or, you know, how are we going to how are we going to make sure that these people don't, you know, just say I'm done and go somewhere else? That's that's a real that's a real challenge. So, you know, I think the the people aspect of things, um. Frankly, Michael, I would say people, people, people, you know, that that's that we had to shift how we do recruiting a couple of years ago.

Ben Brandstetter (00:48:12) - And we now have our business development director involved in our recruiting aspects because she was out there selling the business every day to clients. Well, in today's environment, the last few years, we have to sell the company to employees as well. And people don't just knock on your you know, back in the 80s and 90s it was, oh, yeah, yeah, I'll give you a job and you're and people are begging for them that the tables are flipped and you know and it's I've kind of filed this one away. That's a good problem to have as a society that anybody that wants a job can can get it. But it really. Changes how we as a business recruit and how we as a business retain employees and trying to manage all those expectations all at the same time. It it's very difficult.

Michael Palumbos (00:49:14) - But mean not good but mean good that you've got your your fingers on the pulse and you're paying attention to it. You know that it's it's not going away either. That this issue is not going away anytime soon.

Michael Palumbos (00:49:29) - No Covid changed everything when that. Well.

Ben Brandstetter (00:49:35) - I think Covid had was one was one element of that. I think there are some more macro demographic challenges that have been taking place. I also think that the the 2008, 2009 financial crisis, you know, when when the development and the construction industry really got really got hit hard, that was a time when a lot of people, the kids who were graduating college in oh eight, oh nine, ten couldn't find a position, couldn't find an entry point to the industry at that point in time. Well, then you fast forward 10 to 15 years. We really we have a gap in that 30 something cohort within our within our organization. We've got we've got we've done a really good job with a 20 somethings and everybody else but that that 30 something cohort there's really there's not a lot of people at least within our organization that fit that bill. So it's yeah, I think it was, I think it was Covid, I think but I think it's as much demographic, macro demographics and, you know that the, the labor attraction is not like you said, it's not going to get into easier.

Ben Brandstetter (00:50:52) - We're bringing back a ton of manufacturing to United States that's going on and we're seeing that in nearly all the markets that we serve. And I serve on the local economic development corporation, and we're seeing that every day as well. You know, so the the lower skilled labor is being gobbled up right. At the same time now. Technology, innovation, robots, whatever you want to call it. That's going to. That's going to, you know, solve part of that problem. But the technical base and the knowledge economy. You know, I can't solve everything, correct? So you still you still need those people that that that are creative, innovative and collaborative to to get out there and serve the clients. Okay.

Michael Palumbos (00:51:46) - You mentioned your boys and one of them was is interested in the professional engineering or architecture. Right. We have a wonderful school up here, Rochester Institute of Technology. And if he spends four winters up here, I guarantee they'll get them back. I guarantee. Well.

Ben Brandstetter (00:52:05) - He yeah, he we're starting that process and we're he goes to a relatively small Catholic school in our area.

Ben Brandstetter (00:52:14) - And so it doesn't have football. You know, he's on the basketball team, so he's never really had that athletic experience. And so he's only looking at big schools in the South that have big time college athletics. So I'm sure Rochester would be phenomenal for them. But that is not on his short list right now. Understand?

Michael Palumbos (00:52:36) - Understand and forgot to mention, when you mentioned Georgia Tech, you went there. Our daughter is at Georgia Tech right now doing great, doing her masters in, what is it, human computer interaction. So you know how Wow. What is that? It's like the user interface user design, you know, the user experience kind of stuff.

Ben Brandstetter (00:52:58) - Right? Neat.

Michael Palumbos (00:53:00) - Yeah. Um, if you're, you're part of a CEO roundtable, which I highly recommend to everybody, if I'm not mistaken, that's how we met, That's how we got in touch with each other. I'm also, you know, I do that. I highly recommend it. If you're sitting in front of 100 family owned businesses right now and you're going through your top three list of, you know, don't miss these things.

Michael Palumbos (00:53:31) - These are these are what we what we have found work and are important. And I know you laid a lot of that stuff out, but if you were to summarize, what's your top three hit list for the family owned businesses?

Ben Brandstetter (00:53:41) - You know that that's an interesting question. I think the first thing that comes to my mind is transparency and that that can cut a lot of different ways, you know, transparency with with all the employees, transparency within within the family network, but really showing that and finding a way to be overtly transparent and communicate that stuff. And I think that's that's one of the things that technology has allowed us to do within our organization is that we share we share a ton of our data internally so everybody knows what's going on. The last thing you know, the last phone call I want to get was, well, they never told me I needed to do this. Well, you know what? We've created forums this, this, this and this for you to have those conversations, to foster those conversations.

Ben Brandstetter (00:54:38) - And so I think, frankly, I think that's one of the things that's helped us succeed over the course of the last five and ten years. Um, let me think on that for.

Michael Palumbos (00:54:50) - A second because I want to make sure people get that. There's very often, especially in family owned businesses, there's a lot of, you know, I don't want everybody to know our stuff and, and I challenge people to to listen to what you said, because what we've seen is that people know, you know, the people don't always understand the amount of reinvestment that goes in and the amount of money that's going out. And they just think that everybody is a millionaire, you know, and that you're making gobs and gobs of money and there's no responsibility. And they do all the work. And I think that comes from that secrecy and that when you do get to be more transparent and start to show, you know, how much this piece of equipment cost or, you know, the taxes that we pay or the amount of money that's going into the retirement plans.

Michael Palumbos (00:55:45) - Yes, I'm paid well. I'm but most presidents of family owned businesses are not paid. The you know, if you took a comparable public company, you're probably underpaid in comparison.

Ben Brandstetter (00:56:00) - I'll make sure my partners hear that.

Michael Palumbos (00:56:02) - Yeah. So transparency.

Ben Brandstetter (00:56:08) - Yeah. No, you know, I think the other one is simply to have enjoy yourself, have have fun. And I think that's what one of the things that my the CEO group I'm in um we we we're very intentional about enjoying the time that we spend together now we're going to we're going to work hard. We're going to tackle a lot of the issues. We're going to talk about these different things. But at the same time, you know, we it can't just be all business all the time. You've got to you've got to enjoy the time you spend together. And all while celebrating successes. And I think that's something that we we do not do a good job of. We've got we we need to do a better job of that. Um, you know, so I think that, I think that's, I think that's very important to get as a, as an overall cultural aspect.

Michael Palumbos (00:57:00) - Great. One of the things I'll share this. I'll share this with you. Another CEO he noticed as he went through Covid, there was a rallying cry and everybody kind of came together to get through it. And we talked about that for you as well. You experienced that. You know, there was a company the other during that period of time. And he said to me, you know, Michael, I really want that back. And I missed that and not the bad parts of it, but it was all of the people working together. And and so there's a and you kind of alluded to this. This is why I'm sharing it. It's we call it a thematic event. And so you can make them fun. You don't design them. You tell. You set a goal around X, Y, or Z that the leadership team does, and then you put together a team to say, This is our goal. I want to create a thematic event so that everybody understands that and knows what we're going for And for this next quarter or for this first half of this year.

Michael Palumbos (00:58:06) - This is what we're going after. And when we get there, we're going to celebrate and this is what the celebration is going to look like. Here's the budget. You guys go figure it out. And you bring people from different walks of life and different departments and different divisions and have them put together the, you know, the the thermometer, for lack of a better word, and create the theme based on the goal that you're trying to achieve. And by doing that over and over again, if it once a quarter we're having a celebration assuming that we hit the the goals, but we should be setting goals that are attainable. And it can be fun. It can be fun. I hit one story. I'll share one last one. Share it with you. They said they wanted to get the $3.14 million.

Ben Brandstetter (00:58:57) - Oh, geez.

Michael Palumbos (00:58:58) - You got it. So the thing was, if they got in a quarter, that 3.14. Okay. If they got their back quarter, they got the pie, the top guy.

Michael Palumbos (00:59:10) - So, you.

Ben Brandstetter (00:59:11) - Know.

Michael Palumbos (00:59:12) - Yeah. And so they got cream pies and they got there and they took pictures and all kinds of fun.

Ben Brandstetter (00:59:19) - Yeah. And I think that that, that collaboration, you know, uniting people around the common goal is great. And really, you know, we started doing this a few a few years before Covid was getting everybody from all of our offices together in one location because people talk over the phone. You don't really know who that who that is. And to a lot of us, that was it's like, oh, man, okay, well, we're we're wasting a day. Everybody's going to be out of the office. Nothing's going to get done. All this kind of stuff. But the feedback that we got after those events be like, Oh man, I'm so glad I got to meet so-and-so. And I never even knew what that guy looked like. And then we didn't do it for a year or so during Covid. And then we started started back up the last couple of years.

Ben Brandstetter (01:00:06) - And the level of participation that we get, the level of attendance that we get is really it. It shouldn't surprise me every year, but it it does in a positive way. And, you know, we do the mandatory fun type stuff while we're there. We have a good time. We kind of talk about the big picture of where we are and and where we're going. But, you know, we have. We place a renewed emphasis on making sure we do that on an annual basis, not just every other year, every three years.

Michael Palumbos (01:00:42) - That's great. Any other words of wisdom?

Ben Brandstetter (01:00:45) - No, I appreciate I really enjoyed the conversation and I appreciate you reaching out. And, you know, good luck to you and. Continuing this podcast.

Michael Palumbos (01:00:58) - Appreciate we're we'll be celebrating episode 100 sometime in 2024. So we're trying to figure out what what that one looks like, but we're pretty booked for all these episodes. This was a blessing from Covid. So I appreciate you sharing your wisdom and your experience, you know, and being part of a family business.

Michael Palumbos (01:01:20) - Thank you so much. So thank you. Thank you, everybody. My name is Michael Columbus. You've been listening to The Family Biz Show. I'm in Rochester, New York, with family wealth and legacy. And we look forward to having you listen in on the next episode. Have a great day, everybody.

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Michael Palumbos is a registered representative of Lincoln Financial Advisors Corp. Securities and investment advisory services offered through Lincoln Financial Advisors Corp., a broker/dealer (member SIPC) and registered investment advisor. Insurance offered through Lincoln affiliates and other fine companies. Family Wealth & Legacy, LLC is not an affiliate of Lincoln Financial Advisors Corp. Lincoln Financial Advisors Corp. and its representatives do not provide legal or tax advice. You may want to consult a legal or tax advisor regarding any legal or tax information as it relates to your personal circumstances.

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