The Big Story: Sweet Succession
Passing the torch — It’s the story every jeweler is thinking about, but few want to tackle.
BY EILEEN McCLELLAND
Lyle Husar’s “retirement” in January was the culmination of an organized, five-year plan that led to his son Craig succeeding him as second-generation CEO. But he’s been reluctant to let his position as “micromanager” slip away completely.
“It’s hard for me to pass the torch,” Lyle admits. “It’s working, but it doesn’t happen overnight. I think Craig wants me to stick around. He says he still has a few things to learn.”
So far, retirement has meant he works 40 to 45 hours a week, four days a week as a certified master watchmaker, a jeweler and a salesman. Before, he often worked 50 to 60 hours a week, or as many as 70. His 70th birthday last September and his wife, Alice’s, bout with cancer last year were wakeup calls to the fact it might be time to take a step back, pursue hobbies and do some traveling. CFO Alice Husar has declared her own retirement. “She says, ‘That’s it, she’s not coming back,’” her husband says.
Lyle advises families to start planning for succession early. “It’s not an overnight project,” he says. “Don’t be afraid to communicate with your children and your advisers, attorneys and CPAs.”
Lyle encouraged Craig, now in his early 40s, to explore the world outside of the family business, and to learn what it’s like to work for someone else. “He went to California for his GIA training, got his GG and came back — seven years later. I have to tell people that’s not because he’s slow,” Lyle jokes. “Craig fell in love with California.”
Craig taught for the GIA, worked for Alan Friedman in Beverly Hills and went on the road with Mel Fisher’s exhibition, “Treasures of the Atocha,” which allowed him to visit jewelry stores all over the country and return with a broad knowledge about everything from store design to gemology.
“I think my father was wise to push me away from the business in 1991,” Craig says. “A common trait I see among successful second generation owners is that they’ve left the business for a while and now have a deeper appreciation for what it takes to run a successful business.”
By his 30s, he had decided to return with a vision of growing the family business into one of the leading stores in Milwaukee.
Craig’s focus gradually changed from a concentration on individual interactions with customers to a much broader picture — an understanding of how every single thing impacts the business. “There used to be almost a blissful ignorance where it was fun to chat with customers all day and sell jewelry,” Craig says. “Now it’s become much more demanding and the stakes are higher than ever.”
As the years went by, he needed to cultivate patience to understand his father’s reluctance to let go of the business. “My father has invested his life in building this business and passing the torch is not an easy thing to do,” he says. “The failure rate is extremely high from first to second generation owners, and that is multiplied exponentially for the third generation. But I absolutely hope that one of my children succeeds me in the business, too.”
Craig’s daughter Becca, 24, has recently joined him in sales and marketing with a degree in graphic arts and a background in sales. Craig also works with his sister, Christine Husar Anderson, a custom-jewelry designer, inventory manager and new CFO.
Lyle says both Craig and Christine found their niches naturally. “I didn’t do a lot of prodding,” he says. “Craig was on the floor since he was 10 or 11. Little old ladies loved him.”
Lyle, formerly a machinist and a rock musician on the side, started his first business in 1968 with 400 square feet and $5,000 in savings. He sold and repaired clocks and watches. Now, with the store at 5,000 square feet and 12 employees, he barely recognizes the business as the one he founded. “The goal was to be my own boss and I think I succeeded. I had no idea there were that many hats to wear when running a business. But my wife had a business background. She took care of bookkeeping and I took care of making the money.”
Lyle is making an effort to let go. Still, it can be tough, he says, watching Craig “make some of the same mistakes I made. It’s nothing major, but everything does seem to come full circle. All of a sudden I’ll come in and everything’s been remerchandised — just like it was 10 years ago.
“But if he makes a mistake, we sit down and discuss it. We have very good communication, and weekly family meetings, which we feel are very important.” Lyle’s next goal is to be able to do whatever he wants whenever he wants. “If I want to take a vacation, I’m going to go,” he says.