Family Business

Allowing potential successors to choose their next business leader


5 min




Listen to the Darleys, a 3rd generation manufacturing business family operating W.S. Darley & Co and specialized in pumps, fire apparatus and emergency products based in Illinois, USA, describe their inclusive, five-year transition process for choosing a next CEO among siblings and cousins.



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Paul Darley
Our company had a very unique succession plan. Most family businesses, it is often common to leave the company business, if you will, or at least the management of that company business, to the oldest son or daughter. And in our particular case, we had a whole, you know, slew of qualified candidates, and my father ultimately said, “Look, I cannot pick a president from this next group.”

Tom Darley
There were actually several plans that were talked about and explored prior to what finally evolved as the answer for succession planning here at Darley. They thought about and talked about a rotating presidency, maybe a shared presidency.

Stephen Darley
Our succession plan was really based on performance, and I think that, really it came down to three that were the top choices for my ... View More father.

James Darley
My father had basically put together an executive team of my brothers: my younger brother Paul Darley and older brother Peter Darley and my cousin Jeff Darley.

Paul Darley
And after we all submitted business plans to be implemented upon his death or his retirement, gosh mine was about 400 pages, and he said, “I know I have got a challenge here because, you know, my youngest son is really aggressive on this.” And one of the things that he ultimately said was, “Look, I cannot make this decision. You three make the decision. And I do not care what you do. You can have rotating presidents, co-presidents, you can have one president, you can bring in a president from the outside, but I just cannot make this decision, and I am not going to rule from the grave after I am gone. So, whatever you guys come up with, I am fine with and I will support.” Well, it probably took us five years and hundreds of hours of meetings, but ultimately my brother and my cousin both threw their support behind me and said, “We really need one president from a communications standpoint, from a message to the industry, a message to the customers, from leading the strategy of this business. We ultimately need one person.” And based primarily on my communication skills and my organizational skills, they selected me. And that was very difficult for them to step back and play that second fiddle.

Stephen Darley
I suppose there was a time when I thought that maybe I would be a good choice for that, but I, in retrospect, looking back, when I see how hard my brothers have worked and how talented they are in their fields of endeavor, that I really think that it was a wise choice not to have me take over. Paul is someone who just loves the company. Paul is very dedicated. You know, the president of the company in a sense is the center of the company. His enthusiasm, his energy for the company is what I think has really, in a lot of ways, kept us growing.

Tom Darley
I totally believe, and I think that most people here at Darley believe, that that was absolutely the right choice to make. Paul is a great communicator; he is a good leader. He is a fair guy. He is the bearer of the values here at Darley, and he does a great job doing what he does.

Paul Darley
If another family approached us for advice on succession, I would suggest to them that they involve as many people as possible in the process, both family members, advisors, attorneys, but really go out there and do not make quick decisions. Do not be afraid to do something radically different like we did with our father deciding to, you know, let the next generation pick the leadership of this company and the next president and CEO, and be unique.