Our family started doing business in South Georgia four generations ago, trading produce. Many businesses have come and gone across the ensuing century. Some started from scratch, others were purchased or partnered in, and more grew out of an existing business in the form of service lines that became their own going concerns. These business interests have spanned a variety of industries, and their success and failure can be measured in many ways.
Eleven years ago, I had the opportunity to join my father Powell in business. Powell grew up working with his brother, father, and grandfather. Things that are old and operate continuously are trusted and respected. While I’m only the second generation in the legal entity Secure Records Solutions, I’ve often wondered if I could claim being the fourth generation of our family in business, if seven businesses have come and gone across those four generations.
This got me thinking about the changes we’re navigating in the RIM industry. My father founded SRS twenty years ago to solve the growing problem of paper records storage in South Georgia and North Florida. When he started it, the industry was experiencing surging growth. Industry growth has cooled, resulting in consolidation of seventy-five percent of the companies that existed then.
SRS has navigated this shift well. While many of our peers sold their businesses, we’ve continued to iterate, add service lines, and change the way we think about the solutions we offer our clients over time, leading to consistent growth by every measure. As we’ve grown, our revenue mix has changed drastically. When Powell started the business, eighty-five percent of our revenue came from storing paper records. That proportion is now thirty percent. Eventually, it’ll be zero. At what point are we no longer the same business?
SRS is not the only business to successfully pull off such strategic shifts. One of the most successful independent companies in our industry, Pacific Records, started as a leather tannery 165 years ago. In the early 1900s, as leather tanneries were offshored to Asia, their team pivoted to store commodities in the empty buildings that remained. When they purchased a truck to assist their customers in moving those commodities, they fell into the moving and storage business – and built relationships with new and growing companies all over the West Coast. After decades of success, they saw an opportunity to leverage those relationships in the commercial records storage business. They’d successfully operated for 100 years before they ever stored, scanned, or shredded a piece of paper – the context in which I’ve known their company.
When we give tours of our document management business, we begin in front of murals of past Jones family businesses and share stories of the values we remember them for. We end the tour in a board room dedicated to the women of our family who have “made significant contributions to the family businesses and their communities…[by] reaching out, lifting up, and bringing together”. Seven businesses later, the “family business” isn’t defined by shares in a company, or revenue by service type, but by the values we pass between generations – the way we do business.
Industries change, businesses come and go, and eventually people do too. But values are passed down in business through actions that become stories. Those values accumulate to create a legacy that lives on long after the people who built it are gone. What better vehicle to do that with than a business? Those values are what we go to work to continue. Sure, we make our living working, and it’s a gift that we can enjoy what we do. But our purpose is to improve the lives of others. This realization has changed the way I think about my work, especially when confronted with a difficult decision.
It’s typical for a business owner to worry about maximizing value or getting the timing of a transition right – especially during times of economic turmoil or when a major life change occurs. But often these considerations conflict with the interests of your stakeholders – namely your team and clients. I’ve been a party to buying and selling, and have observed my peers doing the same. Often the highest price you can get for your business comes at a cost for the relationships you developed as you built it. That isn’t consistent with our family’s values. While the traditional business wisdom is to always have an exit strategy, and the common strategy is to sell for the highest possible price, we’re thinking longer term.
Our business is a platform, made up of our team, our client relationships, and our cashflow. The platform produces impact on the lives of all of our stakeholders. The potential of the platform is greater than any business or service line associated with it. The platform is permanent. The revenue mix is transitory. As a result, we are always looking for the next business. As one crests, another will grow to replace it. Whether we start from scratch to grow in a new direction, like Cariend, or we buy a company to add capacity to an existing business line, like Shred-EZ or Vital Records, or we buy a company operating in another industry that shares our values, our mission is to grow the platform so that we might have a longer, stronger positive impact on the lives of others.
Our immediate strategy is to maximize opportunities in the spaces we operate now through organic sales and acquisition, invest in complimentary services that we can sell existing clients and serve with existing team members, and diversify our cashflow by investing in new businesses that make our platform anti fragile. We hope to achieve this by trusting our values to guide the transitions that we navigate. After all, we’ve got four generations of proof of what those values can help us all accomplish.
What about you? As you consider the future of your business, ask yourself what your legacy will be. If you don’t have a succession plan and our values resonate with you, I’d love to discuss ways that we could work together to support your values in a transition now or some time in the future, when you’re ready to ride off into the sunset. If you are still focused on growth and you’d like to trade ideas on how you are building your own platform, I want to learn from you.
Chief Problem Solver,
Christopher Powell Jones