the ceo magazine, succession planning
Dr Don Steele, Coauthor of “Undefeated”

It was a cold Michigan winter day when I first met Bill and Chris Shepler at a restaurant in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. I had just flown in from my home in Scottsdale, Arizona. My meeting with the Sheplers had been arranged by Dr. Patty Janes, a professor at Central Michigan University. Patty had been placing CMU students with Shepler’s Mackinac Island Ferry Service for many years and had observed that help was needed in facilitating a successful transition from the second to the third generation in this family-owned and operated business. She had recommended that CEO and father, Bill and his eldest son, Chris invest in my coaching and consulting services. We had a good conversation and agreed to a contract.

As I began observing and coaching the Shepler family, I quickly learned that my primary challenge in facilitating a successful transition would require me to focus on gaining the necessary insight that would enable me to coach in ways that would help Bill accept and see value in turning over the CEO position to his very prepared and eager son. Apparently, Bill had been talking about doing just that for more than a few years but just couldn’t or wouldn’t pull the trigger.

Bill had navigated the business, over the previous 40 years, surviving daunting challenges through determination, a vibrant culture, creativity, and first class customer service. He had lead the way in overcoming the fluidity of a community’s changing needs, the disrupting technologies in an industry, and those obstacles presented in many family dynamics.

Once Bill and I had built a trusting relationship, I decided to confront Bill directly with the question: “Bill, What is keeping you from turning the CEO position over to Chris? Without hesitation Bill said, “Because I think I will die!”

Why would Bill say that?

Mainly because, like many CEO’s, he identifies himself with his job. It wasn’t just a “if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself,” attitude. The business was literally a major part of who Bill was.

Based on this input, I began to focus on what possible “picture of the future” might motivate Bill to resign his CEO role while truly looking forward to what could be a replacement for his resignation as CEO.

As I observed Bill in action, I could see that he is a very charismatic leader and communicator with a special talent for telling great stories. I also gained a deep appreciation for the magnificent history of the picturesque Straits area of northern Michigan, the world famous Mackinac Island, and the weather conditions that can quickly shift from beautiful to brutal, thereby presenting untold risks to the Shepler ferry business. Based on this growing knowledge base, I suggested to Bill that he consider having me capture the legacy of his family and the survival and growth of the family-owned and operated business in a book. After some thought, Bill agreed. At first, I suggested the title, “Ferry Tales”. However, after learning more in depth about all that it took to build and sustain Shepler’s Mackinac Island Ferry Service, since it was founded by Bill’s father, Cap, in 1946, we agreed on the title “Undefeated”.

The transition has been smooth and successful; Chris is now serving as CEO and Bill is serving as Chairman of the Board. What is the most exciting development? Bill is truly energized by the requests he is receiving to share stories from the “Undefeated” through speaking engagements and participating in radio and TV interviews. He has discovered that there is life after retirement!

About the Author

Dr. Don Steele was born and raised in Saginaw, Michigan. He earned his Doctor of Philosophy Degree from The Ohio State University. He served as Superintendent of Schools in Saginaw, Michigan; Toledo, Ohio and Seattle, Washington. In 1984, he founded and served as CEO for Performance Learning, Inc. (PLI). His coaching and consulting business celebrated 30 years of operation in 2014. Dr. Steele is now serving as an executive coach and consultant for leaders in business, industry and education. His passion lies in helping others become better versions of themselves, personally and professionally.


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