Interview with Dani Saveker, Founder, Families in Business
T. Saveker and Sons was founded in 1903 in Birmingham, England. A manufacturing company for shop fittings, the family-owned business faced many highs and lows over its hundred-year history. The Saveker family members, one generation at a time worked dutifully on their legacy but it fell to the great granddaughter of the founder to face the Saveker workers in 2009 and tell them that it was time to close the factory doors for good.
Looking back at her great-grandfather’s legacy and through the experience of closing down the centenarian family company, Dani Saveker was inspired to start the Families in Business (FiB) organisation which since 2012 has focused on supporting business families in overcoming challenges and incorporating innovation in their strategies. Tharawat Magazine sat down with Dani Saveker and spoke about her joining the family business, of its demise, and how there is a beginning in every ending.
When and how does your story begin?
The Saveker family business on my mother’s side is an architectural metalwork business. We produced shop fittings: everything from polishing and welding to electroplating. My grandfather started out in 1903 and I used to help out in the summer holidays. It was such an experience to go and see my grandfather in his big office – I thought it was just fabulous! I remember being fascinated with the world of business from a very young age. I had relatives on both sides of my family who were always busy working and I remember thinking the world of work was so exciting. I joined the family firm after finishing my degree in product design.
What did you get involved in when you joined?
I was young, I was family and I was female. All three things were viewed quite negatively. The business had been T. Saveker and Sons over four generations. For a woman to come and work in the business, particularly rolling her sleeves up on the shop floor, was very alien.
My cousin was the fourth generation MD and he asked me to design a new queuing system. That meant spending a lot of time on the shop floor where I faced quite a few challenges: I was young, I was family and I was female. All three things were viewed quite negatively. The business had been T. Saveker and Sons over four generations. For a woman to come and work in the business, particularly rolling her sleeves up on the shop floor, was very alien.
Moreover, I’d discovered that our management systems were very dated and when I questioned things it unsettled people. I eventually put forward a proposal to restructure the whole shop floor and make some significant changes, which signified a positive move for the business. We did lose some good people, but it was time for them to go. In fact, the restructure ended up making a full return within two months. I was appointed as Production Director.
How did you end up running the business?
After being a director for a couple of months my third cousin, Martin, decided to move out of the family business. He was MD. It was quite a traumatic time actually with many heated meetings between him and my uncle who was of the third generation. At one point my uncle stormed out of the office. Talking to Martin, I found out that, for a long time, he had been tired of carrying the duty of the family business. From being a young boy he’d known it was his destiny to join the business like his father and grandfather before him had done. But he explained that he was weary and he’d persuaded other family shareholders to look to sell the business.
How did you react?
I said, “Martin, I’ll buy the business.” I was only 28! I have no idea what came over me! I suppose I just felt like someone had to step up to the plate and that someone had to be me. Martin stared at me for a long time and said, “I’m going to give you a week to go and think about what you just said. If you can come back to me with a plan, I will give you some time to work it through.” I went into the factory and stood there for a moment thinking: “Could this really be mine at some point? What a responsibility.” 60,000 square feet of responsibility! But I thought: “I want to do this.”
So how did you manage to buy it?
We had to create a special resolution to allow my cousin to leave and for me to come in as MD. My plan was to restructure the board as I had done the shop floor.
I found a solicitor who would help me understand the consequences of this decision. In the Articles of Association it said that Shareholders had to be bloodline descendants of the founder. To be a Director of our business you had to have 100 shares; that means our governance was restricted by our gene pool, which is never a good thing. It also stated that the MD could not resign from office, implying that he could only step down when he passed away. We had to create a special resolution to allow my cousin to leave and for me to come in as MD. My plan was to restructure the board as I had done the shop floor. Once we had done that, then we would look at the shareholding and complete a buyout. It was a new company with new governance in place.
What were the biggest challenges?
My big task was to present this proposal to the eight family shareholders. First I went to the South Coast in the UK to present plans to Martin’s elderly parents, remembering that Martin’s dad had been Managing Director for 40 years. He was wonderful and told me “My dear, you have my full support. I will back you. But first of all, I want to apologise for leaving the mess that I’ve left you. I never wanted to be Managing Director. I would have been happy as an engineer in a little shed just making things, using the skills that I had. But do you know how I took over? I took over when I was 28 years old, like you. It was the day after my father passed away.” His father had had a brain aneurysm at the age of 55, leaving the business to his eldest son. That was the succession plan.
Next I had to present plans to my mom who was also a silent shareholder. She had never been allowed to get involved in the business so she was not familiar with the facts and figures but I could see that in many ways she was probably more able than her brother. I didn’t have the closest relationship with my mom, and I always wonder if part of that was because I went into the business when she was never allowed to. Finally I’d had to present to my uncle and his son and of course, the plan that was explained was clear in it’s intention of making significant changes which would impact them directly. I managed to receive 100% backing with every family member agreeing on the course of action. I was appointed as Managing Director, and given permission to restructure.
What changes did you make?
I learned, very quickly, the art of putting a mask on and I think that is something that a lot of leaders, especially in family enterprises, recognise the need for.
My first move as MD was to restructure and that meant letting go of my uncle as Sales Director. That was really difficult even though he’d agreed to take retirement. When his last day came and he had left, I went into his empty office and saw my children’s photographs torn into pieces in the bin. As good as our lawyer had been, nothing ever prepares you for moments like that. I learned, very quickly, the art of putting a mask on and I think that is something that a lot of leaders, especially in family enterprises, recognise the need for. On the positive side, we suddenly felt energy in the business and really started to motor forward. We’d had an amazing reception from our customers, our suppliers and the workforce was really enthused. It was such a promising, exciting and challenging time. In the end, my cousin Martin decided to stay. Now that the responsibility had been removed from his shoulders, he was my biggest supporter. I asked him to become Chairman so that I could have his years of experience at my fingertips. We made a great team.
What happened that eventually led to your closing the business?
About three months later I got a phone call at 6am. The only part of the call I remember is: “The building is on fire, you need to get here now.” I drove to the factory, and as I approached I could see flames. My heart sank. When I arrived, there were 80 firefighters struggling to extinguish a chemical fire that had started in our plating line. A thermostat had failed and the massive heating tanks just kept heating up and the fire spread instantly. The fire had taken hold across the entire plant.
The new management team I’d put in place was amazing. They said: “What do you want us to do?” Within two hours we had a plan: contact customers and suppliers, find a clean area, see which orders are good-to-go. Within 48 hours of the fire beginning, we were sending products out the door. So that fire did not destroy us but the global financial crisis hit us hard. We got a bridge fund loan in late 2008, but by then the fight had left me. I had no choice, given the importance of the family values, but to work at protecting everyone and placed the business into voluntary administration in early 2009. It was harrowing letting the staff go and closing the doors on my great-grandfather’s business.
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What next steps had to be taken?
We had an IP help us reduce the workforce by 50% and carry out contractual obligations. I had to select the people to get rid of based on revenue-generating role. On 10 March 2009, I stood in front of my workforce and I said: “On behalf of my great-grandfather, I’m afraid we have to close the doors for one last time.” It was awful. Some of these people had been with us for years. We employed families and we had to tell them that some of them would be let go.
The next day as I came into the business, now under administration, I realised that many had survivor guilt.
As you walk away from that situation, that ending, you leave the business in somebody else’s hands, it wasn’t in family hands anymore, and I couldn’t get my head around that. People were being let go. The next day as I came into the business, now under administration, I realised that many had survivor guilt. I desperately tried to find Martin, almost as a bit of support but somebody told me that the administrators had made him redundant and hadn’t even told me. That’s the inhuman part of the process. I really felt that there should be a better way to do these things.
Looking back would you choose to do things differently?
I felt a great responsibility to take on the family business in the first place, even though in reality, if I’m honest, it was coming to a natural end. But I’m proud that I stepped up. I remember somebody saying, “finally someone has the balls to do it” and it was a woman! I’m not bitter about my experience in the family business it at all. I always made it clear while part of the business that if I wasn’t right for the business or the business not right for me then I would leave. I always had the confidence to go and use my experience to do something else. Other members of my family have not found that quite as easy. Their identity was based entirely on the family business and I think that can be quite dangerous.
How has your experience in the family business helped you deal with other transitions in life?
I think business – and life – is an ongoing learning process. What’s helped me more than anything is having a clear sense of self-purpose. I see a lot of people that don’t have that, and they struggle. If you know the ultimate destination you’re aiming for, you’re happy for your journey to meander and be comfortable in the knowledge you will get there in the end. I think the experiences I’ve had have equipped me well. But I have learned that it is important to have the courage to ask for help when you need it. When we founded Families in Business a few years ago, I was able to convey this experience to other family companies. I can safely say that I truly understand what legacy means because every time I work with family members involved in their business I know my own journey, and that of my family which I now draw upon, keeps Thomas Saveker’s legacy alive.