Making It Work in the Third Generation: The Tyler Equipment Company
by Kitty Axelson-Berry
Is there some grand success--or catastrophe--that would be informative for readers as family business people?
Well, the big success is that we're still here. My grandfather and grandmother started this in 1922, renting half a building at the end of Columbus Avenue, selling anything--tools, brushes, paint. They survived the Depression intact and went into construction, which was good during the wars and during the building of the highway system, which was for defense purposes.
But it's a cyclical business, very dependent on the economy, and in the late '80s and early '90s when a lot of banks failed, it was very difficult. In '88 we were at an all-time high and in '89 we had a free-fall. It was really the worst time, very traumatic. We had to cut way back on our employees. But we kicked and clawed and scratched and we're still here.
What has the succession been at Tyler?
Let's see if I can get it right. There was the grandfather and grandmother, and there's my father, M. Brooke Tyler, Jr., and uncles Wallace Tyler, and Grant Tyler. Aunt Fern, who was not active in the business, upon my grandfather's death, became one of the owners. Then there's M. Brooke Tyler, III and me, Bill; and Grant Tyler, Jr. and Thomas.
Was Fern an equal owner with the boys in the family?
No. My father and my uncle Grant were the two primary owners. They built the East Longmeadow building in 1943, opened an operation in Connecticut in about 1954 to test the waters, and then built a place in Wallingford. My uncle became the manager there with Wallace, while my grandfather and father ran this place. Fern was never active as an owner, although actually she did come to work here later. My father still comes in every morning when he's not working out at a health club. He's still an owner, chairman of the board, and very much involved in any major decisions.
Well, we had considered splitting the company at one point because as the third generation came along--my father's oldest son and I, my uncle's two sons--there were six of us in the business and you know, of course, that third generations don't work.
It's written, cast in stone somewhere: they'll never all get along. So it's probably best if we attempt somehow to divide the business, the Grant Tylers in Connecticut, the Brooke Tylers here. We had attorneys looking into it and then one day--I'll give credit to Grant Tyler, Jr. for this--the question came up. "You know," he said, "I really don't have a problem working with my cousins and my uncle, and I really don't see the sense of splitting things up."
Well, it got us all saying, "Why exactly are we splitting this up? We are all working well together and getting along." We saw nothing beneficial about splitting the business, only negatives, so we kept it together.
You'd been going along with the buzz-words of the time?
Yeah. "With this many Tylers, there's bound to be conflicts, so we'll do our thing, you do your thing." But we found, with the help of an outside managerial consultant, that there was a lot of power and strength we could access from each other. As long as we stayed focused and worked as a team, for the most part things went very smoothly. I credit those consultants with us still being in business today. We worked with them right through the '80s.
Even during the downturn. That was a horrible, horrible time for us, to have to approach people who had been with the company twenty years and let them go. But we had to do it to survive. I never want to have to do that again. Because we're a people oriented business. It's not the bricks and mortar but the people who make this business.
Come to think of it, today I still find myself unconsciously using their "training."
I listen to the company. See, I'm one of the first people here in the morning, and I make the coffee--which is located in a centralized place--and I'm there as people are coming in and greeting each other and walking around. I say good morning, and I listen for the tone of the company every morning, and that helps me address a problem or two.
It's like an orchestra tuning up-
Exactly. And if people want to share something, it gives them a chance to vent, get it out of the way.
When you hear about problems people are having, can you be flexible? Or do you have firm personnel policies?
We're flexible. My brother's philosophy is for people to have fun at work. We all have our designated jobs to do and we're expected to do them, and do them right the first time. But he wants people to have fun and understands that when you have two working parents and the kids get sick, or whatever, you have to be flexible. No one wants to work in a military atmosphere. Have a little fun, talk about a movie you saw last night, share a joke. Sometimes it gets tense around here but usually there's a nice flow. Hence we have people who have been with the company for thirty years.
What was a controversial decision for you, your brother and your cousins to reach together?
I guess when we laid off all those employees.
And survival decisions--when Bank of New England was bought out by Fleet it created a huge financial problem for us. Fleet decided they didn't particularly care for the construction industry and so we were cast off, innocent victims. It was only through the support of some of our manufacturers and extremely hard work by my brother and our chief financial officer, Peter Nossal, and many others, that we survived.
Is the next generation going to be in the family business?
The fourth generation? We haven't talked about it. They're mostly still young--my kids are nine and 10, Grant's are 10 and 12. My brother's son has just graduated from college, but he hasn't expressed an interest. But here's my story:
I always figured I'd go into the family business. After I graduated from college with a business administration degree, I took some time off, and when I got back, my father said, "Business is slow, there's no room for you in the family business. Go out and get a job." I got a job painting boat bottoms and scraping barnacles, and learned what it meant, if I showed up for work five minutes late, to get my butt chewed out. I worked from eight to 12; 12 to 12:30 was lunch; and 12:30 to 4:30 you worked and that was that. You had no benefits.
But I enjoyed myself and did it for five years. It was the best learning experience and now I would never ever allow my own child to go into the family business without working somewhere else first. That is the only way you can appreciate what it is to be an employee.
Then I got married and started to say, "I'm not going to be able to raise a family and support a wife on this kind of money. This is serious." So I contacted my father again. It was 1981 and I was 27. The early '80s were no bargain either, but I was allowed to enter the company and--as my uncle would remind me on an almost daily basis--I did not have a position here, I had a job, and therefore had to earn respect and prove myself.
My older brother had already been here for about eleven years. I worked and worked and worked and worked. I thought I'd learn it all in a few months, like in the boat yard, and after three months I realized that I'd never stop learning the business because the business is constantly changing. Even today, I rely on my father with his eighty-two years of accumulated wisdom and experience. I tap his wisdom on a regular basis.
What about the girls in the family?
My cousin has four sisters but--this is awful to say--with the exception of my aunt, who had an administrative position in the company, that's been it. My Grandmother Tyler didn't allow women to work in the organization. Except for herself. She ruled the roost; she had an iron fist. She probably had the chutzpah, the drive to keep the business going, whereas maybe my grandfather had the personality to win people over. It was a true partnership and they developed wonderful customers.
Wonderful loyal customers. We're finding that loyalty is something that is disappearing. People are buying just for cost and that's too bad. To survive, they have to get the best price. We try to show them what Tyler Equipment has to offer besides the equipment itself. Is it that there's always a Tyler available if there's an emergency? This winter, someone had an emergency during a blizzard, and I came here in the middle of the night to get a part for him.
There's also a push to look for that connection and personal service. If we were a large company, we couldn't be as flexible and if we lost a few customers it would be no big deal. We want to grow, but it's also important to us to maintain hands-on relationships; we don't sit upstairs and count money. The president will go out and take a machine off a truck, if necessary. There is no position within the organization that is above performing; no task too menial.
How often do the two management teams meet formally?
Not enough, is how I'll answer that. There's always something going on. I'm somewhat embarrassed to say that it's almost semi-annual, if that. I talk to my cousin all the time, though.
Do employees at both locations know each other?
Most have visited the other location for one reason or another but we're fifty miles apart, so it's usually by telephone, which isn't the way it should be.
When you and your brother or cousins disagree, do your employees know it?
Sometimes. But we generally agree. He is the president and I respect that. We're both owners. And there are times when maybe I disagree with something. But I don't make an issue of it. Many times after work, between 5 and 6 o'clock we'll have an informal meeting between the sales manager, the comptroller, my brother and myself and we get a lot done. It's rare that we're not in sync though. We respect each other's opinions, and I include my cousins.
You were raised to be respectful of each other?
Yes. Also, there's an eight-year gap between my brother and I. We share common interests but we tend to go our separate ways. We're in here ten, twelve hours a day. I spend more time with him than I do with my wife.
Do you think upbringing shows up later in how well siblings run a business together?
That would be a good one for my two cousins to answer. They came from ten children and had absolute chaos going on all the time. They are a very tight family. We were a close family but it wasn't one of those things where we had to do everything together. My father was independent: "Yeah, we'll celebrate Christmas together, as long as you come over to my house." He's an introvert, my mother's an extrovert; I'm an extrovert, my brother's an introvert. It works.