Pictured L-R, top row: Alejandro and Alex Escalante (The Omega Group); Chad, Brett and Bill Haney (Derse); Samantha and Rich Rebecky (Coastal International); middle row: Zach and Robbie Blumenfeld (Abex Exhibits); Bill Nixon, Will Nixon, and Jim Nixon (Willwork, Inc. Exhibit & Event Services and Teamwork Event Specialists); Kelli Glasser, Ned and Joyce Brown (Exhibit Concepts); bottom row: Debbie and Mick Parrott (Highmark Techsystems, Inc./ICON Exhibits); Cam, Heather, Rachel and Andrew Stevens (Stevens E3); and Bob, Rachel and Mike Dobinski, Corporate Communications & CorpEvents New England.
Can You Match The Father With His Advice?
By Jeanne Brei
The tradeshow industry is filled with entrepreneurs who get their entire family involved in the family business. According to Cam Stevens (pictured right with his family) of Stevens E3, designers and builders of innovative exhibits, environments and events, based near Toronto, Canada, “This was my father’s company, and before that, it was his father’s company. My grandfather founded the business in 1927. I sort of fell into the business by working summers and generating an interest in the organization at an early age. It was in the blood…” He adds, “Since our family has been in the business for close to 100 years, there is likely a lot of pressure, as a fourth generation potential successor, to step up and accept their fated role as being a leader of the company. There have been discussions as to what role they might play in the future, but both of them require some additional education and lots more on-the-job training before they can properly determine if running or owning a business is right for them. When I was their age, I certainly did not have aspirations about owning the business, and when I ask myself when I did, I really struggle to answer. For me, it was a gradual evolution that naturally transitioned into an ownership. I did have apprehensions about running a business–still do. It’s not to be taken lightly. The pressure to consistently grow sales, maintain profitability and stay ahead in the industry can be exhausting and stressful. There are many rewards from running your own business as well though. As much as it would be great to see them in leadership positions, it has to be right for them.”
“Right for them” has been a recurring theme with several fathers and their offspring. Highmark Techsystems/ICON’s Mick Parrott explains, “Of my three daughters, I always felt Debbie had the aptitude, education, experience and disposition suited for this demanding business. With her excellent marketing background, competitive spirit and exceptional interpersonal skills, I knew she could be successful and hoped she would learn to love the industry as much as I did. Debbie exceeded my expectations on all counts and was instrumental in facilitating the merger of ICON Exhibits with Bay area-based Delphi Productions in 2009 to form Group Delphi where she became the new entity’s VP of Marketing. As I was making plans for my retirement, Debbie expressed her interest in Highmark’s business model and its potential for growth. The best option for all was to bring Debbie back to Indiana to test her ability to become my successor. She joined Highmark in 2014 as the company’s president where she once again demonstrated her affinity for the exhibit systems business and the requisite leadership skills. You can imagine how pleased I was when she approached me with an exciting vision for growing the company and a compelling proposition to acquire Highmark TechSystems in 2016,” adding, “Since acquiring Highmark, Debbie has demonstrated she has the vision and business acumen to lead the company to levels of new product development and new market penetration that I have never envisioned. She makes her dad more proud with each passing year.”
Exhibit Concepts founder Ned Brown feels the same proud way about his successor, daughter Kelli Glasser (pictured right). “I never had any apprehensions. I offered Kelli a job after she graduated from the University of Cincinnati but she respectfully declined saying she wanted to make her own way. After a couple years she came to work and it wasn’t long before she found her niche. I knew she was smart and innovative and would be a great addition to our company.”
For Zach Blumenfeld, VP at Abex Exhibit Systems, not only was it right for him, it was a perfect fit. He explains, “My motivation for working at ABEX was graphic design. I started designing as a natural progression that came from drawing and painting at a young age and also due to my interest in music at around the age of 13, which led me to designing and coming up with flyer graphics for my first band in middle school,” adding, “I started working in the business part-time at the age of 15 and full-time by the time I was 18 (about 12 years now being full-time at ABEX). I am being groomed for my dad’s position one day, and at the moment I am responsible for overlooking all marketing, design, sales and new business development. I had no apprehensions really about working for my dad. The business has always been something I’ve been invested in because of my interest in design and attention to detail.”
Derse’s Brett Haney says, “I came back to the company five years ago in a vice president position and have climbed the ranks becoming president in the summer of 2016. As president I oversee the day to day operations of Derse. We are following a succession plan that will see my dad, Bill Haney, and his business partner, Bill McNamara be able to retire in the next few years. Even in retirement however, I see both Bills being somewhat involved in the business; I wouldn’t want it any other way, as having both of them as counsel on challenges that arise is invaluable to me and the other members of our leadership group. Anything that can make us better and more successful will always be wanted at the company and having their decades of experience to bounce ideas off of is an incredible advantage many do not have in my position. I did not have any apprehensions about coming to work with my dad as I knew well beforehand that he would be demanding but also be a great mentor to help me grow as a business person. We have a great working relationship that I think is built on mutual respect for each other’s strengths and abilities.”
Says Samantha Rebecky, field service supervisor at Coastal International, “I like to say I have always been in the business–granted I didn’t always work in the business but I grew up listening to stories from my dad and some of his managers whom are close friends now. I officially started working in the industry when I was about 18 years old just to help a new display house and make a few bucks while still in school. I was a project manager when I began but when I started at Coastal I was brought on to support the Northeast ops manager and whatever else they needed from me. Mainly, I work with the ops manager here in New York and some small account management to assist the NY office as well. Ever since I started in this industry I have always worked with my father in some way. I used to be one of his clients and now he is my boss. We have always had a great bond because when I was younger he coached me in sports and I think it just carried over once I got older.”
Bob Dobinski also coached his kids in sports and took them on the road to do I&D with Corporate Communication/Corp. Event (Rachel and Michael glowingly talk about having fun while working and pulling all-nighters dismantling a sports event in California as a family), and Rachel says, “my dad was always the coach who took all the kids no matter how they played.” Says her father, “It’s nice working with your kids but there’s no plans for succession or transition. I told them this has been my dream and if it matches up with your dream, then great. But no pressure.”
Willwork and Teamwork’s founder Will Nixon taught and coached his eight children as well. Says Nixon, “I was married to my wife, Helen, for 52 years, until her passing in 2007, and together we brought up eight children, six girls and two boys. Bill was the third born. I taught high school history and social studies, and coached high school athletics, for 40 years. During my career in education, I taught Bill in the classroom, and coached Bill in football, basketball, and track,” adding, “Contributions I made to Bill’s success in the industry were largely through the example I set, and lessons I taught, apart from … and prior to … me working in the tradeshow business. I set the example as a husband and father, teacher and athletic coach.”
Nixon continues, “Even though I have worked in the tradeshow industry for close to 25 years now, I need to make clear that I did not provide Bill (pictured right) any specific business guidance relative to his leading and stewarding the building of successful companies in the industry. Bill made the business decisions and developed the plans and set the course. It was all him in this aspect of developing and steering winning enterprises and groups. “
When asked about their most memorable industry experience, three different sons mentioned going to Euroshop with their father. It may not be the reason that Andrew Stevens and Brett Haney are following in their father’s footsteps but as Alex Escalante (pictured left with his dad), from Omega Group in Mexico, says, “My most memorable experience was working at Atelier Damböck and being part of their staff during the stand they had in the last edition of Euroshop. I really like to make work trips with my dad,” adding a sentiment shared by everyone I spoke with, “About my dad, he is my example to follow as a boss, as a father, but above all, as a person.”
From the Dad’s perspective, the “best fatherly advice I gave …
a. “While the assets on your balance sheet are important in that they reflect the strength of your company today, the most valuable asset for its long term survival is never shows on your balance sheet: It is your company’s reputation. The best way to build that asset is to always honor your commitments, even if that costs you more money.”
b. “Always listen to the client and hear them out before you offer any solutions. Review the situation and always be straight up with them. And remember their names—it’s important to say hello to everyone and remember their names. People like that when you remember them.”
c. “My advice for my children working to advance themselves in a business is to work to continuously educate yourself through schooling, seminars, industry trade events and trade associations. Get involved and get connected with like- minded industry peers. It’s critical that you understand how a business works and what makes it operate. I mean this from both a production perspective as well as administratively. Also, you can’t be good at everything, so pick what you love to do in the company and do that. Hire people to do what you don’t like or don’t want to do, because there are people that love doing those things that you hate doing. Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you, and can help you grow the company. Your job is to be a cheerleader for your team of people. They will grow the business.”
d. “I don’t remember giving her business advice. As I remember, her early days were filled learning the functions of various departments and then implementing ways to improve the efficiency and service to our clients. I was comfortable with knowing that she is self motivated to achieve the best results on any task set before her. She made my decision to retire fairly easy. All she had to do was tell me she was ready to take the responsibility.”
e. “Winning as a husband and father, the most important jobs in life, and as a teacher and coach, requires one to be hard-working, prepared, sensitive, tough, resilient, and dedicated to being at your best all the time. These are qualities needed in a successful entrepreneur and business manager.”
f. “If you don’t love what you do someone else will and it makes it hard for you to compete.”
g. The same advice I give him for life is the one I give him for work, “do not lose your credibility and always keep what you promise.”
h. “You have to run the business like you want to run it – like the Millenial that you are. Don’t try to run it like I would – run it the way you want to with your new ways of thinking.”
i. “Pursue your level of happiness and go into the workplace so you can work to live and not just live to work. Let work be a means to create happiness outside the workplace and have a great life.”
And what their offspring HEARD as the most important piece of advice is another story entirely …
j. “I would say the best piece of advice he’s ever given me is to be your own man. Think for yourself and make decisions for yourself. Trust your own instincts as they usually are accurate.”
k. “My dad’s advice is you should be working to live and not living to work. Make money to live and have a good life. Plus, he’s President Buddha. He just doesn’t get mad. He’s a solution maker who doesn’t yell at anyone. He just looks for people who can handle the adversities and be creative and come up with solutions.”
l. “The best piece of advice my Dad has given me would be that always say hi to everyone you meet. Even if you need to reintroduce yourself ALWAYS say hi to them because you never know when you will see them again or when they may be able to help you in the future. Another piece of advice he gave me was to never be afraid to ask questions. Don’t just guess and assume something. Ask and learn from that issue/question and I always have. Just simply being polite goes a long way.”
m. “The event business is filled with changes—it’s not about sticking to the plan –it’s all about your attitude when changes are happening and how you’re adapting. That’s what separates the great event planners – understanding the client’s view and adapting to what needs to be done.”
n. “My dad would tell me often, ‘This business puts hair on your chest!’ – just what every daughter wants to hear from her father before joining the family business. My dad has always said that this business is not for the faint of heart and it’s a business where you need to be comfortable getting your hands dirty and pitching in to get the job done. He also warned that it is addictive but in the best possible sense. He has always told me that while this business takes incredible sweat equity, it can be incredibly rewarding. To see an impressive design concept on paper or screen be physically constructed and then put up and taken down quickly is a sense of accomplishment that is not readily available in other industries. This business will enable you to travel to wonderful places and meet great people, he would tell me. As for leadership, management and ownership, my dad has always imparted incredibly valuable advice. When I took on the presidency and then the ownership, he said, you always pay your team and your suppliers first and yourself last. He also said to be sure and thank the families of your employees for all the time those employees have to spend away from them to do what’s needed at work. I subscribe to all this advice as well as to his unwavering stance on the importance of integrity, work ethic, attitude and listening.”
o. ” ‘You can’t be more successful than others, if you don’t work harder than the others,’ that’s my dad´s advice.”
p. “Work hard and look after your clients. Service, service, service. Make sure your customer’s experience is good, and they will continue to come back time and again as a partner rather than a client.”
q. “I think the best advice my dad has given me about working in the business is to always be looking for new ideas and design developments or advances in technology that could help further product development and capabilities to be able to produce a perfectly tailored exhibit.”
r. “Listen to what everyone around you has to say and learn from what they do, they know how best to do different things and you should learn from them before finding a way to do it yourself.” Dad has also told me on a few occasions to always surround yourself with people that are smarter than you.”
s. “The best advice my dad gave me was to be my own man and think for myself.”
t. “I don’t know that this was ever said as ‘advice’ per se, but I know Dad’s philosophy has always been “take care of the company and it will take care of you,” and I completely agree with that. We both possess the feeling of responsibility to take care of the company’s clients and employees.
u. “I owe a lot to my parents for any success I have achieved in life, and in business. And it has been a privilege and has brought me great personal and professional fulfillment to have been taught, coached, mentored, and guided by my father. A winner and a fiery competitor, my father is one of the most successful high school sports coaches in Massachusetts history, with particular achievement in basketball coaching. He is a member of the Massachusetts Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame, the Stonehill College Athletic Hall of Fame, and Oliver Ames High School Athletic Hall of Fame. As well, my father held the post as president of the Easton Public Schools teachers’ union. “I have inherited, and get a lot of my work ethic, competitiveness, creativity, and commitment to thorough preparation, from my father.”
- (g) Alejandro Escalante, The Omega Group, Latin America
- (c) Cam Stevens, Stevens E3, Toronto, Canada
- (f) Bill Haney, Derse, Milwaukee, Wisc.
- (a) Mick Parrott, Highmark Techsystems & ICON Exhibits, Fort Wayne, Ind.
- (i) Bob Dobinski, Corporate Communications & CorpEvents New England, Westborough, Mass.
- (b) Rich Rebecky, Coastal International, Wayne, N.J.
- (h) Robbie Blumenfeld, Abex Exhibit Systems, San Fernando, Calif.
- (d) Ned Brown, Exhibit Concepts, Dayton, Ohio
- (e) Will Nixon, Willwork Exhibit & Event Services, Boston, MA
- (o) Alex Escalante, The Omega Group
- (r) Andrew Stevens, Stevens E3
- (p) Rachel Stevens, Stevens E3
- (j) Brett Haney, Derse
- (s) Chad Haney, Derse
- (t) Kellie Glasser, Exhibit Concepts
- (l) Samantha Rebecky, Coastal International
- (q) Zach Blumenthal, Abex Exhibits Systems
- (k) Rachel Dobinski, Corporate Communications/Corp. Events New England
- (m) Mike Dobinski, Corporate Communications/Corp. Events New England
- (n) Debbie Parrott, Highmark Techsystems, Inc.
- (u) Bill Nixon, Teamwork Event Specialists
This story originally appeared in the May/June issue of Exhibit City News, p. 26-29. For more pictures and original layout, visit https://issuu.com/exhibitcitynews/docs/may-jun_ecn2018