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When You Die Does Your Brand and Employees Die With You?

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Summary: Is your brand and employees equipped to continue with you? Or will they die the moment you die?

When You Die Does Your Brand and Employees Die with You?
 
  • Brands are as much about the business and product as it is the person who invented the brand.
  • Brands are also about the employees who support the brand.
  • But say something tragic happens to you; are you certain your employees and brand can continue without you?

In a recent Inc. feature article, writer David Finkel brought up a question no one yet has asked, and because of that, no one yet has answered, though in some regard, Finkel’s article title fairly much says it all: What happens to Bourdain’s employees?

Finkel, of course, is referring to Anthony Bourdain, who on June 4, 2018, was found dead in his Paris hotel room from an apparent suicide.

While the world mourned the death of what is arguably one of the most gifted commentators of not just this world’s vast array of culinary culture, but human culture as well, it is Finkel’s report that asks a little-discussed yet vastly important question regarding who Bourdain leaves behind in the wake of his death, namely those who the television show Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown employed, as well as those who worked for the celebrity chef/commentator on other endeavors.

To be certain, bosses “leaving” their work and those who work for them occur quite a bit, particularly in the entertainment industry. One couldn’t fling a discarded Ishtar script without hitting a television show or movie franchise that blew asunder due to a lead character’s demise, dismissal, or even death. Cases in point:
 
  • The Roseanne Reboot, which was cancelled immediately after Roseanne’s untimely racist tweets, shaming former Obama aide Valerie Jarrett.
  • Kevin Spacey, and his alleged sexual improprieties, which more or less not only cost Spacey his career, but may have jarred the careers of those who worked for and with the actor on House of Cards and his other acting undertakings.
  • Charlie Sheen, and his drug-infused rants aimed at the producers of his hit comedy Two and a Half Men, though that show did go through a successful reboot with Ashton Kutcher.

While Bourdain’s death travels a much darker and dire road than the actions of the flawed characters listed above, business managers that range from owners to CEOs, should learn from the position Bourdain’s employees are now in since his death.

The question remains, whether death by suicide, accident or old age, when a business owner/leader dies, what happens to the employees as well as the brand he or she has left behind.
 
Branding is Everything, Even in Death

So you have great employees. Sure, some may loathe you, others love you. But they’re still loyal. And how do you know? They keep showing up to work, putting in a full day, then leaving with expectations to return tomorrow – an action that, quite honestly, should mean the world to you.

In short, you need these employees. You and your brand count on them. And deeper yet, you love them like family. So, how would you protect them in the event that you should suddenly leave this world for the next? Again, through your brand.

The Washington Post reports that upon the suicide of fashion icon and designer Kate Spade, her brand would not suffer.

And why is this?

Because Spade sold off her brand to Coach a decade ago, giving the Spade design and name a strong sense of immortality as long as Coach does well.

The problem is this same scenario cannot speak to Spade’s newer, less established fashion line, Frances Valentine, which is still in its infancy when compared to the $2.4 billion Coach paid Spade for her initial fashion line ten years ago.

“Kate Spade the brand now transcends Kate Spade the person, which is how you know this is a truly successful brand,” said William McComb, the former chief executive of Liz Claiborne (later renamed Fifth & Pacific), which owned the Kate Spade line from 2006 to 2017. “Kate created something that was simple and stylish, modern and fun — and that’s what continues to this day.”

While countless brands die off for countless reasons, other more powerful brands endure simply because of their noteworthiness and product promises of being the strongest, fastest, most historical, most luxurious, and prestigious, etc.

For instance, while few of us may remember Schwinn bicycles other than our first Stingrays, Schwinn’s true branding is their Paramount model, which comprises an old school handmade steel frame, top-end componentry and wheelsets that can cost into the thousands of dollars.

But what truly sets the Paramount series away from any else Schwinn has produced is the frame’s lineage as a high performance machine responsible for tens of thousands of pro cycling victories since 1938.

Schwinn like Mercedes Benz or Ferrari, know exactly who they are and their importance within their respective industries and the consumer world as a whole.

If the Schwinn Paramount were to lose any of its iconic brand awareness, it’s for the fact the bicycle is bespoke (made to order), and only in small batches, but with a cost of over $12,000 depending on the component level. The bicycle is well built, sturdy, has racing pedigree and with only a few thousand produced each year, highly collectible.

Of course, the Schwinn Paramount just like Spade’s purse line has an extensive, loyal and decidedly wide brand base. And the best part is that with their support, the brand can outlive the person who created it.

But, needless to say, brand recognition doesn’t solve everything nor keep the brand on track. The person who creates the brand will always need consideration and recognition.
 
  • That because of the engineering influence of Dr. Ferdinand Porsche we have the 911 series, which will always remain the benchmark of all sporting cars.
  • That because of Steve Jobs, Apple will always be near the top, if not at the top of consumer technology sales and brand loyalty.
  • That because of Hubert de Givenchy, the little black dress Audrey Hepburn made famous still remains a mainstay to his collection, which continues to bolster de Givenchy’s brand despite his death earlier this year, as well as the fact de Givenchy had not been actively designing since 1995 when he sold his company.

Of course, one upside to good branding even in lieu of a founder’s death is the brand stays in the loop. Consumers still want it and are prepared to pay high dollar from a point of view of the brand becoming iconic.

But as importantly is respect and demand for a brand, particularly after its inventor dies, and how that can invariably guarantee employees of these brands will always have work. It is in this way that the brand actually protects the employees and their jobs.

Does this work the same for small businesses?

The rise and fall of brand recognition works much in the same way as a large corporation. The differences between both lie simply in style, and of course, as a business, knowing who your customers are.

Another factor that comes into play, particularly with a small business that suddenly loses its leader is that business’s need to protect its employees.

Tucked away in a forest region of Germany, two former aerospace engineers have for the last 20 years been busy creating one of the single most innovative improvements to the world of high performance cycling.

Lightweight wheels are, if nothing else, game changers that can make a bicycle into a virtual leg-powered rocket. The secret is no secret: It’s in the name, Lightweight.

For these wheels are exactly that, lightweight at as little as 1,100 grams per pair, where most wheelsets average over 2,200 grams. They also can cost as much as $6,500 per pair.

While Lightweight has been around for close to two decades, the two-man owners of the company decided about five years ago to expand the small company to bicycle frame production as well as handlebars, handlebar stems and seat posts.

What was the reasoning behind this? Of course:
 
  • More dominance of the market
  • Brand expansion into the market
  • Brand survival

Of the three examples above, brand survival is front and center for a small business owner to expand themselves into new aspects and segments of their market.
And when small, boutique business owners do this, not always is this for business’s sake, or increased profit, or to beat out a competitor. For the small business owner, expanding is a way to keep his or her brand viable, but also keeping their employees employed.
 
How you as a business owner can protect your employees if you die.

Inc. lists five steps a business owner can take to protect his/her brand as well as their business and employees should something untimely happen to them.
 
  1. List out all the current places where your company is fully reliant on you.

Are you the only one who can sign checks (e.g. payroll)? Or effectively sell your product or service? Or make strategy decisions?

In this regard, the first step is to make note of each way your company relies on you. Who knows valuable information such as passwords, bank accounts and other investments deemed vital to a company’s survival.

If possible, appoint a trusted employee to take care of the financial concerns of your business while in your absence.
 
  1.  Review your list of reliances, and create a plan to incrementally deal with the important items during your absence.

As you review your list, star the items that are mission critical based on how immediate they are. In other words, which of the reliances are so important that if you weren't there to handle that function, it would lead to the failure of your business in 30 days? In 90 days? In 180 days?

Mark these reliances with "30 days", "90 days", or "180 days".

You can now begin to triage priorities that you have to deal with to protect your stakeholders should something happen to you.

Take action quarterly to incrementally reduce or eliminate the key "mission critical" reliances so that your team, company, and family are protected.
 
  1.  Protect your direct family with a term life insurance policy.

It's a simple step to take -- make sure you have enough term life insurance so your family is cared for. It is suggested that you consider owning your insurance policy inside of an irrevocable life insurance trust. Also, choose to pay for your term policy with after-tax dollars (versus having the business pay for it with pretax dollars) so that your payroll is not taxed.
 
  1. Lay out what you want your family should carry on should something happen to you.

As the Inc. website suggests, grab your phone, turn on your recorder, and start to talk it out.

Using a recorder is import because your recording gives instruction to your family and employees that can later serve as guidance. Talk at length and in detail. No one will know your business the way you do, and with you recording your thoughts and desires for your business’s future, the correct people between your family and employees will know your wishes.

Store the file in a place where your family knows how to access it, and at work where a trusted employee knows how to access it.

Upgrade your succession plan at least annually. Get the recording transcribed. Work to formalize and improve upon it. Update it as new things come into play.
 
  1. Involve your key team in your succession planning.

If your business is mature enough to have key leaders in addition to you, bring them into this succession planning process. Use this as an opportunity for you to model the work you want them to do, and to make certain they have their own succession plan for their position within the company.

If you truly want to put your plan (and your employees) to the test, conduct a drill in which you step away from the business as if you were hurt and couldn't work for an extended time, and see how they and the business handle it. This drill can be as short as a week, or as long as a month. You'll gain valuable insight as to where the real holes in your plan are. Then you need to get to work to shore up those holes.

In Conclusion

Just as Finkler’s Inc. article states, at its end, at its most conclusive, succession planning is painful to think about, plan and finally execute.

But the alternative is that if you do not have a conclusive succession plan, you may leave the people that you love, which include your employees, in a highly vulnerable position.

Of course this isn’t fair to them, nor to the person of trust and care that you set yourself up as, particularly when you first became a success as a proud entrepreneur and business leader who dearly love their employees.

So the question remains, will your brand and the employees who have bolstered it, supported and improved it be able to continue your legacy once you are gone? Much, if not all of that, depends upon you.

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