Succession Planning: When A Co-Founder Retires
When a business, especially one in the IT sector, has been operating for 30 years changes are to be expected. When that business is a family run affair, the changes can take on a special significance.
In 1988, Entisys360 was co-founded by George and Bets Strohl as a PC training company. Over the ensuing decades, the organization transformed into an IT consulting firm with a specialty in virtualization.
This year, Bets Strohl is stepping down from her CFO role, handing the financial baton to her son, Matt General.
As a result, Matt will transition from his role as CTO to that of COO and be responsible for overseeing Entisys360’s finance and operations teams. Naturally he’ll be working closely with the company’s CEO, Mike Strohl (General’s step-brother).
The Back Story
Bets and George married in the early 70s. It was in the early 90s that Matt would join with his step-father, bringing his own technical expertise to the company. “I’ve been with the company since it was three people and I’ve done almost every position within the company,” General explains to ChannelE2E. “It was doing training, it was doing some sales and service. But I brought on a networking practice as an official component of the business.”
About a year later, General’s step-brother and George’s son, Mike Strohl, joined the company to handle marketing. “I’ve known Mike since I was like 4 years old so he truly is a brother to me,” Matt says.
In the meantime, Bets continued working at another job, though she remained an owner of the company and helped out by managing some of the accounting.
A few months after Mike joined the company, his father George passed away.
Navigating The Loss
“That left us with Mike and I really running the business and Bets supporting us from an accounting perspective,” General explains. “We certainly had an inflection point where we needed to decide what we were going to do and we both felt very strongly that we’d made investments in our life into the business and we wanted to continue.”
The loss of George forced the family to “trim down and focus,” as Matt explains. At the time, George was very entrepreneurial, jumping at different opportunities as they presented themselves. “We had a training lab and he would rent lab time,” he says. “And then people would want to rent computers so he rented computers and sold computers and serviced computers. He sold printers and fixed printers. We did everything.”
After George’s passing, the family recognized that handling all of these different businesses areas was limiting the company’s ability to focus on any one thing. “What we recognized early on was that we needed to shed some of these other businesses,” Matt says. Since George would write his own curriculum and handle his own classes, the business now lacked a proper trainer and the rental business was capital heavy. Eventually, the company decided to focus on networking.
“What we recognized was, first of all, Windows was taking over. File servers were not that important anymore. And I did a lot of soul-searching, technology searching, and looking at areas that we could specialize in. I wanted to find something that we could be the absolute best at and I found a technology that was in demand, had a big future, and an enterprise-oriented technology and that was Citrix,” Matt explains.
Citrix Systems, as longtime partners know, provides server, application and desktop virtualization, networking, software as a service, and cloud computing technologies. According to Matt, it answered a lot of the challenges facing the IT industry at the time. And so Entisys360 began focusing on working with Citrix in 1995 and 1996. “Rather than being the jack of all trades, we became the master of one,” he says. “That allowed us to go into these large enterprises and sell the value that we were the experts in this particular technology.”
It was around the same time that the company was able to afford to bring Bets Strohl on full-time to manage the accounting department.
Changing With The Times
Since deciding to focus in on networking solutions and Citrix, the company has continued to adapt to new technologies. In the early 2000s, Matt was introduced to VMware and he became “very bullish on virtualization” which brought with it a hardware infrastructure practice that included servers, storage, and the already familiar networking.
“So we have a data center infrastructure group that has evolved in the 2000s and is now a very mature practice,” Matt says. The company is now focusing on evolving its DevOps practice. “(DevOps) is something that adopts a lot of cloud-based technologies, a lot of automation, leverages a lot of our data center infrastructure resources,” says Matt.
Really though, this has been an ongoing theme for the family and the business. The developing of these technologies and systems is a near decades-long process, Matt explains.
“So where are we going? We’re going to continue to evolve the DevOps and cloud components of the business. And I’m certain that something will evolve in the 2020s while we mature our DevOps there will probably be something new happening in the world. I don’t have a crystal ball, so I can’t say what that will be, but we are always striving to not only look for technologies that bring lots of value to the businesses that we work with but to look for opportunities that we can strongly support and be the best at.”
For now, Bets is planning on enjoying her retirement and Matt is looking forward to taking on new responsibilities. But as he’s want to do, he’s also approaching it from a different angle.
“I started looking at how we could evolve the role of CTO within our organization and I worked with Mike on a concept where we wouldn’t have one CTO within the organization, we would have what we call an Office of the CTO with several individuals contributing into that Office of the CTO that rolls up to Mike and I that brings different disciplines,” he explains.
“I don’t think that the organization needs a full-time CTO. I think there needs to be somebody that those departments roll up to be it a CFO or a COO. I’ve worked with those groups for years and I think that we’re evolving the business and that the transition has gone well.”
And if Matt has any questions, he can always call on Bets for advice. After all, she’s family.
“I’ve had a lot of people ask me that over the years: How does that work out, being a family business?” Matt says. “What I found for our family business what worked really well is we each brought a unique discipline. I think when two people have the same skill sets that’s when you bump heads in a family business. I think we each respect each others’ contribution to the business and the practice and all of them are needed components to bring any business to life. The ability for us to respect each others’ area of practice has really helped be successful as a business and as a family.”