UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School


A Family Business On Top: Selling, Adapting and What’s Next


The Family Business class made use of Skype to talk to Dennis Kessler, former Co-President of Fel-Pro, as he shared insights on life-after-the-sale from his Chicago office. Dennis is currently an advisor to other family businesses with his own consulting company, Midwest Family Business Advisors.

Setting the scene: In January, 1997, Fel-Pro was named 4th best place to work in Fortune magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For.” The company was a leader in the automotive parts industry, admired by peers and competitors, and a leader in innovative HR practices. Dennis Kessler was 5th generation leadership and worked alongside 9 other family managers. Dennis’ son was working in the business and another son had plans to join soon. There were 40 family shareholders and numerous employees financially and emotionally invested in the success of Fel-Pro.

Fel-Pro highly valued its employees. This resulted in 2.4% turnover and a 300% return on the investment in employee benefits. Some of Fel-Pro’s most innovative HR practices included:

  • Profit sharing and flexible work hours
  • Bonuses and extra thank yous, checks and recognition for teams and individuals for things such as holidays, family milestones, and graduations
  • On-site subsidized daycare, college scholarships ($14K per child), in-home tutoring for employee children and a Fel-Pro-owned Summer Day Camp for employees’ childrens’ attendance all summer long
  • An Employee Forum with a delegate from every area of the business that solicited feedback and solved employee concerns
In the late 1990′s, a strategic planning group within the company suggested selling Fel-Pro. Automotive maintenance was changing as was the demand for their products. A family meeting was held and 100% of the family was against the sale. However, the family asked the strategy group to go back and do deeper analysis on future problems and opportunities. During the next ten months, additional facts were gathered to support the business case for selling. When the report was presented, the family thoughtfully removed their family hat, listened to the business facts, and 100% of the family now agreed a sale was the right thing to do. Because the family had a history of good communication and trust, they were able to listen to the facts without letting emotion and personal agendas interfere. Fel-Pro sold to Federal Mogul Brands.

Life after excellence: What does that look like for a 5th generation leader? Dennis has re-invented his own career and offers other ex-family business executives some food for thought on what to do after running a successful company. He calls it “Don’t Flunk Retirement.”

Make a list of your fears about letting go and retiring. Be honest. If you have loved your role in your company, it is understandable that you will have mixed feelings.

Make a list of things that you are passionate about. Think about a day when you went home and told your spouse that you loved your job.

The key is to build a third list – one where you incorporate some of those passions into a “Third Age Career,” applying those things you love to an area outside of the business.

It is not easy. But the goal is to retire TO something not FROM something.