AMCHAM: Please share your thoughts process about turning over your family company to the next generation.
Antoine Scholer: There are two ways of transmitting a company.
- You transmit the company when you are still alive, and you gradually leave the reins of the company into the hands of the younger generation.
- You die, and you leave the transfer of the company to the next generation to sort it out by themselves. Obviously this second choice is full of problems because it is not you who transfers the business but different people with different interests.
Actually, I am coming from a business family who have been in business since 1900 in Luxembourg. To be clear my brother and I are the last Scholers to be in business. I have seen and heard through personal experience and talking to my forebearers of the pitfalls of transmitting a business only AFTER you die, which is worse still if you don’t leave a testament.
I am in the fourth generation, and my son Alex and his brothers and his sister will be the fifth generation.
After having read ‘Die Buddenbrooks’ from Thomas Mann at the age of 21, I was mesmerized by the system described in the book, where the first generation are the founders, the second are the builders and the third are the destroyers.
There is a lot of truth about that analogy. I know countless businesses in Luxembourg which took that fateful road. I consider Happy Snacks now in that part where I will be leaving the business in the hands of the third generation.
The first and most important thing in transmitting the business, is to find the right person, with the right training, experience and vision. That person can come from the outside or from within the family. Obviously if you take somebody from the outside the experience part will be totally different. However, if you have a son like Alex who loves all the business aspects but, does not have the experience yet, it is a chance! The success of the transfer will depend on the training of your child, inculcating him with the values of the company and giving him time to develop his experiences.
That is the road that I have chosen for Alex. Alex studied in the U.S. in Oxford, Ohio and in Sydney, Australia. He got a B.S in business. Already at the age of 17 he wanted to start his own business, and we did business plans for that. In Australia, he wrote a paper for class on how to do a business plan for EXKi in Australia.
The opportunity for Alex came to come back to Luxembourg when we developed the idea of developing the EXKi project for Germany in 2017. He trained for all the positions from cashier over production to including all the management positions.
We launched the business in Cologne in 2018 and closed it at the end of 2019. Alex had thus, in a very short period, experienced the opening and closing of a business. At that young age (32-33) that is an experience he will never forget and learn from. It is said that Walt Disney had to start his business three times before he met the success that he always tried to achieve.
The way I see it, (which is of course a very American way of thinking) that a failure in a business is actually nothing to be ashamed of, if you have tried everything and giving it a 110%. Success and failure are closely related. The most important thing is to learn from failures as well as from success. My forebearers, never talked about their failures, it was a taboo theme. I just got to know these failures with talking about other people about them. I consider that a waste of knowledge of great magnitude.
AMCHAM: How have you prepared your son for this role?
As already said, Alex loves to do business. In order to prepare him for his role, I made sure that he knows everything from the bottom up. He started work in a Quick restaurant when he was fifteen. The manager asked me what he should do to train him. I told him that he had to learn the production of burgers, how to sell them and even know how to clean the toilets. After that summer work he was very proud of the hard-earned money that he got. Thus, he realized that it was not that easy to earn money, and that was a good argument for me to tell him to go and study business at the university.
After this, he eventually continued to learn everything there is to know about EXKi and then Pizza Hut. He now knows how to do the dough for the Pizzas and how to garnish them. The franchisors actually want the head of the franchise business to know everything there is to know about the franchise, which I think is the right thing to expect. How can you tell a cook in the Pizza Hut that he is not preparing his Pizza garnishes correctly if you don’t know it!
Alex, worked for many months as assistant manager, Manager and Supervisor. Just about 6 months ago, I promoted him to the post of administrator and the COO of Happy Snacks. He is basically in charge of all the operations in Happy Snacks. This gives him the opportunity to set with me the strategy of the company, work with the two supervisors, participate in the lease negotiations, handle everything which has to do with purveyors, technical, and IT.
The only thing left for him to get to know is the whole administrative part of the business, and by that, I mean the inner workings of the office.
AMCHAM: What advice have you given him?
My most important advice to him was to stay with his feet on the ground and earn his wings, and respect within the company. There is nothing worse than a young guy, who just graduated from the university, pretending that he knows everything, even if he doesn’t, and takes over a business.
I told him that his job was to make sure that justice rules in the company. Unfairly treated employees, no matter what the rank, are the seeds of dissent and the start of many problems down the road.
I told him to keep the communication up with everybody in the company. Having an open ear informs you preemptively of problems or solutions. Sitting in the ivory tower is bad for our type of business. I expect him to be in the restaurants for lunch or dinner, on weekdays and on weekends. You would be astonished what employees are telling me about how good it feels to them to have the future boss work with them!
I also told him to respect everybody, and to treat them the way he would like to be treated. We have people from over 20 different nationalities in our business. It is obvious that you must treat everybody with respect. The same is true for dealing with purveyors and the public administrations.
AMCHAM: How does it feel to pass the responsibilities?
We talk and see each other about every day and talk about the things that are going on in the company. I am now able to practice my favorite management principle, which is: What are you proposing? This works marvels in the development of anybody in management, and especially with and for my son.
AMCHAM: Please tell our readers about your expedition vehicle.
Well, it is a Bliss Mobil 20-foot unit on a Mercedes Zetros, 6-wheel drive chassis. It is basically a cross between a giant G-Class and a big Unimog. It has an autonomy of over 2,200 km on two diesel tanks which hold a combined capacity of 800 liters. The unit has a freshwater capacity of 865 liters! It is equipped with a high-performance water filtering system, which allows me to get water from a river or a lake. The solar panels of 1,900 kw/h provide enough power to keep the floor heating, A/C, kitchen appliances etc. running the whole day. The cabin has a double pack of each 4 lithium-ion batteries to store the energy of the solar panels. Underneath the bed is a 4×4 quad to provide mobility. It, basically, is like a dinghy on a ship. To get you ashore to buy provisioning.
I don’t have to go to regular camping places, to hook up for water and electricity which is fantastic with a vehicle like that you can go off grid for 3 weeks with 2 people, without seeing civilization.
AMCHAM: Why have you bought it?
It has been my dream since the 1970s, when I first started riding motorcycles to drive over the Silk Road to Vladivostok. When I bought my first Land Rover Defender, I told my young sons at the time that I would like them to do that trip with me. Now of course they are working, are married, and have their own families. So, this leaves my wife and me to go and discover the world. Since a trip like that would be now quite hard on a motorcycle, we decided to get an off-road expedition vehicle.
AMCHAM: What are your plans for using it?
I received the truck on July 29th 2020. Since then, I have been riding it many times to Poland, northern Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium and have done some 16,000 km. If Covid-19 allows it I want to go to Morocco, with the Bliss people in November to learn how to drive in the desert. When I am fully retired my first trip will be the Silk Road, Turkey, Iran, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, the Pamir, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Mongolia. From there on we intend to visit Canada, via Iceland, Alaska and drive south to Latin America all the way to Ushuaia.
Another trip could be to ship the truck to Namibia and discover, Namibia, Botswana and South Africa and maybe ship It then to Australia. Actually, the possibilities are limitless.
AMCHAM: Likewise based on your long experience, what advice would you give to a young person just starting their career?
To get a job that he likes. You must do what you like. You are only becoming better if you focus on what you are doing well. I gave my son the same advice.
Young people tend to try to be a boss right away. That is not working. You must learn, absorb, analyze and then move on. All our nine managers in the company grew through the ranks, from cook or waiter, to become manager.
Don’t be afraid of taking risks and opportunities. You have to be open-minded and focused at the same time.
Failure is human, so don’t demonize it. I have a much higher respect of people who tried something, and it didn’t work, than with people who never try anything. When we were little, it took us also time to learn how to walk. We fell more at the beginning before we could walk and then run.
Be honest! I hate nothing more than people which are not honest. Everybody has the chance to do a mistake, but don’t lie about it.
Communicate in an open fashion with your hierarchy. Say what is right and what is wrong. I always tell my employees that it is much easier to gain the trust of a customer, who has had misgivings about something and tells us that, than the customer who leaves disappointed without saying anything.
Thank You Mr. Scholer for the Great interview! We look forward to you sharing your future adventures and opinions with our readers.