Jennifer M. Carroll — CEO, Arnett New Holland
Years with Company: 11
Age: 39, divorced mother of two girls, 14 and 9
Owners: Ted Miller (father), Terry Miller (mother) and Jennifer M. Carroll
Major Lines: New Holland and Kubota
Shortlines: Great Plains, Land Pride, Rhino, Kuhn Krause, Sunflower and Kawasaki
Locations: 2 (Arnett and Enid, Okla.) A third location, Kiowa, Kan., was closed in 2010
2013 Revenues: $30 million
Founded: 1975. (Ted Miller purchased Arnett Ford Tractor dealership at age 22) The Enid, Okla. location added in 2000
Background: Graduated from Oklahoma State Univ. in 1997 with business degree; started as management trainee for Target Corp., worked for John Deere dealership in Stillwater, Okla. for 2.5 years as office manager and later as controller for a church in East Texas. Returned to Arnett in 2003 and joined parents’ family business full-time in 2003.
“I grew up here in Arnett. When I graduated high school and left for college, I never planned to come back. So no, there wasn’t any master plan for me to take over the dealership; I wasn’t sure where my career would take me. The year we were married, my ex-husband started his veterinarian degree at Oklahoma State and I started my career in Target’s management program.
"I wasn’t excited about coming back to Arnett until I got older and we wanted to raise our girls around family and get the lifestyle we wanted — some land, cattle and farming.
“I always loved the business and after being gone for 6 years after school, I saw the opportunity to be involved with the dealership. But it was not a case of ‘that’s what I want to do with my life.’
“Dad was concerned about the transition, but we thought we could manage it, and said, ‘Let’s just try it and see where it goes.’ Of course, he’d heard some horror stories about family members in the business. We both understood that as a family member, I would have to work harder to prove myself. In hindsight, we were too concerned about that because the pressures made it harder than it had to be.”
Time for Change
“Initially, my role was more of support than authority (see “First Task: Business System” at www.farm-equipment.com). Dad had already decided he was going to change the business. He had just joined a 20 Group and concluded that we weren’t being efficient and we needed to follow best business practices. In other words, he was driving for a new level of professionalism.
“I was the tool that was going to make that happen. So he’s the guy in the corner that everybody loves and I’m the one no one wants to see coming because I was bringing the hammer. In those first few years, not only did we have people confused about who’s in charge but they saw me as the one that came in and changed everything.
“I had to work my way back out of that; I had to harden myself to be able to do that job because it wasn’t easy. And then, as I transitioned into an authority role, I had to come back and gain everybody’s trust and favor. In a small dealership of 13 people, if they don’t like and trust the boss, you can’t run a good business.”
“After 3 years, in 2004, I expressed an interest in buying a stake in the business. We were having conversations about me stepping up into more of a management role. But we didn’t come out and actually share it with the employees.
“So we’re both in the building and even though Dad was doing everything to make sure employees understood I was in charge, it was still confusing. If you know my dad, he is laid back, yet commands attention. Even today, if we’re both in the room, it’s still a challenge.
“When you’re the son or daughter of the boss and you come back, you need to do it better than everybody else. So I’m trying to run and manage things, but every time someone wants something they’re in his office. That’s what they’d been used to doing. It was difficult.
“In hindsight, I was overcompensating to get what I wanted done, and it wasn’t a positive thing. I was kind of fighting a battle against him, even though he wasn’t trying to fight me. It’s hard to express that — he was really trying to help me, but it was hard with the employees.
“The most important thing is to communicate with employees so everyone understands where you’re going. Stick with that plan, modify as you need to, but stick with it…”
“We lost of a lot of employees — over time, about 90% of those positions turned. Things were uncomfortable for them with the transition, plus the oil field business was booming and throwing big wages at everyone between the ages of 18 and 50. That turnover sets you back; the best performers in the 20 Groups always have lots of long-time employees. The turnover made everything harder.”
Pressures Mount, Leaving the Building
“The problems we were having were more mine because of the pressures I was feeling. I was working hard to make sure I had everything where it needed to be and run the business while trying to satisfy him, the employees and the customers. It was becoming too much and I couldn’t enjoy it anymore.
“Finally, I just had to open up about the fact that it was too hard. We both wanted the same things, but I let him know that if I couldn’t make that transition to do things my way, I’d need to do something else because I was unhappy. I had lost the fun in it because we had made it too hard. When he had to come to terms with that, everything started getting better.
“I needed to develop the team, get them to trust me, to buy what I was selling, if you will. It was a challenge because I was a different personality from the icon of the business and community.
“When we lost the manager in Enid in 2010, I couldn’t pick up my two little kids and move 2 hours away to run the store. So he and Mom moved to Enid for 6 months and trained my brother-in-law Kasey Johnson to be general manager. Dad physically leaving the building solidified the change in everyone’s mind. Things changed for the better that day.
“Our 20 Group had been telling us forever that he needed to leave the building. We kept pushing back and told them ‘We can figure it out, we can manage it.’ Dad and I have a great relationship, but for some reason, it was just really hard.
“And then it got easier and I was enjoying the business again. Years ago, Dad and I agreed my personality fits better in the back office. While I have the ability to go out and be a salesperson, what I really like to do is the number crunching. I’d been positioning myself to be more ‘back-office’ and find someone else to be that iconic-like personality out front. What’s interesting now is that people want me to be that person. They know me, and want to talk to me. Now I can just be myself.
“He could move back in the building now and it wouldn’t matter now that we established things.”
“He’s very good about separating personal from business, but I think he eventually acknowledged there were emotions that came with turning over his 35-year-old business to me and that it was OK to have them. My perspective was that maybe he was fighting an internal battle that even he couldn’t articulate, but everything did get better at that point.
“We did eventually find a way to meet in the middle. It’s funny because he used to say, ‘This is just how I am,’ and that he should speak his mind. Meanwhile, he thought I was overanalyzing things. Eventually I think he figured out that even though we’re very alike, we’re also wired differently and that we had to meet somewhere in the middle — to maintain our relationship and also succeed in the business. That was probably the first thing that I noticed he was doing differently.
“The second thing was that he just quit helping me. And it was a good thing. Before when he would say ‘Here’s what I see; here’s what I think,’ I was left feeling like he thinks I don’t know that already.
Ted’s Sacrifice for Greater Good
Jennifer Carroll, CEO, credits her dad, Ted, for removing himself from operations so the transition could develop. “He’d still be here in daily operations if we hadn’t concluded that he needed to be off-site,” she says, adding that he could return tomorrow because her authority has been established.
Noting that Ted is not the type who can sit idle, he soon purchased an additional farm and is very active and fulfilled in the community, with his family and in his oil-field business interests.
“Like most transitions, it was difficult at times,” she says. “But he was always very supportive of me throughout the process. In the end, it’s worked positively for both of us. After all, without struggles, we don’t grow as people.”
“Now if I’m struggling with something, I’ll initiate that conversation and he gives me his feedback. Otherwise we just don’t talk about it outside our monthly meetings. We allow ourselves a personal relationship and no longer talk about work at the dinner table with the grandkids.
“The finality of it for me is that I quit questioning myself. I’m going to make mistakes, but I’m going to work my way out of them just like he did back in his day. There’s no point in learning the hard way, so I will go and invite his input. I still want his vantage point — he’s been very successful and seen it all in 40 years. But it’s different for me now because I already know what needs to be done. I have a confidence now that has come from our new style of communication.”
20 Groups Key for Successor
“I wouldn’t have made it through any of this without Dad’s mentoring me and the support of the 20 Group. Those guys were hard on me — I wanted them to be because I wanted to get it right. That support and reinforcement that I was on the right path and doing the right things was invaluable.
“I learned a lot about the numbers and best practices, but the succession transition end was most valuable. They’ve been there and could share that ‘We had to have this conversation with our dad too; it’s not easy, but it needs to happen.’ They gave me confidence I could do it. When I’m back here in the store, nobody is as hard on me as I am. But then I’d go to the 20 Group meetings and they’d remind me of the things I was doing right.
“And they were pushing me on the buy-sell agreement, and would hold me accountable to that question every meeting. It took a long time to get done, with lots of back and forth, but they kept on me to get it worked out and signed. We got it done in 2009, about 5 years after we started.”
Succession’s Never Done
“In 2010, we recruited my brother-in-law, Kasey, to manage the store in Enid. We knew we wanted him to be general manager, so there was no confusion this time around. He’s got last say in the store and everyone knows it. We didn’t need to make it harder than it had to be.
“And it’s going very well. My sister, Julia, and Kasey have moved there and become the icons in that store and community. And we’re discussing the next evolution of succession — bringing them into an ownership position.
“I have a really solid group of managers here. But so far I don’t have anyone beating down the door for my job as general manager so I can work the numbers. We need the right person, and it’s better to do it myself in the meantime. But I’m looking for the answer.”