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Management • Business Tips • Productivity • Operations • 57 minutes

Coming into Your Own in a Family Business

December 7, 2021

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Episode Overview

“You don’t coach the metrics. You coach the people. You coach the behavior.”

— Rob Birnie

As president of Thomas R. Birnie and Sons, Rob Birnie sits atop the succession of a 100-year-old Canadian family business. He’s connected to the past, present and future of the plumbing company and has overseen its multigenerational transition and success.  

On “Toolbox for the Trades,” Birnie talks about bridging generations, using technology to create change, and being a leader who puts employees ahead of ego. 

Here are Rob Birnie’s top tips for generational success in a family-run trade business.:

Looking back on 100 years of industry change.

The family business has been around for a century and was started by Birnie’s great grandfather. His dad got into the business in 1971, and Birnie came in full-time in 1997. His own long tenure, as well as his connection to his family’s past, gives him a bird’s-eye view of the progress that technology has brought. 

“My grandfather started a computer system in 1984 just to collect data on job addresses,” he says. “But we were on paper and pencil right up until 2006.” 

Birnie has seen both sides of the new wave of technology. 

“I’ve been able to see how we can best implement systems and newer technology for internal situations with ServiceTitan,” he says. “It makes us more efficient and makes people’s lives a lot easier.”

Experiencing the technological generation gap.

Birnie recalls how his father first bought a sewer camera in 1993. 

“He was so excited,” Birnie says. 

The camera had the ability to specifically locate where underwater plumbing issues were happening—which was way better than manually searching for them. 

“The locator would tell us how far out, how deep down it was,” Birnie says. “My grandfather would just watch us, look at how it worked and say, ‘You’re lazy.’”

Bridging that tech generation gap.

When technology enters a workplace that’s been around for 100 years, there’s bound to be a clash between the way veterans and newbies think about getting the job done. 

“We had this amazing generational gap that we were able to connect,” Birnie says. “We had people who loved technology and people who hated it but have amazing customer service skills.” 

The challenge that became a blessing is that the tech camp was able to learn customer service from the veterans. And the veterans picked up tech skills from the younger generation.

Solving a resistance to change.

A critical part of the method to overcome resistance to change was hiring a business coach, Birnie says. 

“My coach said that, with all the changes we needed to make for the company to stay viable in the future, we were going to meet a lot of resistance,” he says. “He also said that if I managed to make all of these changes and keep everyone employed it would either be a sheer miracle or a sign of my bad management. Some people said, ‘Nah, this isn’t for me.’ Other people stuck it out, and they’re still with us.”

Buying into the Color Code test.

“Color Code” uses a personality assessment designed to work from the inside-out to provide critical insight into why a person does what they do. Reds are power wielders. Blues love to give of themselves. Whites are peacekeepers. Yellows like to have fun. 

Birnie says administering the Color Code test helped him determine employees’ motivations instead of judging their behaviors.

“Behavior is like a filter,” he says. “Motivations tell you why you do what you do. Learning this has helped me in relationships in many ways—including knowing how people see me.”

Getting buy-in from employees.

Before having a revelation, Birnie’s leadership style was very enmeshed with instructions and metrics. What he was missing, he says, was getting buy-in from employees.

“Simon Sinek has this beautiful video where he talks about buying a car,” Birnie says. “And the purpose of buying the vehicle is not to put fuel in it. The purpose of putting the vehicle is so you can go experience things. You need the fuel, but that’s not the purpose of what you’re doing.”

Good leaders wash away selfishness and ego.  

“As the leader, you can’t be playing for yourself,” Birnie says. “You have to come in and play for others. For example, you don’t hear a baseball coach yell out, ‘Hey, you’re at 22 percent conversions, we need you at 30 percent.’ 

“You don’t coach the metrics. You coach the people. You coach the behavior. And you don’t do it for yourself. You’re doing it to see other people succeed.”

Navigating family dynamics in a family business. 

Birnie’s grandfather had four children, and each of them had a child in the company. He says the family was blessed with having a transitional lawyer. 

“But I would say the biggest thing to do to achieve success is to identify roles and responsibilities,” he says. “And be able to identify the founders’ values. If you don’t do that there will be struggle. So, you set clear expectations and develop lines of communication.”

Recommended research and reading

Good to Great by Jim Collins

Traction by Gino Wickman

Nail It & Scale It by Kerwin Rae

Simon Sinek

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About the Show

Toolbox for the Trades is a podcast where top service professionals share the tips, tricks, and tactics they use to succeed in their industry. Hosted by Jackie Aubel, this podcast is brought to you by ServiceTitan—the leading home and commercial field service software.

Episodes will feature stories and strategies to help contractors grow and scale their service business.

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