It's likely that Bill Robinson has twice as much experience as anybody who has written a succession plan for an exit strategy. At 61, Robinson recently completed writing one for his father as well as for himself.
Maxwell G. Robinson, 87, loved the car dealership he opened in 1946 in Baton Rouge, La., and he passed on that love to his two sons, who did the same for their children. Mackie Robinson Jr. and his son, Chip, today run the Baton Rouge store that the Maxwell Robinson established.
Bill Robinson and three of his children, Steve, Lisa and Billy, run the Mobile, Ala., dealership that Bill Sr. started in 1965.
Bill Robinson was 28 years old when he opened Robinson Brothers Lincoln-Mercury. The dealership was a branch of his father's Baton Rouge store, but his father seldom visited and left most of the operation to Bill.
So although his father was actively involved in the dealerships until about eight years ago after heart surgery, one of Bill's most valuable experiences over the years was the opportunity to make his own mistakes and savor his own successes.
He wanted to pass that opportunity onto his children, and about five years ago when he convinced his father to begin a succession plan, Bill began writing one for himself as well.
'According to my plan then, I was going to retire when I was 60, which was 18 months ago,' Bill Robinson muses. 'I didn't want to be involved in the day-to-day operation of the dealership until the age my father was. My oldest son is 38 and I didn't want him to have to wait a long time before he was allowed to run the store.'
JUST DO IT
Robinson believes the most difficult part of an exit strategy is the decision to do it.
'The hardest thing for anyone who has built up a dealership is giving up control,' he says. 'You can't take advantage of the tax considerations unless you give up control. It was hard for my Dad, and now I have a hard time doing the same thing. It's tough to work through.
'But if you have brought up your children correctly and paid them only according to the job duties they perform and not given them special consideration, they will turn out to be responsible leaders,' Robinson says.
Robinson recommends that dealers start thinking about an exit strategy at age 50 and have one in place no later than age 55.
'It would have gone much smoother for me if I had started sooner,' he says. 'If you wait until you are 65 to 75, it's too late to escape the heavy taxes.'
Over the years, Robinson has been approached by buyers. But he always rejected them because he wanted to pass the business on to his children.
'In this day of consolidation, there is a lot more opportunity to sell,' he says. 'If I hadn't had the kids in the business and didn't think they could do a good job, it would have been a no-brainer. I probably would have taken my money and done other things, but with the family in the business, I don't think it's fair to pull it out from under them.'
Where he once worked 13-hour days 61/2 days a week, Robinson now works eight-hour days and stays away on weekends. He begins each day by picking up license tags and the mail, then opens the mail and delivers it to each department. He still wears jeans to work when he's spending a day in the service bays, talking to employees and customers.
'I used to get involved in working the sales desk, but now I seldom do it,' he says. 'I've transferred most of the day-to-day operations to my kids. I still talk to people who call and want to speak to me, and I still sell cars and appraise them occasionally, and speak at sales meetings from time to time.'
Robinson believes his exit strategy has kept him from expanding or acquiring other dealerships. But his children are another matter.
'Once I get out of sight, they might start thinking expansion,' he says. 'But to expand, you have to have a lot of energy and drive.'
Eighteen months from now, Robinson doesn't expect to be spending much time around the dealership, but he won't be a stranger, either.
'I have other interests that aren't related to the business that I'd like to pursue,' he says. 'But it doesn't mean I won't be available if they need a consultant.'