Jun 30, 2020

E12: Leading From Disaster to Transformation – Will Knecht, Wendell August

Listen to the episode:

Will Knecht is the Chairman of Wendell August, America’s oldest and largest forge, producing hand-wrought metal giftware since 1923. In March 2010, two days after receiving its largest order ever, a fire nearly destroyed their company. Will shares his leadership lessons for resilience and transformation in the face of disaster. It’s a great Made in America comeback story with a special assist from the Pittsburgh Penguins.

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Show Notes:

Full Transcript:

Laurie Barkman:

Welcome to Succession Stories, insights for next generation entrepreneurs. I’m Laurie Barkman. I’ve spent my career bringing an entrepreneurial approach to mature companies struggling with change as an outside executive of a third generation, 120 year old company, I was part of a long-term succession plan. Now I work with entrepreneurs, privately held companies, and family businesses to develop innovations that create enterprise value and transition plans to achieve their long-term goals. On this podcast, listen in as I talk with entrepreneurs who are driving innovation and culture change. I speak with owners who successfully transitioned their company and others who experienced disappointment along the way. Guests also include experts in multi-generational businesses and entrepreneurship. If you are a next generation entrepreneur looking for inspiration to grow and thrive, or an owner who can’t figure out the best way to transition their closely held company, this podcast is for you.

Laurie Barkman (00:58):

I’m grateful for the opportunity to shine a spotlight on leaders who have persevered through tough times. On this episode, it was my pleasure to speak with Will Knecht, Chairman of Wendell August Forge- a 97 year old company. We talked about family transitions and how a lack of planning and role clarity can strain relationships. Additionally, Will shared the amazing story of a fire that could have destroyed his business and lives of his employees, but instead became a catalyst for new thinking and new opportunities. Resilience in the face of a major setback is a common theme these days, and I think you’ll enjoy hearing Will’s story about overcoming challenges and the importance of keeping a positive outlook.

Laurie Barkman (01:41):

Will, welcome to Succession Stories. I’m so glad that you’re here today with me. This show explores next generation entrepreneurship and succession in privately held companies. And your story checks those boxes and more, because importantly for you, you’ve got an amazing story to share about resilience and transformation. You’re the Chairman of Wendell August Forge an iconic American metal manufacturer. It’s the oldest and largest forge in the country. And I had mentioned to you before the show, that I’m a fan of your products. Over the years, I’ve given them as gifts to friends all over the world. In fact, in China and in Europe, there are products from Wendell August. And so it’s so great to have gotten to know you, and your company more through our conversations. And I should also mention that we were introduced by a mutual friend, Shelly Taylor, who was on a previous episode of the show. So let’s start by talking about Wendell August Forge. It’s a family owned business with two key branches on the tree. You’re the second generation in your family, but all in, if you look all the way back, it would actually be the fourth generation if you went back the beginning. So I would love for you to tell me about the company and its history.

Will Knecht (03:04):

Absolutely Laurie, what a privilege to be with you. And it’s a great story. Just the true entrepreneur spirit of America is exemplified both in our founder, Wendell August, and my dad, Bill Knecht, who bought it from Robert’s son. As you alluded to, I’m the second generation of my family to run the company. My dad bought it from the second generation of the August family, the four generations and it’s a great story. Founded in 1923 out of necessity, honestly, Wendell August, who was our founder, was a coal guy and the coal business was a little bit slow. He had some blacksmiths on staff who would make shoes, horse shoes, for the horses going in and out of the mines. And as the coal business got a little bit slow, American ingenuity, we can do this mentality. He began to utilize his blacksmiths in different ways and they began making ornamental architecture in iron. And that’s really what started the company. But again, birthed of necessity, birthed of the American spirit and entrepreneurial legend that is America today. And that’s how we got our start in 1923.

Laurie Barkman (04:17):

And so your father came into the business, when? There was a generational transfer between the original founder. And was it his son?

Will Knecht (04:27):

Yes, it was his son. Just an amazing story too. Again, a providential story again of just a marriage really made in heaven, honestly. So my dad was an IBM guy and he had joined IBM in the early sixties when it was the place to work. Toward the late seventies, 1977-78. He began to see a cultural shift at IBM that he just didn’t really like it wasn’t the company that maybe it had been when he had joined it. And so he mentions to his accountant who was a good friend. He mentioned to him, he said, you know what? I think I’m ready to move on and scratch this entrepreneurial itch. And so I think I’d like to leave IBM if you know of any small businesses for sale, I’d love to at least talk to the person selling. And so he plants that seed in early ‘78 with his accountant.

Will Knecht (05:19):

And at the same time, unbeknownst to him, a guy named Bob August in Grove City, Pennsylvania, the son of Wendell, mentions to his accountant. I think I’m ready to move on. I’ve stewarded this well for my dad, but I think I’m ready to sell Wendell August Forge. If you can help me find somebody to buy it. Now, my dad lived in Youngstown, Ohio. My family was from Youngstown, Ohio. Bob August is in Grove City, PA. Providentially, that accountant was the same guy. And literally within weeks of them both saying that they were looking to buy and sell, they were brought together. And for anybody who knew my dad, Wendell August Forge was the perfect fit. My dad, although we were never wealthy, very middle class America growing up. I grew up in Youngstown, great community for you grow up in, but he was a lover of fine things.

Will Knecht (06:18):

And he would collect not a ton of things, but good things. Whether they be antique furniture, antique clocks, pocket watches, coins, he loved the beautiful and the unique. And for anyone who knows Wendell August Forge, today we are still trying to carry on a tradition of creating beautiful and unique products made by hand in America. And so when my dad saw Wendell August Forge, went over to Grove city for the first time, the decision was made very quickly. And in a matter of weeks after he and my mother made the decision to leave IBM, my dad showed up in Grove City for his first day of work at Wendell August Forge, never having run a company. He had been in sales at IBM. And so for him, he jumped in feet first. It was a company teetering on the edge of extinction with hidden assets that my dad and just his creativity was able to explore and develop. And we still stand on his shoulders today.

Laurie Barkman (07:22):

We can probably talk about your dad for the whole show. He sounds like a pretty interesting guy. He jumped in, from Big Blue in the heyday, wearing the suits, and he traded that all for a company with hidden assets. And I love how you talked about him, how he had a passion for the beautiful and the unique. And as you talk more about your company and what it does, that does sound like a great fit. So how long did your father run the company?

Will Knecht (07:48):

He ran the company…it’s pretty interesting, again, pure entrepreneurial arc. At about 11 years, so this would have been 1989. I had just finished college at Wake Forest University. I get a call I’m living in Hilton Head waiting tables at a five star resort, making good money living on the beach, having a great time. And he calls me 11 years in and he says, Will, I’m thinking about selling the company and wanted to invite you and your sister to join us if you would like. No pressure, if you don’t, I’ll just go ahead and sell, but I wanted to give you the opportunity to come in and just try it. And he said, if you choose to try it again, no pressure let’s reevaluate in a year. And if it’s something that you really feel passionate about and I’ll need you to feel passionate, let’s see about making this a long-term career.

Will Knecht (08:41):

And again, I was living the high life in Hilton Head, but it really was an opportunity to get involved in something that was really special in a way that had no pressure. My dad and mom never pressured me as a kid, never pressured my sister when we were growing up that we felt that we were stuck and that we had to go into the company. And so the way they approached us was the same way. And the way it began that first year was just typical of my parents who were just awesome. Both have passed away since, but just awesome people. And so my sister and I both joined. She since left the company when she started a family, she and her husband are still intimately involved on our board. I had a conversation with her and our president and her husband yesterday, but it really is a great story.

Will Knecht (09:29):

It’s an interesting story. And with this succession story, the stories that you promote on your amazing podcast, I think it’s just great to unpack this. And it’s been great talking to you in preparation for this and reliving what we learned through the succession process. So my dad ran it for about 10 years, maybe 12 years, after I joined. But in the late 1990s, so it’d been about 10 years, I did become President, but he didn’t bring me in with a silver spoon. I came in…and I love this story…I made more money waiting tables in Hilton Head than I made in my first two years at Wendell August Forge. I didn’t come in with a silver spoon and move to an executive seat. I worked on the shop floor, had a boss that I reported to. My dad was extremely hands off with that. And I was blessed to learn the business from the ground up and to really just be one of the guys. So I started in the workshop with our amazing craftsmen, just helping move product and getting orders out. And that’s what I started doing. I worked in the sales room, in our stores, worked on the phones, did it all. Again, making minimum wage for years.

Laurie Barkman (10:44):

That’s really interesting. I want to just rewind on something. So what did that feel like when you had that conversation with your father for the first time? Did it catch you by surprise when he asked you or had you already been thinking about it?

Will Knecht (10:56):

Not at all. I had plans to move out to LA with two fraternity brothers. Again, I was a bit entrepreneurial, even at that time. What our idea was we were going to move to LA, spot a trend on the west coast that was hitting, and we were going to accelerate its move to the east coast. And so that was our plan. Literally I was probably six weeks away from going to LA. We had wired some stuff. So I had to back out of all that. So it did come as a surprise to me. But again, you study entrepreneurs that 11 to 12 year mark is when that itch to do something different typically hits. And I was fascinated by that statistic when I found that out, looking back at the timeline of my dad.

Laurie Barkman (11:39):

And it’s also interesting to talk about when you joined the company and how you worked on the shop floor really learning all the different roles in the company before you grew in management. I had a similar experience, not the same, but similar but from an understanding. I was an intern at a company called Ingersoll-Rand for a summer. And I was a human resources intern and the VPs in Human Resources insisted that I work on the shop floor for a few weeks to really understand. I did testing in a ball bearings factory. And eventually, when I worked in a factory where we made road machinery, I got to know the folks on the shop floor really well…we had welders and painters. I noticed on the Wendell August website, that when you say our team, it features the engravers and the metalworkers, their pictures, and their names are on your website. And I thought that was really special. And it ties in with what you just said about getting to know the roles really intimately, because it probably built a lot of trust and credibility on your end. You didn’t have the Wendell August name. You didn’t have that family name, but you certainly had the other name of Knecht, being an owner of the company’s son. What did that feel like eventually as you grew into the business? Were people rooting for you and they wanted to see you grow and succeed?

Will Knecht (13:00):

Well, I don’t know. I mean, I made every mistake in the book. I was a cocky college graduate, and if you’d talk to some of the people that I worked with, hopefully they thought it was a nice guy, but I did make a lot of mistakes and learned a lot. And the way I learned it was through my colleagues. I mean, they treated me like one of the guys. I was…I tried to be, but I made a lot of mistakes. As a college graduate, not necessarily as the owner’s son, but just coming out of college you think you know it all, but boy, the book learning, and the on the ground learning can be two totally different things. And over a period of time, I hope I learned humility and that I could learn so much more from the people I work with than I could actually give them.

Will Knecht (13:46):

You look at our company and there’s a reason why our artisans are featured. They’re our heroes. What makes Wendell August different? It’s not me, nothing about me. It is about what our artisans and craftsmen make. They are the difference maker. And so one of the things we try to do in our culture is built upon that…is recognize that titles have different responsibility, but no more importance, right? A sales person in the retail store is as important as I am and our job is to do our job with excellence. That sales person has more interaction with our customers than I do and makes more of an impact than I do on our brand. And so, as Chairman, I have a certain role, strategic guidance working with our President. That’s my role.

Will Knecht (14:38):

I hope my colleagues hold me to a standard of excellence in that role. And if I’m a salesperson, if I’m a craftsman, I am equally as important to the business as a whole. And I need to do my job wonderfully and with excellence. And when we do that, that’s when a business hums. And so I learned that from just working through mistakes and growing, and learning, and recognizing the talent around me was just astounding. So long answer to your question, but, made a lot of mistakes, learned a lot and recognized that we’re one. Look at our physical bodies, it’s one body, right? When my hand is not working…I burned my finger last night and it’s bothering me, and when that finger is not working perfectly, my whole body’s off, right. And that’s how we are as an organism in an organization when one area is not firing on all cylinders, we’re all off. And so anyway, I digress a bit, but I’m very passionate about the fact that as a business, we are all important and there’s no one more important than anyone else.

Laurie Barkman (15:49)

Understandable, completely. Especially when you’ve been with the company so long, it’s part of you, it’s part of your family. And I know we’ll talk about this in a moment about when something is hurt in the business, and how it affects everyone. I’m sorry you burned your finger, but maybe it’s an interesting segue and analogy we’ll get to in a moment. I want to talk about when your father retired. And that day, if you recall back, I guess maybe was it 20 years ago now, what that felt like. What was your first day like as a CEO? You had been in the company, you had grown, you had made mistakes. You’d learned and now you’re in charge, now what?

Will Knecht (16:26):

Yeah, very interesting question because it wasn’t a smooth or seamless transition. My dad didn’t just retire and then not show up. He knighted me as President. He moved into the Chairman role and CEO, but still periodically would show up. And so, once again with the Succession Stories Podcast, we did a lot wrong. I did a lot wrong. It wasn’t clear, it wasn’t defined it, wasn’t built up. And so what I’ve learned it wasn’t like one day I’m in charge. I was in charge, but then I wasn’t in charge. So made a lot of mistakes, had a lot of challenges because again, as the younger guy, I wanted to make my own mark, right. And, wanted to do things a little bit differently. And there was pushback at times. Rightfully so. I mean, my dad had built this thing to something really special.

Will Knecht (17:28):

And now that I’m his age, when I came into the company, I get it. Totally. So we made a lot of mistakes, both of us in the succession. And again, I think that’s so great. One of the important things about what you’re doing is so people can learn from either great succession moves, or maybe a little bit rocky succession moves. Ours was more rocky, not as clear, not as defined, not prepared, still in-fighting. And so really, it wasn’t smooth. Unfortunately, when it became very clear was when my father was diagnosed with cancer. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2001. And at that time, his perspective totally shifted. And it was at that time, the true knighting came on, and it was clear that my role was now as the leader and it was a very difficult circumstance for that to occur. But that was the time when the true break occurred.

Laurie Barkman (18:36):

Well, that’s something I’ve come to understand from entrepreneurs who have bought businesses and transitioned with the owners, the previous owners, and these are people that are not in the family. I just had an episode recently where we talked about this — more than one episode where we’ve talked about this– Chris Cynkar [Episode 04] is one example where when he was 26, he bought the company from a man who could have been his father’s age, or was his father’s age, and what that transition was like. And it was longer, in retrospect, than it should have been. For me, when I transitioned as part of a succession within a company to succeed someone who was retiring, he was setting up his office three doors down from me in the same hallway. And it didn’t take long for me to realize that was not a good idea. And he was a good sport and he did eventually move his office after we talked about it. It’s a smaller example of what you’re sharing. I’m sorry that your father got cancer, but it did sound like a catalyst for change and that you really needed to make that transition more defined, as you say.

Will Knecht (19:40):

Yes, absolutely. The clarity in a succession plan and I’ve learned that with three kids and two nephews and a niece. As my sister and brother in-law and I chat about what we might look like differently, our President is also an owner of our company. So he’s involved in those discussions. He has three kids as well. One of the things you prompted in me in our first discussion is to begin thinking about that. I mean, I’m 53, but hey, who knows what tomorrow holds? And so our President myself, and my sister, and brother-in-law, we need to be thinking about these things too, to bring clarity and no confusion or chaos to our succession.

One of the blessings of being on your podcast is really a stark reminder. That succession is important to plan and do effectively not only for your own health, and if it’s a family business, your family, but for everybody involved– your customers, your employees, they deserve it.

Laurie Barkman (20:44):

Yes. I’m so glad that that’s stimulated the conversation with your company. I understand that can take three, seven years. It’s not something you rush to figure out tomorrow. It’s unfortunate when those circumstances do occur. And I think that’s essentially what you’re trying to do is plan ahead. So you don’t have to make any rash decisions in an unfortunate way. I’m so glad to hear that you and your company are talking about that, and I’m glad to have played some sort of part in that. I want to talk now about your story that you share when you are doing speaking engagements, you’re a public speaker. You talk about this story and it is out there. And so I know it’s probably a timely one, a timeless one in fact, because you talk abouthow adversity is the seed for success. And it’s, again, I think a timeless message, especially now with the challenges related to COVID-19, what was the setback that you and your company experienced?

Will Knecht (21:41):

Yeah, 2008, the economy tanking really hit us hard and we were fighting as many companies, obviously at that time were, we were fighting for survival. January 2009, we had to let go about 40 people. Boy was that painful. Every month in 2009, we would just say are we still alive? Yeah, we still have a little bit of cash. And then, we got to the end of 2009 it’s okay. Prayerfully, hopefully the worst is behind us. 2010, we had an opportunity to bid with the Pittsburgh Penguins, the iconic hockey franchise, literally, that’s one of the best professional sports franchises in the nation. No question about it. And a hero of mine now, Dave Soltesz, who runs the [Pittsburgh Penguins] Foundation, gave us an opportunity to pitch in front of the entire marketing team,

Will Knecht (22:39):

an idea for a closing gift for the iconic Civic Arena in Pittsburgh. The Civic Arena had been in Pittsburgh and literally an icon since the ‘60s and they were closing it and they were having the last hockey game and they were looking for a gift to give to all the attenders at that last game. We got in and on March 4th, 2010, our now President Christian Werner and I went in, he was head of business development at the time, and we made a pitch to make tickets – aluminum tickets- by hand for 18,000 fans. And Laurie, this would have been, what was to be the largest order in our history. Went in, to make a bit of a long story short, gave it everything we’ve got because to us – still struggling from the financial crisis in 2008, ‘09 and ’10 – this would have been a shot in the arm and a little bit of kick in our step that we’re gonna be okay.

Will Knecht (23:36):

And so this was a six figure order. Wow, this is big for a little company. And we went and gave it all we got, and we got word that afternoon, March 4th, that we actually got the job and we were thrilled, but we only had four weeks to pull it off because the last game was in early April, I believe April 7th. We went back the next day and we had an all-hands meeting. We brought everybody together and we said, guys, we got the order. And literally applause breaks out because we had all been breaking a sweat over this last year, trying to just keep us alive. And we really coalesced as a family during that time. But little did we know, what we had gone through in ‘08 and ‘09 was nothing in comparison to what we were about to go through.

Will Knecht (24:25):

So Friday the 5th of March, 2010, we get an all-hands and we begin the process of making this order. March 6th, which is a Saturday morning, I go into the office and as I go into the office, some customers need some product. I say, I’ll deliver it. So I raise my hand to deliver. I go out with some packages to make a delivery. I get a phone call as I’m getting out of my car to make the delivery, “Will, come back, the forge is on fire!” And at that point, I’m thinking Laurie, to be honest with you, a little fire. I go in and make the delivery. I come back out and I get a call from one of our craftsmen, “Will, the forge is on fire! It is burning to the ground. Get back here now!” And again, I had a peace about me.

Will Knecht (25:09):

I didn’t panic. I didn’t cry. I drove back and I was about three miles out, Laurie, from our facility. I looked up in the sky and I saw this huge plume of black smoke and I knew it was serious. Pulled in already, a number of volunteer fire departments had shown up. Twenty-one heroic volunteer firefighter departments actually fought our fire. And at the end of the day, our entire factory, headquarters, and retail store burned to the ground a day after announcing to our employees that we had the biggest order in our history. And panic is ensuing. I mean, we’re a little bit of an institution in Grove City. I don’t overplay who we are or what we do, but we’re an institution. We’d been there since we had moved to Grove City in 1932.

Will Knecht (25:59):

So we had hundreds of people, hundreds of community members there, and probably 30 or 40 colleagues who came in. Many of those colleagues, Laurie, are in tears, panicked, what are we going to do? What are we going to do? How am I going to pay my house mortgage? How am I gonna pay my rent? How am I going to put food on the table? Will, what am I going to do, what am I going to do in tears. And we did one thing, and it was a game changer for us. We gathered together in a circle of prayer, and we prayed and we said simply, “God, we don’t know what’s happening. We trust that you do, just show us what’s next. Amen.” Broke that prayer circle and, Laurie, it was like the lights went back on. I watched my fellow employees encircle that building and begin to direct and work with the firefighters identifying what needed to be pulled out.

Will Knecht (26:50):

I was like a bit player in a movie, just standing around and watching everything happen. And I was just amazed at just how God had worked through the amazing people I worked through to begin rebuilding that moment. The next day, I have a meeting obviously with the insurance inspector, or the insurance adjuster, and he pulls me aside. He’s a friend. He said, “Will, I need to tell you a couple of things. First thing is 60% of small business who face a catastrophic event, as you just did, go out of business. Understand that. I don’t want to paint a rosier picture than it is. Of those 40% that do on average, it takes six to nine months to get back into business.” And for us, Laurie, six to nine months, we would have been done as a company.

Will Knecht (27:40):

And I said, “I appreciate it, Phil, but we can’t.” That day we’re expecting a call from the Pittsburgh Penguins and say, hey guys, thanks so much. We wish you well, but as you can understand, we have to move in another direction. Here’s what happened, Laurie. And again, my hats off to Dave Soltesz, Dave Morehouse, Mario Lemieux, and the entire Penguins organization, Dave Soltesz calls our current President Christian Werner and says, “Christian, we know what happened. Can you deliver this order?” And Christian again, entrepreneurial, “Yes.” He’s looking literally at a building that is burned to the ground, but he says yes. And Dave says, “I believe it. Here’s what we’re going to do tomorrow. We’re going to have a courier down at your site with a check for the entire amount of the order to help you with your cashflow in these coming days.”

Will Knecht (28:35):

So Laurie, just again, the way the Western Pennsylvania, Northeastern Ohio community rallied around us, the way my colleagues rose up. So again, remember 60% go out of business. If you do stay in business, it’s six to nine months before you’re back up. Here is what my colleagues were able to pull off. In five days, our workshop, our factory was back up functioning. In two weeks, we’re sitting at our desks with computers, ready to work. In four weeks, we have a ribbon cutting for our retail, our flagship retail store, all in Grove City, all in rented facilities. And we were able to recover. And one of the next to the birth of my kids, one of the proudest moments of my life is when I had the opportunity to drive down to Pittsburgh and deliver 18,000 tickets in four weeks handmade so that the Penguins could honor their fans at that last game.

Will Knecht (29:37):

People I work with are amazing. The refiners fire in metal. To make gold or silver, or even pewter the pure metal that it needs to be to make it into something else. You melt it and you allow the dross to rise to the top. So again, we’re metal workers. We cast pewter, and we do this every day. The dross rises to the top. You scoop out the dross, and you throw it away. And you’re left with a pure metal. What Wendell August was able to do is go through a literal refining fire. And literally we were given a blank canvas to reinvent our company. And that is why I say, that if you look, and if you curl up in the fetal position after a devastating event, professionally or personally, that’s what’s going to end up. But if you look and you say, we’re going to do this, we’re going to do the hard work. It wasn’t easy, something beautiful can come out of it. I sit with a number of colleagues today, working at a wonderful company that is different than we were 10 years ago, better than we were, tighter than we were, closer than we were, doing better work than we’ve ever done. And again, it’s a result of that refining fire in 2010 that gave us the opportunity to look differently. And that’s where we stand today. Not perfect, but better.

Laurie Barkman (31:10):

That’s an incredible story of resilience. And I know you’re so proud of your company and how you came out on the other side. I can’t help but think about it in my head as a fire and ice story, right? And the ice part being the “Igloo” – that was the nickname of the stadium that you’re referring to. And I did not know the role that the Penguins played in that for your company. That’s really incredible. And it does speak volumes to that team, to the people you mentioned. And I’ll be sure to put those names in the show notes so that others can find them too. That is, again, a story of resilience, a story of transition. It’s a story of growth. And I think particularly at this time, when so many companies are dealing with change, because change has been thrown upon them from the pandemic and the mandated closure, I’ve been thinking about one of my favorite quotes, and I know that one of your talks is about change.

Laurie Barkman (32:08):

And one of my favorite quotes comes from my former boss. He was Chairman of the company and he had a sign above his door that said the following, “There are people who make things happen. There are people who watch things happen, and there are people who wonder what happened.” And he used to ask, especially when things weren’t going right, he would say, well, which one are you? And of course, I would say, well, I’m somebody that makes change happen. The original quote is from astronaut Jim Lavelle. And I think that you have a passion for a similar quote. I was wondering what advice you would give to business owners who have that need to transform their business but don’t quite know where to start.

Will Knecht (32:40):

Obviously we’re recording this during the throes of the coronavirus, but this will be an evergreen podcast. So just to put it in perspective, we’re dealing with the coronavirus at this time as we record. And I would say, the most important thing is, for us, because again, for us, this was just another curve ball thrown at us. And literally within hours of Governor Wolf making the announcement that we were closed down, March 19th or whatever of this year, we were back in operation and saying, okay, what’s the next step we take? How do we utilize this time most effectively for the good of our employees and our customers?

Will Knecht (33:32):

And so we got about doing things that we’ve wanted to do, but didn’t have a chance to do. Our theme during this time has been progress, not perfection. And I would say that’s one of the biggest things that we have learned during this time, as business owners, as business people, as employees in a company, it’s not perfection that we’re going for, it is forward movement. And again, we’re going to get bloodied.

We’re going to go two steps forward and maybe sometimes step three quarters back, or maybe some days we don’t go forward at all and we’re going backwards. But the next day we go back at it. And I think that would be from a theme perspective, it’s progress, not perfection, just do the next right thing. Just do the next right thing.

Will Knecht (34:24):

And so again, I’ll use the analogy. You hear the dichotomies and you see it on Facebook. You see it everywhere that people are handling this pandemic differently. You hear the reports, suicide calls going through the roof, the use of illicit drugs, alcohol abuse going through the roof, physical abuse, the concerns of child abuse, and sexual abuse, going through the roof. Some people react negatively in times of stress. At the end of the day, that is no help at all. I mean that’s an understatement of the day. But the other people you see on Facebook, they’re re-engaging with their families. They’re looking at their bill. They’re pivoting. They’re making masks now. They’re making the ventilators.

Will Knecht (35:19):

Now they’re adjusting to the new normal. And is it perfect? No, but they’re doing the next right thing that they know of right now. So, those would be the first two things, progress, not perfection, do the next right thing. And if it’s not the best thing after you do it, review what happens and do something different. But keep going. Keep bloodying your face. It’s not easy work. It’s hard work to get through something extremely difficult, whether it be a refining fire, or whether it be a pandemic it’s not easy, but we’ve got to do the hard work. And as business people, and if you’re in a leadership position in a company and listening to this podcast, you’re called to lead and it’s not easy. You’ve got to make the tough calls. You’ve got to do the hard things.

Will Knecht (36:14):

You’ve got to soldier through progress, not perfection, do the next right thing and keep going, keep going. And you’ve got to have a circle. I’ve got a circle of folks that, our president and I, we are our good buddies. We talk all the time. We’re each other’s business stress relievers, but when he goes in front of our company, he is a picture of steadiness, of confidence, of positivity. Does he feel that way all the time? Heck no. He’ll call me and say, Oh my gosh, now, what are we going to do? Or I call him, Oh my gosh, can you believe this happened? But we work that through each other. And in front of our colleagues, he is a picture of strength and that’s leadership. But our feelings and the emotions we go through as business owners or executives, or managers, or employees they’re real, but they don’t have to be the truth.

Will Knecht (37:18):

So anyway, we’ve learned that through, hard, hard things over the years, but we were able to bounce back or bounce through this, or work through this again, probably quicker than many people, just because we’d already experienced and had already been challenged to be resilient ten years ago. And that becomes part of our DNA. We’re not defeated. We’re not going to lose. We look from a victory mindset an opportunity mindset. Even in the worst thing. What’s the opportunity. What’s the golden nugget. Let’s go after that. Let’s mitigate the risk. Let’s mitigate the downside. It’s real, possibly, but man, there’s opportunity and that’s leadership. What’s the opportunity? Go for it.

Laurie Barkman (38:04):

So your company has been closed. I know it’s opening soon, and maybe a year from now. We’ll talk again and say, how has your company been different after this transition? And certainly your company had not been disrupted, right? You had a path forward, your management team had buckled down after the fire and everyone rallied and you were able to pull through. So I know your company will continue to do great things. It sounds like your company’s on that path now. Have you talked with them about how they feel about reopening? Is everybody kind of ready and excited to get back to work?

Will Knecht (38:36):

Yeah. Some are, but we’re giving people the option. If you don’t want to come back that’s okay. So, we have a handful of people who don’t want to come back and that’s okay. We honor that. It’s so, and again, I think that’s the greatness of America. When you give Americans the ability to choose, 99% of us make the right choice. And, some businesses might choose not to reopen that’s their purview right. And so same thing with our employees. If they choose not to come back, we’re not going to penalize them. we love them. They’re family. Okay. You’re doing the right thing for you and your family. Well done. So absolutely. But we’re going to look different. I mean, obviously we’re going to look different, our business, we were closed for seven weeks.

Will Knecht (39:22):

We had two monster orders in the pipeline– how about this…one was for cruise ships and one was with an airline. How about that for a double whammy? So those obviously melted away. We lost probably in this time $1.5 million in revenue and again, for a small company that’s real. That’s painful, but again, do we let that define us? And do I curl up my gosh we lost $1.5 million in revenue. No. Okay. That’s reality. We deal with reality now, what do we do different? And that’s what we’re doing right now, just like we had to do after the fire, what do we do different now after the pandemic, what do we do differently? And we will look different.

Laurie Barkman (40:05):

And there are a lot of companies that are going to be wrestling with that. There’s a great book out there by Luke Williams called Disrupt. And it’s about businesses taking on that challenge of transformation. And I know you talk about disruption and that’s something I also work with clients on is how to develop a process for change management and innovation. And I think one of the outcomes of the pandemic is it is forcing that disruption curve to be accelerated. Think of how many businesses and independent people, whether you’re in health and wellness. Everything’s gone digital overnight. And the adoption by the consumer and the understanding of how things work online that curve has gotten much, much more truncated. And so I think just sort of to put a closure on this part of the interview, one of the things that I think about is this phrase, “navigate the now, plan for the recovery, and shape the future.” So it seems like your company is positioned to do that. And again, I wish you all the success going forward. I want to switch gears to your family and some of the things you do on the side for fun. You have three children, right? Are they teenagers? Do you think that any of them are starting to think about their career or have any of them expressing an interest in the business?

Will Knecht (41:20):

Yeah, I’ve got three rock star kids, my oldest is 25. He’s a director, he’s a film guy. Guy’s a creative genius. He’s awesome. He’s up in New York, in Brooklyn, just killing it. He has no interest in the company outside of, he really loves it. I was able even this week to give him a Wendell August, he’s a fly fisherman and my dad was a fly fishermen. And one of our craftsmen made my dad a Wendell August fly fishing tackle box. I was able to give it to my 25 year old son a couple of weeks ago, just thrilling. So he has no interest. And he’s just doing so well. So proud of him, a 20 year old son, Cameron’s in DC in college, he’s a political guy. And so, his dream is to be the Chief of Staff for a Senator.

Will Knecht (42:09):

And so he is pursuing that angle at this point a again, probably not going to come back to the company, we’ve talked about it. And, I don’t see at this point, really a desire there. And then, our youngest is 16 and she could possibly, we’ve actually chatted about it. And she loves it every summer we’re working, she comes and works for a week and she loves it. She’s excited about her trip to Wendell August this summer and spending a week working there. But again, not going to put any pressure on her at all, but, three kids. As you know, Laurie, our kids are all unique and I want to model the no pressure model that my parents had, but then tweak it a little bit. If any of my kids or my nephews or nieces or Christian’s, our President’s kids, want to get involved. We’re going to do it a little bit differently than maybe a with my sister and me.

Laurie Barkman (43:06):

And you have the benefit of hindsight on that, which is helpful. And one of the things that you talk about is your bigger why. And I was wondering if you could share what your why is that you’ve discovered and what’s important to you?

Will Knecht (43:19):

Yeah, what’s important to me. My passion is, and again, I’m a politically incorrect guy, so I just give you that heads up now. My passion is Jesus and the Bible. And so my bigger why is understanding that all. And again, I had the perspective from a fire. If you think about, if you looked at me personally, before the fire, I had security, I had money. I’m not a good looking guy, but I had health.

Will Knecht (43:48):

And then when the fire comes and it burns everything that you held his security to the ground, you realize the temporal nature that we live in. And, and for me, my bigger, why is eternity not just here. And so, we’re doing a weekly call with our employees, even now, just to keep everybody abreast, we’ve been doing it for the entire seven weeks. Our President [Christian Werner] has been masterful in being open, honest, transparent. What’s what, where we stand, what we’re doing, fantastic job. But we always end with prayer requests. We’ve had a number of prayer requests that have been offered up. Everybody has our cell phones, so hey, if you have a prayer request, you want to give us a call.

Will Knecht (44:38):

So for me, my bigger why is eternity not here. I have to check myself, Laurie, on this all the time. I don’t want to be wrapped up in stuff. I have been blessed with an amazing company to steward and financial resources that not everybody has. But if I invest those in temporal stuff, I can just go back to my picture of the fire. It’s all going to burn away. And so to me, my bigger why is to challenge other business leaders and men to live a bigger life than just the here and now, just for a living a bigger life than just for stuff, because stuff never fulfills. And so that’s my bigger why.

Laurie Barkman (45:32):

That’s an important one. And so last question for you. I like to ask all of my guests, if they have a favorite saying, or mantra regarding entrepreneurship.

Will Knecht (45:37):

Absolutely. And again, it, it aligns very much with yours, but it’s Teddy Roosevelt’s famous “It’s not the critic who counts” quote that is just iconic. It’s the guy who’s been in the battle whose face is bloodied and dirty. You know the quote that I’m speaking of. I have a plaque of that’s up. [Teddy Roosevelt quote has been added to transcript below]

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Again, I had adopted that probably 25 years ago. Little did I know that my face would literally be blackened with ash from a fire, and that we would be fighting through those things and I’d be in the trenches. But again, I am reminded by that quote, that we should dare to do big things, do important things, do critical things, but not be afraid of, of mistakes, not be afraid of failure, but build on failure.

Will Knecht (46:30):

And again, back to the succession story. I’m able to see what I did incorrectly in the succession between me and my dad, and also to take an objective look at how now in my dad’s role, I can do it differently. That wasn’t a great seamless thing, but I can learn from it and I can take that, not a failure, but just mistakes. And now build on those. And I think Teddy Roosevelt’s quote, just is so good. Don’t be afraid to mess it up. Don’t be afraid of failure. Don’t be paralyzed. Don’t be paralyzed in this time. We can personally, right. There are people that are going to alcohol and those things we talked about, but there’s also people taking online classes, exercising more, learning to cook healthy, investing in their families more, all positives.

Will Knecht (47:20):

And I think that’s what we can take from this. And that’s what I take from my favorite quote of Teddy Roosevelt. It’s not the critic who counts because those who attempt good things, those who attempt great things, there will always be those people naysay, and always be those people criticizing. They don’t count. Go for the dream you have. Go for the bigger why that’s important to you in your business, what is it that you really want to become. That makes sense, go for it, and then dust yourself off when you make mistakes and go forward. So that’s my favorite quote and that it really has great meaning. And again, as many mistakes as I make every day, I’ve got to live by that because I would be paralyzed by mistakes. I just want to keep growing, keep learning, keep developing. I want to be more of the man that God’s called me to be, and I want to be a good father. I want to be a good colleague at work. I want to do what I’m called to do and steward the gifts and talents and the opportunities I’ve been given to the fullest amount.

Laurie Barkman (48:28):

Will, thanks, this has been a really special conversation. I really enjoyed getting to know you. Thank you for sharing your story, your wins, your challenges, how you forged through a very difficult time and how your company is going to continue to do that. Thank you for sharing so many things and you just ooze positivity. I just found it kind of interesting and funny that your LinkedIn address is your name, hyphen, let’s go. [https://www.linkedin.com/in/will-knecht-letsgo] And I think that’s a great place to end is just a note of positivity. So again, thank you so much for being on Succession Stories. It’s been great talking to you.

Will Knecht (49:00):

What an honor, Laurie, thank you for having me.

Laurie Barkman:

Thanks for listening. I hope you enjoyed the episode. Three things before you go:

1. Follow Succession Stories Podcast on LinkedIn. Join the community to share feedback, submit questions, and ideas for future episodes.

2. If you want to develop a roadmap for your business to innovate, transition, or grow, let’s talk.

3. Hit 5-stars in Apple Podcasts and share with friends on GoodPods if you enjoyed the episode.

Thanks again for tuning in!

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