• Steven Heller

To Every Season, Turn, Turn, Turn

A few weeks ago I published an interview with Joe Duffy about him handing the business baton to the next generation. It is a pressing issue for many Boomers who have reached the traditional retirement age. However, few designers are “traditional.” Still, how to transition from one career phase into a new life stage is of concern to us all. There is no dearth of strategies and today we focus on Ken Carbone and Leslie Smolan, who over 40 years started as classmates, and have successfully run the branding and design firm CSA (Carbone Smolan Agency). They are now handing over the keys to the castle to a new CEO, Paul Rossi, and I asked them how they were feeling about the process and shift in responsibilities. Their attitude should be of interest to us all.


When you began Carbone Smolan, what were your goals? Did you conceive of continuing for so many decades?

Ken: To stay in business for another month! Our focus was the same then as it is now: Do great work, have appreciative and courageous clients, make a comfortable living doing what we love.

Les: When we started Carbone Smolan, we were very idealistic and wanted to change the world through design. We were always media-agnostic, meaning we could design brand systems, or environments, or books, or websites, or….  The variety of clients and projects was so stimulating, we only thought about what exciting project was next.

At what point did you begin to think it was necessary to consider succession?

Ken: Around the time we celebrated our 30th year in business, a dozen years ago now, we thought about expanding our partnership. We always considered rewarding loyal employees first and made a few attempts. It is simply a difficult process. With ownership, comes huge personal and financial risk. Some people have an appetite for that, most don’t. Fortunately, we just announced the appointment of a new CEO, Paul Rossi, who comes to us after 20 years as a top executive at The Economist. He not only has the appetite for the risk and reward of running a business but has done it successfully in the past.


Ken: Succession means you hope that what you have built will deliver some personal rewards while providing an opportunity for those interested in the same rewards that come from hard work and continued success. Staying actively involved through a succession plan is essential to ensure that the fundamental goals of delivering top design work, keeping clients satisfied and remaining profitable are consistently met. However, providing latitude for new leaders to guide the business towards shared goals is equally important.


Les: Succession means that you’ve entrusted the business to someone who honors and respects the past, yet brings a new dimension to the business in the future. It’s exciting to now have someone add a new ingredient or twist to enhance what we’ve built.


As a micro-manager, I think my greatest contribution will be to give CSA’s new CEO the space to manage the business as he sees fit! I will now be a member of the Board of Directors, providing counsel, historical memory and facilitating the smooth transition of client relationships. The process feels a bit like sending my kid out into the world after college. It’s time to make it on your own — which means I’ll always be here to provide help when needed but excited to see what gets created without me.


Ken: Yes, the sabbaticals were an excellent path to personal discovery. During my first six months “off” at the end of the last century, I rekindled a lifelong love for drawing and saw that it is my superpower. It informs the way I see the world and is my most valuable design tool. I consider the sabbaticals I’ve taken as practice for life after work. These were a gift that Leslie and I have given to each other.


Les: After 42 years, I am ready for some new adventures. The sabbatical gave me a sense of what it would be like to step away from the business. As you said, it takes a certain amount of time to “decompress” and “detach”. This has been happening over the past two years, as I’ve stepped away from running individual projects and focused on the health of the overall business. Having experienced this first step of liberation, I’m actually looking forward to handing off the day-to-day running the business.

What is the process of finding a successor? Is this someone from within or without?

Ken: It is extremely difficult, especially when you are building from the inside with potential partners who don’t have the financial means to actively invest in the business. Hiring the right investment banker is key to evaluating the pros and cons of an internal sale versus a strategic sale to an external buyer. It is a very costly process in time and real money. My advice to any design business owner who might be considering a succession is to start NOW! It always take longer than expected, you will have failures, and the best opportunity might come out of left field.


Les: Timing is the key to everything in life. We tried a number of different approaches, none of which worked. Maybe we weren’t ready to let go. Maybe the successor wasn’t the right person. We learned a lot through these failures. This time, we feel the opportunity is perfectly matched with the ambitions, experience, and talent of our new leader.

How difficult is the process in terms of identifying the right person?

Ken: It is always challenging to bring in leadership from the outside. There are many talented, experienced people who have the entrepreneurial “gene” but because we have a relatively small company of under fifty people, cultural fit and personal chemistry are critical. Occasionally someone just “clicks” as is the case with Paul Rossi, who demonstrated a deep understanding of what the position required, had done it before and was celebrated for his work over the years.

Les: Key to us is a level of integrity, financial acumen and an ability to bring out the best in people. Paul Rossi has all of these qualities. He’s a dynamic leader.

Do you have a vision of where CSA will go in the near and distant future? Will the company change radically?

Ken: Radical change has got to be an option when necessary to keep pace with the market. The ability to course correct quickly is an accepted reality and in a way has contributed to our success for over 40 years. We’ve hit many bumps along the way but always recover and bounce back even stronger.

Les: That is the perfect question for Paul Rossi. The world is experiencing exponential change, and he is someone who thrives in this kind of environment. He’s already done it in the publishing industry and is excited to breathe new life into our business. In our very first meeting, he talked more about ideas than about management. If CSA changes radically, it will feel like the most natural next step under his leadership.


Ken: What void? I’m busier now than when I was in the office every day. My pledge is to provide 80% of my value in 20% of the time. We have a top team in place to carry the agency further and they know that I’m devoted to their success. From my position on the Board of Directors, I will be keenly interested in the quality of our work, happy clients and financial stability. I’m currently traveling a great deal and diving deeply into a variety of art projects. However, I’m only a text message away if someone wants an opinion about a typeface!


Les: Like Ken, I already find myself busier than ever before. Currently, I’m focused on building the legacy of my late husband, photographer Rodney Smith. It’s taken me into the world of art museums and collectors. I’m passionate about my mission of sharing his work with the world and excited to be learning and growing in new ways.

#CarboneSmolanAgency #DailyHeller #StevenHeller #Succession

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