If you had asked me 20 years ago where I saw myself in 5/10/15 years, taking over the family business was definitely not in my sights.
I grew up as an only child to immigrant parents in a small town in Ontario (my adopted sister came later in life). This was significant in itself, but my parents were also entrepreneurs – which has shaped who I am today as I look back now. In the early years of the business, I remember spending most of my afterschool moments at the office. I’d have naps under my dad’s desk, I learned how to use the typewriter at the ripe age of eight, and I was learning how to type out invoices by nine. Once I hit double digits, I was answering phones, redirecting calls and hosting meals with my parents to a table full of Physicists became a regular thing.
When I reached high school, I was keen to take art and music as my electives – but my folks had other ideas for me. I was forced into Grade 9 tech class to learn some “practical skills.” My teacher, Mr. Ley, took me under his wing and shielded me from the typical grade nine boys as I was the only girl in the class. I learned how to spot weld, rivet, use lathes, program G code, and make things. I would never have admitted it to my parents, but I LOVED it. During my afternoons at the office, I started to gravitate toward spending my time in the machine shop helping how I could. There was a period when our orders started to jump up, and we needed a second shift to run the Milling Machine, so I offered my help after school to support the ramp-up in production.
Fast forward ten years – I have happily distanced myself from day-to-day life at Sensor Technology. I am now two hours away at grad school in Toronto and am on the cusp of getting married. I was working three part-time jobs, and running a small eBay business on the side, to pay the bills and save some money for life ahead. Then my parents approached my fiancé and me with an offer we couldn’t refuse. Amma & Dad were in discussions to sell the business to their biggest client (a large Oil & Gas company). They needed to introduce an interim management team as part of their transition plan, and we were the ideal candidates. Once the changeover was completed, we would get absorbed into the multi-national company and be primed to travel the world and work as offshore engineers. So, we joined the business in 2007 and started the three-year transition plan.
I first took on the role of Operations Manager. I worked under the existing management (My dad as CEO, my mom as CFO, and our VP of Operations) to learn the production side of the business. It was an opportunity to earn the respect of the production workers, which didn’t come easy. Until that point, I was just “the kid” who would work on university breaks to earn some extra cash. I had never really had any responsibilities up until then. Every decision was challenged by production and senior management. I remember having many screaming matches with my dad over a change I had made or a process I had implemented. We had drastically different management styles beyond the experience factor alone. I desperately wanted to prove myself as more than the “kid who got handed a company.” By the time 2009 rolled around, we couldn’t have expected the turndown that was about to hit. We lost almost all our Oil & Gas business by early 2010, and I still remember the day when I had to lay off 12 people in one day. Beyond that, we had lost our buyers, and the deal was dead. What I hadn’t expected to happen was that I would fall in love with the business.
I had to switch gears. The new management team I had assembled decided to buy the business from my parents. In late 2010, as we were working out the finer points of the deal, I remember my mother pulling me aside. During the transition period, I spent equal time with both my parents learning about the technical and production side of the business and learning about the finances of what made the company tick. Her advice to me was simply, “the person who runs the business’s finances will run the business.” It was time for me to pick a direction of focus for myself and my business partners. I was the least technical of the three of us, and my mother’s words never left me. I sometimes wish that I had graduated with a degree in finance or an MBA. Instead, I learned from the school of hard knocks.
By January 2011, we finalized the deal. The day we signed the papers was an exciting milestone in my career, not to mention that I was still practically a newlywed and six months pregnant. After three months as a CEO (and owner), I gave my parents their first grandchild – and I’m sure that had a big part in our transition from old to new management. With my parents distracted, I was allowed to make my own mistakes that second-generation owners don’t often get the chance to do. Over the years, I’ve been slowly making my own mark on the company and injecting some of my own personality. But like anything, it all took time. It took time to find my confidence and where I am best suited within the company. It took time for the staff to understand my vision and get used to my management style. It took time for my parents to relinquish their baby in exchange for a grandbaby (and eventually two) and know that the business they had created from scratch was in skilled hands.
As much as I like to think that I’ve shed the stigma of being the “Daughter that took over the business” when we took possession of our new manufacturing facility last spring – it was still my mom that I called first because I knew she would understand. And I’m ok with that.
– Niru Somayajula, President & CEO of Sensor Technology Ltd