A moving insight into what happens when your Uncle closes the doors and there is nothing you can do. Heather Leavens was a third generation director of the family business for 18 years until her Uncle decided to close the business. Powerless to do anything about it, Heather had to direct the winding down of the business. Paul Andrews spoke to Heather to understand some of the emotions involved in such a process.
Heather Leavens joined the family business when her father asked her too, giving up her role in marketing and business development which at the time she loved to enter the fray.
The business was formed in 1927 in Mississauga in Canada by her Grandfather and his two brothers, Art and Walt, in Belleville in Ontario, Canada. The original business began doing barnstorming, training pilots for war and mail runs to Pelee Island, Ontario.
Great Uncle Art died in a plane crash and Great Uncle Walt left to pursue his interests in farming which is when her Grandfather took over running the business with his four sons and from a building in Mississauga, began to service and overhaul small aircraft like Pipers and Cessnas, maintaining a stock of spare parts and servicing specific plane parts too.
Heather recalls her time as a child, way before actually joining the business when she used to work filing and cutting the grass. “My father got involved in the business as the second generation and growth came through diversification – first there was Leavens Boats and then a car dealership and even a business selling private jets,” she explains.
“At the peak in activity there were operations in Mississauga, Montreal, Calgary and Edmonton with around 70 employees. We were not a large business but gave a lot of people work and the business afforded us a good lifestyle too. During this time, we also moved to a new building and the name of the company was changed to Leavens Aviation Inc.”
Leavens Aviation was a good place to work and the employees enjoyed their time with the business. Many stayed for years and when the business eventually closed, a number of the staff leaving had worked for the company for over 40 years, something that Heather felt a certain responsibility for. “Our staff were part of the family really, an extension of who we are. They spent a long time with the company and it was sad that as well as the family closing the business, for many of the staff it was also the end of an era for them too,” continues Heather.
For many, working towards a known outcome, the closure of the family business, is something that is planned a long time in advance. Not so for Leavens Aviation which at the time of the decision being taken was still predominantly owned by Heather’s Uncle, who at this time was approaching eighty years of age. “His daughter worked for the family business and it was obvious that the two of them had discussed the future of the business and come to a decision prior to us knowing anything about it” continues Heather.
“In fact, my Uncle came into the office in the Christmas of 2010 and just told us that he was closing the business. It really did come as a shock to all of us, especially the three other family members working in the business that had no idea it was coming. We were all aware that there was no apparent fourth generation coming through to take the business on and that it was likely that it would have to be sold in the future, but we were all approaching our fifties and expecting to work towards building a nest-egg for our retirement through the business. Instead, we were suddenly confronted with a life-changing situation that we had simply not envisaged.”
The next six months were not an easy time for the family as the assets were sold off and disposed of and eventually Heather found herself sitting in the car park on the last remaining chair waiting for the final customer to come to collect their goods. “At this time, I was not really sure what was going to happen” continues Heather, “I had no idea what I was going to do but I guess in the six months preparing for the closure I had time to think about the past and collect some of my thoughts, sorting out the papers and getting the practical things in order. What nobody can prepare you for is the last time that you close the door on a business that has been in the hands of your Father and your Grandfather, and for which you cannot help but having a feeling of responsibility for.”
“Sadly, my Uncle had made his decision and we had to abide by it, he was the majority shareholder and we did not have the funds, nor the desire to take on any personal debt, to buy the business from him.”
Hindsight is a powerful tool and Heather is now coming to terms with the reality of the situation. “I do get sad sometimes when I think of my Father and then the link to the business that is no longer ours, but am not naiive to think that running the business did not come at a cost. My father dedicated a lot of time to the business and as such had less time to spend with us as a family. However, the money has come in handy for the family and ultimately are well positioned and in a way, fortunate, to be able to take stock of our lives.”
“Having said that, our building is now used as a furniture store and since opening, I have not driven past it once nor had any desire to go into the building to look around, it is all still a little raw and something that I just cannot bring myself to do,” continues Heather.
Like other family business owners that have been involved with the closure of a multi-generational business, Heather is not alone in her feelings. However, she is aware more than many that life is short and that we have to make the most of things. “The day I left the building for the last time I went straight to the hospital to spend time at the bedside of a close school friend who was ill with terminal cancer and passed away nine days later. This was a tough time but helped to put things in perspective for me” she explains.
Since the business closing, Heather sees herself as having been fortunate enough to take stock of her life, spend a year travelling and catching up with friends and is now about to embark on the next chapter of her life, life without the “burden of the family business.”
Heather has always liked marketing, people and customer service and is keen to find a role that offers these opportunities to her. “In hindsight, we spent the last few years in the business trying to diversify and increase revenue, reduce costs and fight the recession, like many other businesses, but we were facing an uphill battle and maybe closing the business was actually the right thing to do. We had all become embedded in what we were doing, week in week out, and now we can stand back and consider the options before it is too late.”
For Heather, it has been a difficult emotional road to go down but at least now she is able to look back and focus on the positives. “The burden of responsibility towards the family and the wider family, the employees and the community, has been removed and if I had to give any words of advice to others in a similar position, I would strongly suggest they consider their options, but closure or selling the family business is an option that may be necessary.”
For Leavens Bros the outcome would probably have been the same in fifteen to twenty years time, an outcome that the third generation were quietly working towards without any thought of anything different, and then the ‘rug was pulled out’ and the family business came to an abrupt end.
At the request of her Father, Heather gave up her own career to start in the family business and sacrificed a lot personally to manage the business for many years with her cousins. It has taken a toll, but Heather does have fond memories of the business, recognises the sacrifices that were made along the way, and although closing the business was probably the biggest sacrifice of all, is embracing all of the opportunities that it has also created for her now so that she can move forward and embrace life to the full.