Turning over a successful business to the next generation requires careful and thoughtful planning
Three owners of businesses that have stood the test of time shared their stories with I95Business.
Howard McComas IV, president
McComas Funeral Home, Founded 1808
McComas Funeral Home, with locations in Abingdon and Bel Air, is now in its sixth generation of consecutive family ownership. The business provides traditional funeral and cremation services, along with commemorative tributes and obituary services enabled by modern technology. Howard McComas III is chief operating officer, Howard McComas IV is president and Holly McComas is vice-president. Their brother Mike McComas is a state police officer, among a handful who protect Maryland’s First Family. He supports the business when needed.
Paul Wockenfuss, president
Wockenfuss Candies, Founded 1915
Wockenfuss Candies has eight stores in Baltimore, Bel Air, White Marsh, Columbia and Ocean City and an active online storefront. The company makes seasonal, traditional and gourmet chocolates and candies, and got its start in the city markets of Baltimore. Wockenfuss Candies stocks are held by Paul Wockenfuss, his parents Marion and Herman Lee Wockenfuss, and two sisters who are not active in the business. Paul’s daughters Christine, Janice and Jennifer work full-time in the business and are poised to purchase. Christine, with her husband Greg, manages the Ocean City stores. Janice is a CPA who handles the business’s accounting. Jennifer manages the Harford Road store and production facility.
Don Curry, owner and operator
TCA Property Management and Century 21 Curry Agency, Founded 1965
From a small office in Aberdeen, DeWayne Curry began helping property owners rent out their homes to others – interviewing prospective tenants, entering into and enforcing rental contracts, collecting rents and repairing damages. Don joined his father in the late 1980s as a property manager, making repairs on existing rentals and remodeling properties to become rentals. Along the way, Don got his real estate license. In 1990, DeWayne bought a local Century 21 franchise. When his father died, he split The Curry Agency into two businesses – TCA Property Management and Century 21 Curry Agency, and spun off repairs and remodeling into a third business, D.R. Curry Contracting, Inc. His mother, octogenarian Caroline Curry, volunteers in the office. Don says, “I tried to hire her, but she said if I hired her, then I could fire her.”
Plan Early and Put It In Writing
“You can’t just close your eyes, swing at the golf ball and hope you hit it,” says McComas. “You’ve got to think of tomorrow. Things happen and you can’t control that, but you can control what you plan. It’s the same as funeral advice. Pre-plan, give thought to the plan. It may not hold true, but at least you have a plan.”
For business owners who want to pass their company to the next generation, McComas recommends assembling a team for professional advice, an accountant, an attorney and a tax planner. With a laugh, he says, “You probably need a psychologist, too. Seriously, these are three huge areas, especially the inheritance tax issue. There are trusts and other mechanisms to ease the pain.”
“When my father passed in 1996,” adds Curry, “I was in the process of purchasing the business. I didn’t think he should hand it to me after building it for 32 years. My father and I didn’t talk about the ‘what ifs.’ When he passed, I had a lot to deal with. Where is this, where is that, how do I do this. If I had had that information upfront and put into place, I wouldn’t have had to piece it back together and would have avoided a lot of headaches.”
Protect the Bloodline
Wockenfuss recommends a few more difficult conversations.
“Hearing from attorneys and people more knowledgeable about business; family-owned businesses usually follow bloodlines and not spouses,” says Wockenfuss. “It’s very important to have documents.”
Wockenfuss notes his family has had buy/sell agreements in place for a long time. He acknowledges that, when they were first married, his wife Lynn understandably took the bloodline documents “rather insultingly. Now, after seeing it for 40 years and having grown children … If I die tomorrow the business gets sold to my children. She doesn’t get ownership, but she gets the money that ownership created.”
Prepare Future Leaders
McComas, Wockenfuss and Curry each have progeny who could carry on the family business. As parents, they mean it when they say they want their children to choose their own destinies and commit to future ownership only if they want to. McComas’s children are still very young, and Curry’s daughter is just 16, so the future is still uncertain.
Wockenfuss’s heirs, however, are adults. Each of his three daughters has eagerly embraced the legacy he offers, and he takes preparing for them, and preparing them, very seriously.
“We moved our manufacturing from where we had been for 60 years to Harford Road in Baltimore City. We bought a closed supermarket and went from 12,000 square feet to 24,000 square feet. I wanted them in a newer, bigger and better facility that will meet our needs for the next 10 to 20 years. I have more experience to do that than they do. I wanted it done before I hang up my apron, but I don’t think that will ever happen,” Wockenfuss says.
With Christine managing things in Ocean City, Janice and Jennifer get the most hands-on training from dad. Wockenfuss says, “They are in the same building with me, so when I get to things I only do every couple of years, I call them in and explain my thought processes. What’s interesting is that this process makes me examine why we do things and whether, after almost 100 years in business, we still need to do things that way.”
McComas notes the funeral business is traditionally family-owned and passed to the next generation, and despite the increase in corporate, bottom-line-based ownership, that tradition remains strong. He says, “You live, work, play and go to church with people and build relationships. They come to you in their time of need because of that relationship.”
Most kids like to help their parents at work, and McComas’s sons Howard V (Quentin), 11, and Reagan, 7, are no different. He says, “They help by opening doors at visitations and sometimes go to the cemetery to see what I do. I like them to experience helping people. I think it’s the best approach to bringing them into the business, if they want that.” I95