Mike Wilson likes to tell a yarn about a business owner who spent years complaining to his wife and children about work. Then one day it came time for the hero of the story to ask his kids if they’d be interested in taking over the family company. They were unequivocal in their response: “Not a chance.”
Wilson is CEO of AIL Group Ltd., a family-run enterprise based in Sackville, N.B., made up of three operating companies: Big R Bridge, AIL International and AIL Mining. Together, AIL Group develops and sells infrastructure solutions—such as corrugated-metal structures and prefab steel bridges—for customers in the transportation, public works, mining, forestry and development sectors.
Unlike Wilson’s story, the next generation at AIL is enthusiastic about joining the firm. In fact, Wilson’s children—daughter Jennifer and son Riley—are the company’s CFO and vice-president of operations for eastern Canada, respectively. But Jennifer and Riley weren’t simply handed plum jobs; they earned them. Jennifer, for instance, obtained a master’s in environmental change and management at Oxford University, going on to work at global strategy firm Bain and Co., where she consulted with more than a dozen companies over four years. Working with companies that were larger than the family firm helped Jennifer see how they mined past data to inform future decisions, a trick she implemented when she became CFO at AIL. It also helped her craft a strategic plan that lays out four priorities to focus on each year, and includes regular check-ins to discuss progress. “She’s engaged a lot of people in our organization to get involved in the strategy,” Wilson says of his daughter, “and by doing that, she’s got everybody in alignment to work in the same direction.”
It might be an indirect path to succession, but it’s one Wilson believes is crucially important in family businesses. In his own youth, he avoided working at AIL—which his father had founded when Wilson was in university—until he had gained some outside work experience. That decision led him to a stint as a highway engineer in Alberta, which gave him perspective and self-assurance that proved very helpful when he did eventually join AIL. “It gives [children] confidence that they can do something on their own, and that they’re not here just because Daddy owns the company,” Wilson says. “That confidence helped me through thick and thin. I thought that was important for my kids as well.”
At 67 years old, Wilson has been refining his succession strategy for all levels of the company for the past decade, and still has work to do. When he’s done, he’ll have a plan for each senior employee’s retirement. “I don’t want to retire any time soon, but I don’t want to be in the way of the next generation, either,” he says. “If you don’t start early enough, you’ll run out of energy before you get the plan done.”