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Tips for Building a Solid Succession and Leadership Transition Plan

The HBO series “Succession” did more than just rack in the awards and committed fan following. It might have helped some business owners think about their own succession plans (or cause junior employees to think about moving up) — just maybe without all the drama.

Phillip Landgraf, FCSI, executive principal, Ricca Design Studios, transitioned to the senior leadership team during a buyout in January 2023. Landgraf, along with Lenny Condenzio, FCSI, CEO; Sean Callnin, FCSI, president; Tarah Schroeder, FCSI, LEED AP, vice president; and Tommy Hughes, executive principal business development and marketing, now make up the firm’s executive leadership.

Phillip Landgraf, FCSI, executive principal, Ricca Design Studios.Phillip Landgraf, FCSI, executive principal, Ricca Design Studios.“As designers, we love the fun stuff — designing!” Landgraf says. “However, we cannot do our jobs effectively or grow without managing the business and growing our future leaders.  So, this year I really want to focus on the ‘business of the business’ and growing our staff.”

Landgraf admits he’s had to go through a bit of a learning curve having a culinary and heavy design background to learn more about the business aspects of running a busy consulting firm. Here, he shares some of those lessons learned for those looking to build a succession plan as well as those looking to move into leadership positions as part of one.

Identify Future Leaders (or Indicate You Want to be in Leadership)

Landgraf was involved in early conversations before official succession plans materialized about the potential to take on a greater leadership position with the firm for the long haul. He credits Lenny Condenzio, CEO, for prioritizing succession planning to maintain the growth of the firm.

“Succession planning is really important, especially for those making the transition,” Landgraf says. “It’s important to prioritize enough runway to make folks comfortable with that financial investment and understand the risks and rewards that come with that.”

An advantage Landgraf had prior to the transition was already being a shareholder of the firm. “I got to know the [business] processes and accounting side of things earlier,” he says. When it came time to transition to leadership, “I think that knowledge helped me make an informed decision and see the path forward.”

Those looking to find successors should take the time to mentor associates moving up the company ladder; at the same time, for those looking to grow into leadership roles at their businesses, identifying a mentor or mentors is really important, Landgraf believes.

Leverage Third-Party Professionals

Ricca contracted third-party attorneys and a business coach to make the transition process more seamless. But Landgraf also encourages those entering into leadership or shareholder status to contract or work with their own third-party professionals — chiefly, financial advisors and accountants — to work through the financing and details.

Some firms will contract a business coaching firm for aid in succession planning and transitions. In Ricca’s case, the accounting firm contracted provided that service.

Keep Communication Lines Open

Landgraf can’t stress enough the importance of regular communication before, during and even after a leadership transition.

“You want to make sure that the transition group is cohesive and solid and all the communication is on the same page,” Landgraf says. “We all have very defined roles at the firm, but we’re still defining those. We’re giving each other enough grace but still holding ourselves accountable to make sure things don’t fall through cracks.”

Landgraf says the senior leadership meets at least once a week. “Leading up to the buy/sell date, there were many meetings and some multi-day, longer ones just to go through all the financial and transactional items.”

Set New Priorities

Priorities may stay the same — they may also change with new leadership.

“We have a budgeting process that we go through every year to look at what we’ve done and what we have on the books in terms of potential projects,” Landgraf says. As a 50-plus-year-old company, “we have a high confidence of where we will be in the next year in terms of the budget for all of our studios and departments.”

Due to this longevity, Ricca adheres to a set of standards for designs and other deliverables — something Landgraf says he’s begun to oversee more since the leadership change. “We’re focused on adjusting to changing codes and laws [in the U.S.], but also very focused on developing standards for our international work, which is growing,” he says. Ricca maintains offices in China and Saudi Arabia.

In terms of hiring future talent, Landgraf says the firm prioritizes someone who knows the company’s preferred BIM software, knows the foodservice industry and is a good fit with the firm culturally. “We definitely look to see that [potential new hires] have at least two out of those three things. But cultural fit is very important,” he says.

Rather than focusing on dollars and cents, making true investments in recruiting and retaining talent is a key driver at Ricca, Landgraf says. “We want to create a family environment where everyone feels supported.

“Becoming part of the executive role, I’m less involved in the day-to-day on projects, which has been a transition in itself for me,” Landgraf says. “But I have enjoyed mentoring three studios and working with those principals to grow their skills as well as help on the marketing and business development side to grow the firm over time.”