Once upon a time fathers hoped their sons would join the family business and carry on the founder’s legacy, but this is no longer universally true.
To be sure, fathers — and mothers — still want their children to succeed them, but nowadays the child to step up to the plate is just as likely to be a daughter as a son. For the three women we profile in this story, joining and/or taking over Dad’s business has been both a challenge and a source of personal and professional fulfillment.
THE DEALER PRINCIPAL
When Marsha McCombs Shields was a child, she loved going to work with her Dad.
Back then, her father, B.J. “Red” McCombs, was not yet the business magnate that he has since become, but he was already in the automotive business. Young Marsha spent her Saturdays and summers wandering around his Ford dealership, playing with the switchboard, helping with sweeping and observing the goings-on. “I found it fascinating and fun,” she says. “I was the only one of my parents’ daughters who did that. I enjoyed being with my father, and I enjoyed the dealership.”
Today, at 51, Mrs. Shields — as she prefers to be called — still enjoys visiting “the stores” except that now the family owns seven of them, and she is in charge of the entire McCombs Automotive enterprise as “dealer principal.” She likes to chat with the employees to find out what’s on their minds, but she also talks to the customers and keeps an eye on everything. On the day we visited McCombs Toyota on I-10 and Callaghan, Shields was there to discuss advertising needs with manager Ronnie Bernal and to consult with him about the installation of new wall graphics in the showroom. But while there, she also stopped by the service department to speak with people waiting for service. How long have they been waiting? How do they like the new facility? She wants to make sure that the customers are happy.
In addition to overseeing daily operations, as dealer principal, Shields maintains contacts with car manufacturers, deals with budgeting, planning and inventory and handles personnel matters and marketing. McCombs Automotive employs about 1,000 people, who last year collectively sold 13,000 new and 10,000 used cars, in addition to providing service and parts sales.
“What’s important to me is to make the (car) purchasing process easier for everyone who walks in one of our stores,” says Shields. “The first thing I asked was why it was taking four to five hours to buy a car. So I looked at how we could streamline the process because our customers’ time is valuable. It’s also my job to make sure I have satisfied employees. They are the key to a successful business. A satisfied employee is ready to handle the customer’s needs quickly and efficiently. Naturally, we are also looking at expanding our presence in the market. We have a wide range of products.”
Under her leadership, several dealerships have won coveted awards bestowed by the manufacturers for outstanding performance in sales and service. McCombs Ford received Ford’s President’s Award in both 2003 and 2004, and the newest store, McCombs Toyota, for which Shields built a new facility, garnered several top awards in 2005.
“Our customer satisfaction has gone up since 2001, and these awards reflect
that,” says Shields.
Needless to say, her boss took notice. Shields had the surprise of her life several years ago when she opened the newspaper one morning to find a half-page congratulatory message from her dad staring at her. “Congratulations, Marsha,” wrote Red McCombs. “You earned Ford’s most prestigious award the first year as a dealer. It took me a lot longer.”
“I cried,” she admits. “It was a really special father/daughter moment. I had no idea he was going to do that.”
While we were talking in her office during our first interview, her father looked in quickly, saw she had a visitor and went on his way but not before tossing off an affectionate “Hi, sweetie!” Though there is clearly a strong bond between them, the two McCombs differ from each other in leadership style, says Shields.
“He is extremely creative, spontaneous and a quick decision maker. I am more reflective, cautious and analytical in my approach,” she explains.
Despite her youthful curiosity about her dad’s work, Shields chose to get a degree in liberal arts while in college and taught Spanish in Devine and San Antonio for a couple of years in the late ’70s, before asking her father for a job. Then, over four years, she sampled a variety of jobs in several McCombs companies — from a convenience store chain and an insurance agency to auto dealerships and sports team management — before withdrawing from daily responsibilities to care for her two children. In college she had met and later married John Shields, now a lawyer who is not involved with McCombs Enterprises.
By 1998 Shields returned to fulltime work, a privilege she recognizes she enjoyed because of family ties. In fact, being the boss’ child offers a great deal of advantages. “A family business gives you great opportunities to learn,” she says. “There is a freedom to ask and a chance to work in many capacities that you may not have in other settings. I had a great teacher who was pleased that I was there. I went through every job in every business and then became the person to whom everyone in the company reported. It’s a privilege, but it’s also a huge responsibility.”
While her father was delighted to have her there, clients and employees were sometimes reticent to deal with the female in charge. She points out that her dad’s businesses were entirely male dominated until recently, and she had to prove herself in that milieu. Now, even professional sports have women leaders, she says.
Fortunately, she no longer has to fight for her leading place in the sun. Besides her primary automotive responsibilities, Shields is also involved in McCombs Energy, based in Houston, and in a number of new ventures. In addition, she serves as president of the McCombs Foundation and is a member of the United Way Issues Council. “There is nothing more satisfying than giving, but unfortunately we can’t meet every request,” she says of her foundation job. While the nonprofit foundation supports some 300 causes across San Antonio and south Texas, two large donations have attracted special attention: a $50 million gift to UT Austin’s business school and $30 million to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where Shields herself was treated for melanoma.
Before saying goodbye, we can’t resist asking the dealer principal what kind of car she drives. She’s a bit surprised by the question but delighted to answer.
So, for the record, Mrs. Shields drives a Ford Expedition.
IF IT’S DUNN BY DUNN … IT’S DUNN RIGHT
That’s what Cheryl Dunn Bridges’ card says. “If it’s Dunn by Dunn … It’s Dunn Right.”
It’s a clever play on words, and Bridges stands wholeheartedly behind the assertion. The manager of Peter Dunn’s Discount Carpet Warehouse and the daughter of Peter Dunn, who started the company in 1971, Bridges knows her business is doing it right because customers keep on coming back.
“Just the other day we had some people from a local church come to look at flooring because they want to change their carpet,” she says. “They said, ‘You did it for us in 1986.’ That happens all the time. The majority of our business comes from repeat customers and referrals.”
Although the operation has changed considerably since 1971, what has not changed is that special bond of trust that people develop over time with a smaller, family-run business.
“Customers feel that they get more of a personal touch here,” explains Bridges. “Large chain stores have a lot of employee turnover, and people often can’t get answers to their questions because the employees simply don’t know. My installers stay with me for a long time; some have been with us for 10 years. There is a lot of knowledge there. Also, customers know we’ll be here down the road if they need service. They feel comfortable with us.”
It doesn’t hurt either that Dunn’s Discount Carpet also manages to have one of the largest selections of all flooring types in the city, right on the premises. Many competitors have only showrooms, says Bridges, so everything needs to be individually ordered. Not at Dunn’s. Here, purchases are done in bulk and stored in the warehouse, just behind the showroom. The savings realized through quantity ordering are passed on to the customers.
Bridges started working with her dad 27 years ago, right out of high school. Though her first job was administrative, in a couple of years she progressed to selling, which was what she really wanted to do. Her dad was a natural salesman, so she observed him in action. “I learned everything from him,” she says.
Although she can’t remember any specific bit of fatherly advice, she is happy to share the story of how she taught her son a lesson. He was 6 and eager to sell 50-cent candy bars for a church fund-raiser. But it was slow going. “So I told him to approach people and tell them the bars are two for a dollar and then ask, ‘How many would you like?’ The first person he asked said, ‘I’ll take two.’ He came to me running, ‘It worked! It worked!’ It’s really all in how you present it. If you say they are 50 cents apiece, people will say, ‘I’ll take one.’ It you say two for a dollar, they’ll likely take two.”
Back in the ’70s, Dunn’s sold only carpeting, but as tastes and trends changed, so has its merchandise. Eventually all types of flooring were included, from ceramic and plastic tile to wood and laminates. As the manager — a position she has held for the last 15 years — Bridges has had to keep up with the trends and attend manufacturers’ classes for new products. Her retired father is still the owner, but in the store she is the boss.
Even when Dad was present, no one was allowed to question her managerial authority. “If anybody questioned me or complained, Dad would always say, ‘Whatever Cheryl says, goes.’ He was very supportive,” she says. Peter Dunn located the business on the South Side because he already owned the building on W.W. White Rd., which he had bought from his father-in-law. The latter had a lumber company on the premises, and Bridges remembers seeing pictures of the site with a gravel road running in front. The family’s roots in the area run deep. The Bridges even live nearby, in China Grove.
Location doesn’t really matter that much, she explains, because buying flooring is a substantial expense —
$4,000 to $10,000 per house on the average — and customers will come to you to find what they need even if it means a little extra driving. Dunn’s performs 2,000 to 3,000 flooring installations a year throughout San Antonio and the surrounding communities.
And now that Brooks City-Base has been experiencing a boom, she expects a lot of new development in the area and a lot of new business. Running her finger over the southeastern part of a huge San Antonio map, she indicates where the new construction is likely to take place. For the time being, however, she is looking at a busy spring season because that’s when people start thinking about home renovation. Nothing could make her happier.
“I love what I do. I love dealing with people. I am a people person,” she says, smiling.
YES, SHE RUNS A CONSTRUCTION COMPANY
One can hardly imagine a more manly business than construction, and yet Kathleen Kovich Acock has not only ventured into it, she has thrived and prospered beyond her own expectations.
It all started back in 1974 when she asked her dad, the founder of Alpha Building Corporation, for a job. Unhappy in her marriage and the mother of a young boy, Acock needed to get out of the house. Her father’s response was lukewarm. “I think we may have an opening,” he told her, “but I must check with the project manager.”
He did, and she was hired as a purchasing clerk, “the lowest job on that contract,” she says. Lowly as it was, though, the job proved to be a good educational experience.
“When you are ordering tools and materials that different craftsmen need, you learn a lot about what they do. It gives you an idea how the construction is going to be carried out, what crafts will be handling it. I learned a lot,” says Acock, who is now the company’s president and majority owner.
A few years later, she moved to the corporate office to help with accounting, but it was still just a job. She had two brothers who were potentially going to join the business, so she entertained no thought of becoming her father’s heir. But she was smart. At the time, Alpha was a small Houston based operation with one major client, NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Only five people worked in the corporate office, and the revenues hovered around $7 million, considered quite small in the construction industry. Acock decided to expand the company’s reach by marketing Alpha’s services to architects, engineers and other potential clients.
“It was a brand new role. No one had done it before,” she recalls. “I was able to develop a whole new client base, and I introduced a new program for procurement of contracts. I was also responsible for introducing my dad to military contracts. In the late ’80s, this was brand new, and we were pioneers.”
Her efforts resulted in long-term deals with all the major military bases in San Antonio and doubled Alpha’s business. The company eventually relocated to the Alamo City, and Acock’s role changed dramatically. “It was clear that I was here to stay. I became the operations manager for the company,” she says in her lively, enthusiastic manner.
Today, Alpha has a solid reputation as a “job order contractor,” meaning it handles a variety of smaller renovation and retrofitting projects for clients over extended periods of time, gathering those projects under a single contract. There is no repeated bidding for every job, saving everyone — client and contractor — time and money. The firm recently installed air-conditioning systems in a bunch of NISD school gyms, for instance, and a greenhouse on top of the science building at Trinity University. Each job is small, but the long-term relationship with the client ultimately pays off. Altogether, the company is presently handling $35 million of construction in three states for 14 clients. Currently, the majority of clients are educational institutions.
“It’s not about impressive buildings but about serving the client’s needs,” explains the president. “This approach works for us because of the personality of our firm. My father became passionate about what we did for NASA because he felt that we were contributing to the fulfillment of NASA’s dream. We were part of a wonderful experiment. That’s still how we feel today. We are creating environments in which learning will occur. We are passionate about that.”
Though she ultimately succeeded her dad, Acock considers her mother more of a role model. A registered nurse and the mother of five, Viola Kovich bravely stepped up to the plate to help her husband launch his business. “She was such an influence in my life,” says her daughter. “She stepped into a nontraditional area. Without her I wouldn’t have had a role model.”
After Viola died in 1986, her husband grieved deeply and nearly lost interest in the business. But he still resisted the idea of making his daughter the heir. “I can’t imagine a woman running Alpha,” he told her, but in his will he nevertheless left her the largest share of his stock. His attitude had more to do with the views of his generation than with his view of her abilities, says Acock. After his death in 1993, she found herself with 65 percent of ownership and later bought out her brother and another partial owner. She is now grooming her son and stepson to take over one day.
Becoming the owner/president, however, didn’t mean all smooth sailing ahead. In the mid-’90s Alpha found itself in crisis, overextended and undercapitalized. To turn things around, Acock had to do some creative thinking. While still retaining 51 percent of ownership in her hands, she invited her top seven managers to invest in the company. She proudly shows her visitor the photo of her team. Not surprisingly, all seven are male, including her second husband, Horace Acock.
“They got an opportunity they never expected, and I saw an opportunity for the company,” she says. “When it was presented to them, they jumped on it, and they have all become leaders. I’ve created a leadership team. We have continued that philosophy, and we try hard to promote from within and share with the employees. If the business does well, owners and employees all share in the rewards. It’s good for business.
Acock and her team are obviously doing something right. The company just won the 2006 top-level Safety Excellence Award from the South Texas chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors and was nominated for the Ethics in Business Award given by the Ecumenical Center for Religion and Health.
At 56, Acock is now at a point when she wants to do something for the next generation of construction professionals. Alpha offers two scholarships to Texas A&M construction science majors and invites both A&M and UTSA students to intern with the company. As a woman who has battled prejudice from banks, clients and her own father, Acock is particularly pleased that one of the scholarships is designated specifically for women or minorities. Then she tells us a little story that obviously warmed her heart:
“This morning two students knocked on our door wanting to be interns here in the summer. Both are from Texas A&M. We were just delighted. Here’s the kicker — they were both women.”
Author: Jasmina Wellinghoff
Photographer: Liz Garza Williams