Like Father, Like Son : The Geobear Success Story
(June 14, 2019)

Timo Lahtinen is the founder of Uretek Worldwide and its predecessors, a company that created a new industry to 38 countries around the early 80’s invention of non disruptive re-levelling of sunken concrete, and subsequent inventions to strengthen soils with expansive geopolymers.

The business operated as intellectual licensing business until 2009, after which it took turn to start developing its own contracting operations. Otso Lahtinen, Timo’s oldest son, saw his first Uretek licensee meeting in 2000 in Tampere and has been involved ever since in various roles.

For some fathers, appointing their son into the lead role in the self built family business may be a difficult pill to swallow, but Timo Lahtinen says his son Otso wanted to take responsibility from early on, with Timo being willing to give it to him after some 25 years working to develop the business from a small Finnish contracting business into a global licensing and regional contracting business.

Timo Lahtinen recalls,

“I remember the November Saturday morning of 2013 when my phone rang. Otso called me and said that he formally wants to assume the full P&L responsibility as he feels it is naturally the time for it. I felt a sense of pride and knew that my time as CEO had come to an end. I happily answered yes “

The decision has paid off as the company’s contracting operations have close to doubled in size, successfully rebranded into Geobear and redefined its strategy to transform the world’s transport infrastructure maintenance since that November Saturday.

Uretek continues its IPR licensing under separate management after having gone through major transformational challenges that Otso and his team tackled before handing over the management responsibilities to focus on Geobear contracting business.

The father-son duo speaks candidly about the challenges of generation change from parent to child and offer advice for other entrepreneurial families.

“Generation change must be anticipated years before making it happen. All stakeholders need to be enrolled and the skills and motivation of the successor ensured through right kind of training and incentivisation,” says Timo Lahtinen.

Family dynamics can mean heightened confrontation, but also greater communication.

“During our time of working together I felt like our communication was seamless. My father was the greatest mentor I have had as he always encouraged me to raise the standard, and made the best possible knowledge available to support mine and business growth. I remain eternally grateful and it is a great pleasure for me to work towards building on his business legacy into a world class company” says Otso Lahtinen

Father and son say they have learned some lessons along the way about making a transition. They offer these pieces of advice on succession planning for family businesses,

Four ways of making a generation change successful By Timo and Otso Lahtinen

  1. Give space to your successor to make decisions. He or she will most likely make a ton of mistakes and your job as father / mother is to ensure that the company can take it and each one will result into a learning. Step aside when your successor demands the role. It is usually a sign that he or she is ready to carry it.
  2. Look into qualities that you would look into an open market candidate for the role. If you see obvious development areas in your successor candidate, create a focussed training plan to cover those areas, while reinforcing the natural strengths.
  3. Do not avoid difficult conversations or tough decisions because of family dynamics. Letting family love and attachment prevent needed business decisions is one of the most common growth bottlenecks in family owned business. In the professional domain, attempt to treat each other like two professional colleagues would without the family relationship. It is only beneficial for the successor candidate to learn the hard way that performance in any role is a prerequisite for growth. Trying to protect your successor from the harsh realities of the outside world will only limit him or her in the future. Customers, financiers, competitors, team members or suppliers are not really interested whose son or father you are when you are doing your job.
  4. Shares or business interests must always be bought at fair market value. Entrepreneurship must include significant skin in the game through capital risk.