Ron Becher, the first non-family president of Janesville, Wis.,-based contractor JP Cullen and Sons Inc. died in August at 60 after a short battle with leukemia. While losing a leader is difficult for any firm, the loss was cushioned by the executive's two-year training of its fifth generation of leadership—George Cullen and Jeannie Cullen-Schultz, children of Chairman Mark Cullen, who will succeed Becher as co-presidents.
"It wasn't a two month interview. This was a two-year process that George and I committed to, starting in 2017," says Cullen-Schultz, who had been JP Cullen's healthcare construction vice president since 2013. George Cullen was previously vice president in charge of work procurement, including estimating and preconstruction. Their combined experience and skillsets have enabled a smooth transition.
Cullen-Schultz, 36, and Cullen, 32, are the first co-presidents in the 128-year-old contractor's history. Their father was president before Becher was elevated to the role in 2013 and remains chairman. Becher had previously been vice president in charge of the firm's industrial division.
"Ron put us in an incredible place. One of his best skills was his ability to teach and mentor. That's not only for Jeannie and I and all the guidance he gave us since we've been at Cullen, but it's also because of the team he has surrounded us with," says George Cullen, adding that its four division managers have been with the firm for more than 20 years, and three are graduates of it young leaders program. "Ron really cultivated and developed a team around us that quite frankly makes it quite a bit easier [to make this transition] because we're not having to jump in and make a lot of changes."
JP Cullen hired a search committee and a consultant to plan for an eventual transition and Becher worked with the siblings on that process after they were chosen as future co-presidents, although it was not intended to happen before 2022 at the earliest. Cullen-Schultz and her brother rose up within a pool of five fifth-generation Cullen family employees during the search process.
"Ron really went through all of the things that he wanted to make sure we were exposed to," Cullen-Schultz says. "Every quarter from last November through February, he showed us more of what we'd need to know. We are incredibly sad and obviously wish we were going through this later and able talk to him about it, as we progressed through to gradually take on the presidency and he was on the track to retirement or the next thing. We feel really fortunate to have had that preparation."
Three fourth-generation Cullen brothers all held different leadership roles throughout the late 1980s and '90s. In addition to Mark, David Cullen is CEO and Richard Cullen is vice president of field operations.
Cullen-Schultz and George Cullen now lead a $400-million business with 500 employees that was started in 1892 by their great-great-great grandfather John Patrick Cullen. The firm ranks at No. 254 on ENR's list of the Top 400 Contractors, with 75% of 2019 reported revenue in building construction and the rest in industrial, manufacturing and power work.
"At the very beginning of the succession process, we looked at the org chart of our organization and recognized that the direct reports who were under the president just started to grow," George Cullen says, adding that the firm's growth over the last two decades required the role to be split up. "Our succession committee just said we really would like you to contemplate having a dual leadership structure and think that you two have different strengths that would really complement each other."
While George has been instrumental in the setting the company's preconstruction and manufacturing standards and spearheaded JP Cullen's commitment to off-site prefabrication, Jeannie's health care division exceeded planned revenue every year since she became its first division VP in 2013, including an increase of 146% in 2015, more than 20% in 2016 and 2017 and an increase of 119% in 2018.
As part of the succession process, the sister-brother duo was tasked by the succession committee with speaking to other family-run companies that had co-presidents. Torcon, a New Jersey which has had two brothers as co-presidents for 30 years, was particularly helpful.
"It was a company of similar size as us and was extremely successful," George Cullen says. "They really shifted our lens of how we wanted to divide up these responsibilities. Their advice to us was to support profit centers within the business. The division that Jeannie has oversight for, healthcare, she has ultimate responsibility for it, just like I do for the divisions that I have oversight for. So, it really creates that clear delineation, not only between Jeannie and I, but also to our people as well."
All three of the fourth-generation brothers are still in leadership roles of the company and George and Jeannie's sister and cousins also work for JP Cullen.
"A lot of credit should really be given to our fourth generation, our dad and our uncles, they started our succession planning 15 years ago," George Cullen says. "We're so fortunate that they were so intentional about that. We're the first cousin generation all together in leadership, we have an aligned vision with all of us, we know where we want to take the company, but to have that type of foundation built for us was just unbelievable."
Despite dealing with all of the business complications that come with a pandemic, the new structure has allowed JP Cullen to have a successful 2020, so far, and the sate of Wisconsin exempting construction from COVID-10 shutdowns as essential infrastructure has kept the company's projects on track.
"We've been acting in this position, as co-presidents, since March 1st We're a little more than seven months in, but it just seems like the way we've set it up now is really working well and there's a lot of cohesion," Cullen-Schultz says.