Client Spotlight on QSL: Leaving a Legacy in the Family Business
Working alongside their parents and siblings isn’t for everyone. But for the Koke family, owners of QSL Print Communications, such an arrangement is second nature.
In fact, the fourth generation of leaders at the Springfield company say working with family members is one of the things that’s helped them weather the many storms they’ve faced in their ever-changing industry.
“We’re all really motivated because it’s our family’s livelihood,” says Vice President Melissa Koke, who runs the company with her father, Doug, and siblings Keri and Ryan. “If we have a good day it means my parents have a good day. That’s really what it’s about for me.”
So what does a family business need to do to survive—even thrive—for over 100 years? Good communication skills, knowledgeable advisors and commitment to community are among the things that have made a big difference for QSL.
100 years of history bring hard lessons, good insights
Doug’s grandfather started Koke Printing in 1907 to provide businesses with a local solution for their printing needs. His father made some considerable sacrifices to purchase the company in the 1950’s.
“My grandfather did no estate planning,” Doug says. “My dad sold a lot of things to keep the business going.”
Doug came onboard full-time in 1971, although not entirely by choice. “When I graduated from high school, I called my dad to talk about getting registered for college and he said, ‘Naw, you’re coming to work for me,’” he says.
He wasn’t happy (“college would have really helped me,” he says), but he worked in production for 5 years then he took a position on the sales team. By 1982 he and his brother were running the company.
The transition to the third generation was easier than that to the second, but Doug faced his own challenges. Lane County was in a deep recession after the collapse of the local timber economy. “My dad was 72 years old and didn’t have the energy to deal with that, so I kind of stepped in,” he says. “We survived that, but it was a bad recession.”
“Thrived” may be a better word to describe QSL’s success under his leadership. In the past 10 years they’ve purchased three other printing businesses and a commercial mailing service. They offer a comprehensive slate of services that Doug describes as “everything that’s ink on paper” and includes traditional and digital printing, finishing, fulfillment and mailing. The company now has 63 employees, including the seven family members.
It was very important to Doug that his kids carry on the family tradition. But he let them come to the business on their own accord. All three went to college, and Keri and Ryan had careers in employee benefits and banking (respectively) before positions opened at QSL.
Now they can’t imagine having it any other way. “Some families go for weeks or months without speaking to each other because they have different lives,” Keri says. “But Melissa, Ryan and I get to check in every day and stay close.”
Keys to making a family business work
Communication is key to the success of any business. Families that have spent decades developing good communication skills before they set foot in an office can have a real advantage—if those skills are nurtured and respected.
“I think our company is better off because we can just say to each other, ‘What are you thinking?’” Melissa says. “We have a built-in solid relationship and everyone in the room knows we all love each other at the end of the day.”
“In a family business, it’s easy to fall into familiar roles,” says Robin Matthews, a Partner and member of the family business niche practice at Jones & Roth CPAs and Business Advisors, a firm that has worked with QSL since 2008. “Everyone here does a good job of looking at someone’s role in the business setting rather than considering their role in the family.”
It can be easy for members of family businesses to draw inward and rely only on each other for support. But QSL has done a good job of developing a network of trusted advisors that can help them. Doug participates in a Vistage group, and the company has a close relationship with a banker at Pacific Continental Bank and Partner Jeremy Prickel at Jones & Roth CPAs and Business Advisors. Besides providing basic accounting serving and supporting their in-house accountant, Jones & Roth has helped the Kokes with bigger picture issues such as purchasing and moving to new headquarters and making major equipment purchases.
Besides reaching out to their professional advisors, QSL’s owners welcome ideas and feedback from all employees. “Doug’s door is always open,” Melissa says. “We encourage questions and work really hard to make it as much of an extended family as possible.” Given that some of their employees have been there for over 30 years, they feel like family anyway, she notes.
The Koke’s give generously to the community, which makes them both visible and well-regarded. In addition to supporting a number of nonprofits through in-kind donations, “we encourage our employees to be involved in the community,” Melissa says. “We support that through time off or helping them get connected to things they’re passionate about.”
Family businesses face unique challenges when it comes to transitioning ownership – something Doug’s father learned the hard way. The team is tackling discussions about succession early, rather than putting them off until absolutely necessary. Jones & Roth has helped with long-term strategic and financial planning so the company will stay self-sustaining long into the future.
“We plan to continue to grow and prosper and train more people,” Melissa says. “We want Doug to be able to retire at some point, but we don’t ever want him to be all done with this if that’s what he wants. The plan is for Keri, Ryan and I to be owners and we’ll be running the company together.” And if the fifth generation (now 3 and 5 years old) want to join the family business, there will be plenty of room for them.