Editor's Notes: A Look at Leadership Changes

Dave Ghose
Dave Longaberger signs a basket in 1997.

An interesting juxtaposition occurred the same week I interviewed Cindy Monroe, the founder and CEO of Thirty-One Gifts, who I profiled for this issue (On the Mend, P. 14). I met Monroe in her company’s new headquarters in the former Bob Evans campus in New Albany a day after news broke that the Longaberger Company would liquidate its remaining assets as part of bankruptcy proceedings.

In many ways, Thirty-One Gifts is following the path blazed by Longaberger, once central Ohio’s mightiest direct-selling business before Thirty-One Gifts arrived on the scene. I noted this shared lineage to Monroe and asked if she’s learned any lessons from Longaberger’s 20-year decline, which began shortly after the 1999 death of Dave Longaberger, the wooden basket maker’s founder. Though Monroe says she hasn’t studied the Longaberger Company’s fall in detail, she did point to a couple of key takeaways: the loss of its charismatic leader, who turned an eccentric idea (selling handmade wooden baskets) into a billion-dollar business, and the importance of relationships in direct selling, which relies on an army of home-based, independent sales consultants to connect personally with customers.

“Honestly, I don’t think it was their product,” Monroe says. “I don’t think it’s our product. It’s really about the relationships and the values and the mission that comes from the top and how we carry on those values.”

Robert Shook agrees. An expert on direct selling, the Bexley author has written books with several icons of the industry, including Mary Kay Ash (Mary Kay Cosmetics), Doris Christopher (Pampered Chef) and Forrest Shaklee (the Shaklee nutritional company). Right before Dave Longaberger died, Shook collaborated with him on the New York Times best-selling book, Longaberger: An American Success Story. Shook is convinced Longaberger’s death—and the rough transition that followed afterwards—was the biggest factor in the company’s decline. “If Dave was around today, they’d be bigger than they were,” Shook says.

So how should a business prepare for these kind of inevitable leadership changes? Fifth Third Bank offers an interesting model (Succeeding at Succession, P. 21). Jordan Miller, the longtime Columbus leader of the Cincinnati-based bank, retired in December following an unusually graceful transition. Francie Henry, his replacement and protégé, assumed the local reins of the bank six months before Miller actually left to help prepare her for the job. “Employees come to work for people, and you can lose some really good people in transitions, and so we wanted to be thoughtful about it and plan it,” Miller says.

Transitions have been on my mind for more personal reasons, too. This issue is my last at the helm of Columbus CEO. In January, I’m returning to our sister publication, Columbus Monthly, to serve as its editor. While I’m certainly no entrepreneurial luminary or banking titan, my colleagues and I at Dispatch Magazines are doing our best to ensure that the next leader of this publication will continue its tradition of compelling, insightful and instructive business journalism. And we believe we’ve found the right person for the job: Katy Smith, a journalist readers of this magazine already know (she’s been writing our Tech Talk column since August). A former editor at Business First for more than a decade, Katy is a sharp, talented and gracious person who knows Columbus and its business community well. She’s well positioned to succeed. In other words, nothing should be lost in the transition.