Leading a Multigenerational Business
CEO & Founder
Coffee Lunch Coffee
A. Zahner Company
Bill Zahner, CEO of A. Zahner Company, shares how his family’s multi-generational business has grown and evolved over the years, but remains focused on approaching architectural metal fabrication projects through both a scientific and artistic lens.
“We want to introduce (technology) to our manufacturing process, because they reduce costs, reduce errors, but, the art aspect and the human aspect brings the beauty in.”
Alana Muller 0:10
Welcome to Enterprise.ing, a podcast from Enterprise Bank & Trust that's empowering business leaders one conversation at a time. We'll hear from different business leaders about how they found success in cultivating their professional networks and keeping them healthy and strong. I'm your host Alana Muller, an entrepreneurial executive leader whose primary focus is to connect, inspire and empower community. We at Enterprise Bank & Trust thank you for tuning in to another episode.
Alana Muller 0:41
Hello, listeners, welcome back to Enterprise.ing podcast. Since 1897, and across four generations, the family-owned business of A. Zahner Company has produced highly crafted architectural metalwork for artists and architects around the globe. Its current CEO, Bill Zahner, carries on the family tradition. He's the author of seven books on topics such as zinc, steel, copper, bronze and brass surfaces and architectural metals, to name just a few. Additionally, among his numerous accolades, he was named the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year for the Central States region in 2015. Bill is my guest today, and I am delighted to have him on Enterprise.ing podcast. Bill Zahner, welcome to Enterprise.ing.
Bill Zahner 1:25
Thank you, Alana. Good to be here.
Well, I'm so glad that you are. As I've mentioned to you, I've been a fan of yours from afar for many years. And I'm delighted to connect with you directly today. If you would, tell our listeners about A. Zahner company and its mission.
Bill Zahner 1:40
Sure, like you said, we're a 125-26-year-old company. And the other thing that distinguishes us, our mission is, per se, is to do the best work we possibly can for our clients and our customers. And at the same time, you know, we want to be better today than we were yesterday. So we want to constantly learn. And for a company like ourselves that supposedly has this long legacy of time behind it, we've changed and modified ourselves and become this company that really enjoys working on architecture and art made of different metals. And the key is to satisfy our client.
Alana Muller 2:23
I love that. So tell me this, and I'd love to sort of dig into this a little bit. What is it like to be part of a multi-generation family business? And when did you first start working in your family's company?
Bill Zahner 2:35
I started working, well, probably when I was seven years old or something, painting and scaffolding. But when I got out of college —my degree is in engineering — and I got out of college in 1978 and went to work for the firm. And since then. So it's been what? Roughly 45 years. At the time, you know, my father didn't really need an engineer, he needed a forklift driver. So I was an engineer and forklift driver at an Iatanpower plant project we were doing.
Alana Muller 3:05
Amazing. So did you know or was it sort of predetermined in the womb that you would join the family business? Or did you rebel against that? What was that like to go from college and an engineering degree to driving a forklift and sort of being a moonlighter when it came to the engineering part of your work?
Bill Zahner 3:23
Well, initially, I think I wanted to be a photographer for National Geographic. And I started out in college in psychology. But when I got, you know, they needed...My father always wanted, obviously, me to join the firm. And when I did, I saw ways to change and modify it. And, back in those days… and I talk to some young people today, they don't understand. We had no computers, there weren't even fax machines, things that we don't even use today. And so all that had to be introduced into running a business. We did good work back then, but we did it in a different fashion. We were more, very local Kansas City, in-the-area construction. We worked on things that were mainly like copper roofs, or in the case of Iatan Power Plant, wall panels.
Bill Zahner 4:15
And so I started seeing ways that we could take this and maybe move it further and explore the talent that I thought we had and the abilities we had to take it even further into much more intricate architectural work. Actually, it was, I had traveled and seen some work being done by a company named Tajima, out of Japan and a company named Gartner, out of Germany. And I often thought you know, if this company could do half what they can do, that'll be a success. And because they were at that time, you know, they did outstanding work. And to be honest, we're better than them now. So that we hit that kind of internal goal of mine to just keep pushing and learning. But the transition was going from a company that had most of the people outside putting things on a building, to most of the people inside now engineering and fabricating, and fewer people installing the work. So it was an interesting transition.
Alana Muller 5:16
It is an interesting transition. And I'm wondering, how difficult was it for your father? Because I would say, you know, bravo to you for the creativity and the courage that it took to sort of bring these new ideas forth and to identify other companies that were inspirational to you, but also bravo to your father for the courage it took for him to allow these new ideas to take root. And I suppose that he was the third generation taking over the business, so he had done maybe some of those same sorts of activities when he took over the business. But what was that like in terms of your relationship with one another? And how was the transition for the two of you, as you began to introduce these new ideas?
Bill Zahner 5:55
You're very true on, you know, he came out of the second World War, and after the second World War, all these new processes were developed of extrusions and of roll forming panels and things that didn't exist prior to the war. And when he took it over from his father, he moved into this much more metal wall panel world. It was new, it was very kind of exciting and dynamic at the time.
Bill Zahner 6:24
So when I got into it, I think it was partially because he respected my engineering background, or education, but he started seeing these things that were very high-end, very ornamental architectural pieces. We did some of it, but not to the scale we started moving into. And we built a new building at the time, the first real major thing we had done in 1983, and we outfitted it with some new equipment, and took on challenges to push it, you know, further into more nationwide work. Started out going to like, say, Topeka, Wichita…
Alana Muller 7:06
Bill Zahner 7:07
…you know, those areas, and then we jumped to Los Angeles and New York and Florida. So, it was a slow start, but he didn't really want to get into managing that. But I did. So I did. And he liked seeing it happen.
Alana Muller 7:21
That's so fabulous. And so, may I ask, do you have children or nieces and nephews who are now interested in taking on the business?
Bill Zahner 7:28
I have a daughter that's in the metal conservation side, which is a different business that I started back in the 90s. And my oldest daughter, she used to say that she didn't like the smell of metal. But she does, she does the art restoration work and she's doing quite a good job at it. But no, I don't have any. My son, he's out in law school in Los Angeles. So, the next thing is a transition to something else...
Alana Muller 7:55
Interesting. Very Interesting.
Bill Zahner 7:56
… and we'll see what that is.
Wow, that's sort of beautiful about that is that the company itself almost has its own life and continues to grow and more as life changes in general. So I think that it's really exciting and probably fascinating for you to watch this take shape. You know, one of the things you talked about is moving from very local Kansas City or Kansas and going into places like Topeka, and Wichita to do your business. And then all of a sudden, jumped to Los Angeles. And I know from your background that you do work on a global basis now. So considering that you and your business are involved in organizations, really the world over, what's the composition of your professional network? How do you actively manage your relationships? And how do you get involved with other people and other organizations?
Bill Zahner 8:42
Well, Alana, I look at networking, how does it make the business better? It can either be we network with one group that gets us good, smart people. So, like the various colleges, because we hire a lot of engineers, we want to attract the best. And then the other part is our clients, and future clients. We kind of want to both generate new clients, but also nurture our existing clients. And we have a really intricate process of doing that right now. We're actually trying to partner with our clients on developing product and things. And then I'm involved with a peer group. I think peer groups are hugely beneficial in exposing you to other businesses and how other businesses tackle their problems, their issues.
Bill Zahner 9:30
So, the networking aspect of it, we take a purely concerted effort. We definitely want the smartest and the best people we can. I speak probably at a dozen venues around the world. Next month I'm speaking in Zurich, on the use of stainless steel in architecture and art. And will hopefully introduce myself to some of the folks even in Switzerland. There is a great engineering school named ETH [ETH Zurich] there and maybe attract one or two people, but we want to make our business better, and our people better.
Alana Muller 10:06
Well, and I think that extending that hand, the outreach, I think is so part and parcel of doing just that. So I think that's great. Will you talk a little bit more, I'm familiar with your peer group, will you talk a little bit more about what is a peer group? And how many years you've been involved with that particular organization and what it's done for you both personally and professionally?
Bill Zahner 10:24
I've been involved with that peer group for let's see, 16 years, I think now. And some people have come and gone. I'm like one of the old guys in the peer group now, which is kind of weird. But the beauty of it is, we have to be open with one another. And it doesn't work unless you're open to listen and open to kind of lay it on the line, the things that are bothering you. We keep everything confidential, but it's been really healthy. It's amazing, even in diverse businesses, across the various peers, how similar so many of the issues can be. From family-owned aspects and having to deal with the idiosyncrasies of a family-owned business, to markets and growing your revenues. And maybe even you want to test an idea in front of the peers and say, "Okay, here's what we want to try and do. What do you think?"
Alana Muller 11:15
And how frequently is that group getting together these days?
Bill Zahner 11:17
Monthly. We meet at one person's place or another, and we have an afternoon, pretty full afternoon. Sometimes we bring in speakers. We had a person on artificial intelligence who sort of opened everybody's eyes.
Alana Muller 11:31
Yeah. What I love about it is that you do have sort of a cohort of trusted advisors that you can go to, with your successes and challenges, and they're there for you, irrespective of what's going on.
Bill Zahner 11:42
The odd part about it, in a lot of ways, they're more valuable to me than my board.
Alana Muller 11:49
Bill Zahner 11:49
Because my board, I might meet four times a year, or a couple times a year, anyway. These guys I'm meeting all the time. So they almost know your business better than your board does in a way.
Alana Muller 12:02
Yeah, I'm guessing that, considering that they don't have any, I assume, no financial stake in your business, the thing they have the stake in is you. And the board is very focused on the business itself, on the bottom line revenue and your peer group, the thing they care about is you, that's their investment. So I imagine that in some ways, you can be almost more open and vulnerable with them than you can be with your own board.
Bill Zahner 12:26
Exactly right. It's a two-way street, because my concern is of them, as well.
Alana Muller 12:27
Bill Zahner 12:28
They may pose a problem and you know, one person put his strategy out there and wanted our input to kind of leave refreshed.
Alana Muller 12:41
Yeah, that's terrific. I want to shift gears a little bit. You've spoken a bit about this and I want to dig in again, as you personally have strong interests in both art and science. Talk about how you've been able to successfully marry those two interests, both personally and in the work that you do.
Bill Zahner 12:59
The art aspect is in the back of our heads, and they're actually sort of related. When we bring art in, we're producing art for great artists around the world. It influences my people in the plant. They understand the way things look and the way things appear, the way light reflects off them. One artist in particular out of Mexico City, Jan Hendrix. He's the one who did the beautiful screens in front of Pembroke.
Alana Muller 13:23
Oh sure, gorgeous. Yeah.
Bill Zahner 13:26
He comes through and the people within the plant and engineering will stop and say, "Jan, you know, how are you doing?" And want to make sure that they're excited about doing his next project. And he's like one of us. And it's really, really good to see. Secondly, the art aspect challenges… Here we are in the United States, a manufacturing company. And everything is, "Let's make it computerized, let's make a robotic, let's make it CNC control." And one thing that's always been in the back of my head, going forward, we want to introduce those things to our manufacturing process, because they reduce costs, reduce errors, but, the art aspect and the human aspect brings the beauty in.
Alana Muller 14:12
Oh, yeah. So much more depth probably. Right?
Bill Zahner 14:15
Correct. And there was a professor at Yale that pointed out… We were doing the Harold Washington Library in Chicago, the antithesis around the top edge. And we had all these repeated pieces. And he said, "Bill, they're too staccato. You make them and then now let's take and let's have you guys twist one this way and twist one that way." In other words, he wanted it to be natural.
Alana Muller 14:40
Bill Zahner 14:41
And the computers tend to force things into a repetitive mode and all the things that we've created, ImageWall® and other products, it's to give a person the ability to create. So that it's not, you know, people always say, "Well don't these things all have to be the same and that way, you know, it'd be lower in cost?" And we say “No, we're gonna develop our system so that they don't have to be the same.” But the art is very important.
Alana Muller 15:05
I think so. And I like the nuance. I mean, especially as you describe the library, it just, it does, it brings more depth, it's more interesting for the eye. So I think that's fabulous. Is there something right now that you're especially proud of that you're working on with that as kind of the backdrop?
Bill Zahner 15:19
The memorial to the Desert Shield, Desert Storm, in Washington, DC. They came to us and they want to build this shield. And it's going to be a fountain, but it's going on the mall. But the beauty of it, we get a lot of developmental interface with the surface and the appearance. And I challenged my people, let's give them something that's going to be so amazing. We’re going to exceed their expectations, essentially. And so it's really quite fun, it's gonna be made out of copper alloy, so it’s going to weather and change as the water moves over the surface. That’s kind of exciting to work on. We've had a really a lot of fun working on some amazing projects over the years. We're doing right now, kind of a crazy one, but it's the renovation of the chapel at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. All of the surfaces have been pulled off and we're rebuilding them and putting it back together. It had water infiltration issues and some other issues. So we've been, it'll go on for several years, massive project.
Alana Muller 16:32
Well, and talk about that intersection of art and science. I mean, so from a science perspective, you're saving a building, from an art perspective, you're creating a sacred space.
Bill Zahner 16:40
Alana Muller 16:41
What a neat project. How about the flip side of this? Is there, like any business, we all have challenges to overcome, depending on what's going on in the world, the economic circumstances, just a sort of cultural circumstances? What does that look like for A. Zahner Company? And how have you overcome those obstacles?
Bill Zahner 16:59
I suppose a little bit today is just as we come out of COVID, getting the velocity, getting it up and moving. The bigger challenge also today is with the commercial real estate issues. A lot of our work may be on various buildings. Just recently, Google, we were doing another Google headquarters, we did several of them for them in Mountain View. And Google came out and said…we were involved with this new one. And we created an entire system to generate a finish on a surface that had never been done before... the architects out of London... and the idea was to selectively patinate the surface of the building and this massive building... holes in the ground... and we had ordered several tons of weathering steel.
Bill Zahner 17:50
And the Google CFO comes out and he says, "We're not building anything. Stop”. And he stopped all the construction all over the world, I guess. And so we're like, "Okay..." Well, my people are going, "Well, then let's not go make the equipment." And I said, "No, no, no, no, no, let's make the equipment. Because I think this is a great idea and a great product, potential product. Let's continue." And we've just developed some samples recently of a whole new product finish that looks really beautiful. And so we'll see what people think of it. But in some of those changes in the marketplace, we’ve just got to learn to adapt. We have a lot in our brand and our background that we've done. So like on SoFi stadium, beautiful project. We did the skin on SoFi. Now we're looking at some of the other stadiums, maybe doing surfaces for them as well.
Alana Muller 18:43
Wow, that's so cool. So cool. I mean, what a great way to take those lemons and make lemonade, right? You didn't expect that you'd have to stop work on such a massive project. And yet, you're turning it into a product that you can use for other opportunities. So... fabulous.
Bill Zahner 18:58
Yeah. And it relates back to your science question, too. I mean, we need to learn about everything. It's a constant thing. We need to learn as much as we can about metal and surfaces and how they change. And I'm really excited with my group of people because every week they have an afternoon meeting, educating others within the company about some aspect or some new system they're doing.
Alana Muller 19:22
Bill Zahner 19:22
Yeah, it's really healthy.
Alana Muller 19:24
Nice way to exchange knowledge and to sort of share that information and help other people gain skills. Jumping off of that comment, you’ll appreciate this, that years ago when I was running a company for the Kauffman Foundation. And, I had the privilege of being involved with the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award judging and I recall that there was a dinner the night before the judging took place here in Kansas City.
Alana Muller 19:48
And they asked all of the entrepreneurs of the year who were in attendance who were serving as judges for that particular round. They asked them to share the very best piece of business advice they've ever received. So, that one that really stuck with me was from Mary Ellen Sheets from Two Men and a Truck. And she said, "The best piece of business advice I ever received was always say yes, even when you have to say no, you say yes." And so, I'm going to turn the question back to you, Bill, what's the best piece of business advice you've ever received?
Bill Zahner 20:16
My father told me to treat everyone with respect and dignity.
Alana Muller 20:21
I love that.
Bill Zahner 20:22
You know, whether you're hiring them or letting them go, treat them with respect and dignity. Life's too short. And it's always stuck with me.
Alana Muller 20:30
Well, and that's not advice that you're ever gonna look back on and say, yeah, no, that didn't work for me, because of course, that's going to work. That's a beautiful piece of advice. I love it. I love that it came from your dad.
Bill Zahner 20:40
It did. I try to express that onto other people within the company. You know, that's what we have to do.
Alana Muller 20:47
Well, I have to ask you this final question as we begin to wrap up. And it's one that I asked every single guest and it's this: If you could sit down for a cup of coffee with anybody, fictional or nonfictional, living, not living. Who would it be, and why?
Bill Zahner 20:59
It would be Nassim Taleb. He's the guy that wrote “The Black Swan.”
Alana Muller 21:04
Great. And why him?
Bill Zahner 21:05
I've read a number of his books, and I find him fascinating philosophically and practically, I guess. I've heard him speak a few times, but he would be one, for sure.
Alana Muller 21:15
That's great. That's a good choice. Really good choice. Well, no surprise. I've loved our conversation. Bill Zahner, where can our listeners go to learn more about you and about A. Zahner Company?
Bill Zahner 21:26
The best place to get up to date because we try and keep it as current as possible is AZahner.com. There's a lot of information about what we're working on, what we've done. We try and keep it up to date.
Alana Muller 21:41
Well, and a terrific overview of your company history, I might add. So people definitely should go check it out. I think that's great. Bill Zahner, wonderful to have you on Enterprise.ing. Thanks so much for being my guest.
Bill Zahner 21:51
Alana Muller 21:55
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Alana Muller 22:20
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