Family Business Forum hears from those in know

A three-pronged philosophy of communication, trust and honesty forms the foundation on which Modesto's Huff Construction has remained a family business, even as management has moved from one generation to the next.

Chief Executive Officer Gary Huff and President Brad Ardis discussed that and other aspects of their business as part of a Family Business Forum on Wednesday at Modesto Centre Plaza.

"We think of what we can do for the company, not what the company can do for us," Huff said.

He and Ardis spoke and answered questions from other business owners at the event, sponsored by the Stanislaus Economic Development and Workforce Alliance.

"What you do for the company ultimately builds trust, which is what you need for the relationship that will make it work or not," Huff said.

Huff and Ardis said they worked carefully but deliberately to take over Huff's management from Ardis' stepfather and Huff's brother, company founder Duane Huff.

The two men said the transition was mostly smooth. And they had help from the employees and an advisory board they created after the transition was complete, they said.

"Duane really had to let go, and that was hard for him," Ardis said. "You have to be respectful and listen to him and nurture that relationship as he moves into a new role."

Gary Huff and Ardis said Duane Huff still offers input on the company and also manages a Huff Construction office in Arizona, where he lives.

One key, Gary Huff said, is for relatives that are taking over operations to remember that they're responsible for a company that was someone's baby.

Stephen McClure, an Atlanta-based business consultant who led the presentation Wednesday, said successful family-run businesses must have defined roles, communication and balance.

Family members left out of business decisions may feel like investors with little reason to hold on to their stakes in the business, he said.

And businesses run by families with little consideration for sound business practices often suffer, McClure said.

"Most family businesses I know try to make decisions by consensus," McClure said.

He explained that one successful strategy is to have decisions made by a majority vote of the owners or governing board, with those in the minority able to veto decisions they oppose.

Other keys include making family employees work elsewhere before they officially join the company, and meeting often to share day-to-day and long-term concerns, McClure said.

Ardis and Gary Huff added something else: Making sure the top managers have done the lowliest jobs in the company.

"We're adamant that everything has to be worked for," Ardis said. "Nothing is handed to anyone."

Bee staff writer Ben van der Meer can be reached at or 578-2331.