Lessons in public speaking from Dot Foods

This week, I witnessed a great example of how a potentially perfunctory speech can become something enlightening, entertaining and even energizing.

I attended Wednesday's session of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors' 2018 Executive Summit in Washington, D.C. Just after lunch, Dot Foods Executive Chairman John Tracy, who was also 2017 chairman of the NAW Board of Directors, started his chairman’s address.

Now, I’ve been to this event a few times, and the chairman’s address is important to the setting and it’s delivered well. But at many conferences, such a speech could easily fall into the obligatory category -- filling time before the keynote or the celebrity speakers get on stage.

How do you avoid that? Well, one way is to start with a good icebreaker, tell your story, and offer hope -- and some fundamental principles -- for how others could become as successful as you and your company. Here’s how Tracy did that.

Getting started

Right after lunch is a tricky time to be a speaker. Maybe everyone is feeling good, or maybe people are starting to get sleepy. Lunch can be a good break, a chance to catch up, but maybe people have so much fun talking to each other that they aren’t ready to listen to you.

Either way, if you come out there with just dry numbers and facts, you’re in trouble. Tracy didn’t do that. He was humble, downplaying his contributions and emphasizing the family. And before that, he joked about how he consulted NAW President Dirk Van Dongen about what to say.

“I said, ‘Dirk, what do you want me to talk about in my speech?’ And he said, ‘It’s real easy. For the first five minutes, tell them everything you know.’” [pause for laughter] “I didn’t know how to take that.”

Tracy went on to add that “I know you’re counting on getting a lot of email done in the next 25 minutes," again getting chuckles from the crowd.

These comments and others in the first few minutes lightened the mood ahead of serious discussion, brought in the reason he was there, mentioned the people he serves in his roles at NAW and Dot Foods, and showed self-deprecation.

Telling a story

Did you know Dot Foods was founded by Robert Tracy and Dorothy Tracy, and named after Dorothy? Or that they had 12 children, nearly all of whom spent more than a decade working in the business? Or that those 12 have had 46 children, with the family ownership and participation carrying over into a third generation without the strife or disinterest that sinks so many family-owned enterprises?

Surely, some in attendance knew the Dot Foods story. But if you didn’t, or even if you had some awareness, John brought all of us into the know, sharing why Dot Foods matters to him, why it’s truly a family business, and how the company was able to grow from an ingredient supplier to “the nation’s first and largest food redistributor” with more than 4,000 distributor customers.

How we did it and how you can, too

It seems easy -- start a family business, grow, have kids and get them involved, and on you go. But look even a little closer, there are clear obstacles. Family members in family businesses can disagree -- a lot. Some will want to spend more time in the business, and some will eventually feel it’s time to go. Others are more interested in the financial benefits, including dividends and liquidity.

Succession planning can be a nightmare -- if it’s addressed at all. Data suggest fewer than one in three family businesses survive into a second generation, as Dot Foods had to transition to in the 1980s. Only 12% make it into the third generation, which is where Dot is headed today.

“The only thing I can promise you that occurs, especially when you have this many family members in the business, is there’s lots of disagreement.” ~ John Tracy

Dot Foods has not dodged any of these challenges, as Tracy made clear. But rather than be divided, the family united on principles that were greater than business.

The family had to ask, “What’s the most important thing to us?” Tracy said. As he noted on a slide, these are the three priorities, in order:

  1. Sustainable family unit
  2. Sustainable family business
  3. Family members working in the business

The company also sought out outside expertise. How did many-generation family businesses do it? There were some commonalities that Dot Foods has adopted, Tracy said:

  • Outside board of directors
  • Family council
  • Ownership planning and estate planning
  • Fairness in paying dividends and finding liquidity, either for those who wanted to exit or those who wanted to keep their interest.
  • Annual family meeting.

Your family business won’t be the same as Dot, and the challenges may come at different times and in different ways. But what those principles can offer is “a playbook” for the tough times, Tracy said.

Finally, he closed with mistakes Dot Foods had made. The company is obviously successful, and sharing these errors or omissions didn’t take away from that. Instead, it brought Tracy and the audience together. Even if you haven’t faced the same issues or handled them well, he said, you might come away with something to ponder.

What to take away

In less than 30 minutes, Tracy was able to re-energize the room, entertain and inform, and offer takeaways without making the speech all about himself.

You might not be involved in a family business or in distribution. And there is no shortage of tips for public speaking. But, if you find yourself in a prominent position, speaking to a captive audience, consider how you can get your message across and share your success while still being humble and helpful.

 

James daSilva is the longtime editor of SmartBrief's leadership newsletter and blog content, as well as newsletters for distributors, manufacturers and other professions. Before SmartBrief, he was a copy desk chief at a small daily New York newspaper. Contact him @SBLeaders, @James_daSilva or by email.