Willis Shenk: The challenge of transition

Willis Shenk deserves the many accolades that his passing has occasioned and the following is not meant to detract from his successes as a businessman, community leader and and his admirable character.

But Willis faced the challenge that confront other successful leaders, especially those who have led an organization for decades: How do you successfully transition leadership and when do you get out of the way?

A quarter century ago, Joseph T. Simpson was perhaps the most respected business executive in Pennsylvania. He had long led Harsco Corporation, was chairman of the executive committee of the region’s largest bank, a board member of Amp, and a much admired civic leader. (We and Simpson were partners in real estate endeavors.)

Having led Harsco for a quarter of a century, at 60 he shocked the board of directors by advising them he would step down as president at 62, would relinquish the title of CEO when 65, and at 67 would retire as chair.

A search for a successor was undertaken and a successor appointed. Tragically, the new president died in an airplane crash a few years later.

By then Simpson was in his early 70s but was available to step back in as CEO and he ably lead the company through another transition period. He demonstrated the importance of preparation for transition, stepping aside, and yet being available as an advisor and, in case of an emergency, to return.

We sought to follow Mr. Simpson’s example, but we too experienced the premature retirement for health reasons of a successor and other unavoidable personnel complications, and twice needed to step back in.

An obituary “Willis Shenk, former chairman of Steinman Enterprises and pillar of community, dies at age 98” posted Sunday, April 6, at LancasterOnLine goes on to say:

“Shenk shepherded Lancaster Newspapers Inc. through decades of great change, and was, in the words of Lancaster Mayor Rick Gray, a ‘pillar of our community.’

“He retired in 2004 after 65 years with the company, but continued to serve as an adviser to the Steinman family and company executives. In his role as trustee for the Steinman foundations, he left his imprint on organizations throughout Lancaster County.”

A later article, “Community says farewell to ‘consummate gentleman’ Willis Shenk” , reports:

“The Steinman family’s holdings include the Intelligencer Printing Co. (now Intelligencer), Delmarva Broadcasting Co., Lancaster County Weeklies, Lancaster County Farming Inc. and Steinman Management Co.”

No doubt Willis Shenk was an able executive during his prime, an enthusiastic and generous supporter of good causes throughout his career, and an examplary gentleman. He was widely admired by those of us who knew him.

But do the math. He retired in 2004, only ten years ago. At that time he was already 88.

Shortly before Shenk retired NewsLanc’s publisher sought to discuss the proposed convention center when they were together at a fund raiser for Project Forward Leap. It appeared that Willis was not fully cognitively engaged, exhibiting signs of old age. With sadness, our publisher changed the subject. Yet Shenk was still chairman of the Lancaster Newspapers and the other Steinman interests at this pivotal moment for the future of Lancaster.

Jack Buckwalter succeeded Shenk. Buckwalter’s father had been an executive at Lancaster Newspapers, Inc. Jack rose over the many years from paper boy to CEO.

Soon after taking charge, Buckwalter acknowledged to NewsLanc’s publisher that he was preoccupied with the various long neglected Steinman holdings and did not have the time to give attention to the controversial convention center project. He said the project was Dale High’s to run and suggested the publisher meet with High.

Despite subsequently being informed of improprieties and prodded to take actions by NewsLanc and other community leaders, Buckwalter allowed High to retain complete control.

Moreover, at least with Jack’s acquiescence, the Lancaster Newspapers carried out years of slanted reporting about the convention center and other issues that sought to discredit the county commissioners who had the temerity of raising important issues concerning the projects viability. Ultimately, the newspapers aided and abetted a witch trial of a grand jury investigation of the three sitting commissioners and outragously distorted the grand jury’s findings.

The rest is history and can be read at NewsLanc’s “Convention Center Series”.

These were the darkest days of the otherwise commendable Steinman legacy.

Unlike Joseph Simpson, Shenk’s estimable career was marred by his failure to properly provide for experienced and competent management transition. He and the Steinman family, to which he was an in-law, should have reached outside the organization for fresh blood and vigorous leadership. And transition should have started twenty years earlier.

It is only in the past year or so that the Lancaster Newspapers, Inc. appears again to be competently led.

Willis was a gem of a person (we were acquainted with him socially) and we do not question that, in his day, an able executive. But all of us must take to our graves not only our many laudable accomplishments but also our failures.

Our final task as CEO is to pass along the ‘baton’ to qualified and able successors. It isn’t an easy task. Failure to do it properly undermines the accomplishments of the past.