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Feb. 11, 2008 – All in the family

As a third-generation business, S&S Cycle has overcome the overwhelming odds facing family run companies, and after 50 years has been able to successfully balance family with business. Powersports Business had the opportunity to sit down with George B. Smith, former president and current S&S board chairman, and his son Brett, current S&S president, to discuss the challenges and advantages of running a family owned business.
PSB: George, you mentioned you and your father used to butt heads a lot, and that’s one of the reasons it took you so long to fully entrench yourself in S&S Cycle. Do you and Brett disagree a lot, as well?
George: We do butt heads, but we actually think a lot alike. The problem is I think there’s that normal father-son competition, such as fighting over who gets credit for an idea, or I’m not doing things just right and vice versa. We’ll start getting on each other for the stupidest things. But do we agree in business and most decisions regarding the company? Yeah, I’d say 95 percent of the time we do.
Brett: I would say that when it comes to the overall strategic vision of the company, I don’t think we’ve ever been in disagreement. If we disagree it’s on the minutia of how to get to a final goal. Sometimes he would prefer to do it this way, and I’ll disagree. Where we get into conflict sometimes is I’m here running the operation, he’s on the board and I believe he should only concern himself with the end game, not the day-to-day operations. From his perspective, he’ll say something like “we talked about it, why don’t you just do it,” and I’ll say I can’t, and he believes just because we talked about it that it’s a done deal. So sometimes those dynamics can make things more complicated.
PSB: George, how hard is it to separate yourself when it comes to being a father to Brett, while at the same time being a partner in a business?
George: It’s an extremely hard challenge to separate yourself, and anyone who tells you different, I wouldn’t believe them. It’s especially difficult when the owners of the business are all family. That’s why the success rate in an entrepreneurial first generation company is so dismal from second to third generation. Things are changing in this industry, the EPA emissions standards, Harley is making more bikes than they can sell, the metric bikes are copying the choppers. It’s a different place out there than it was when I was president, and trying to have the right strategic vision collectively in a closely held company, it’s a tremendous challenge. But I’m very proud of what Brett and the management staff have accomplished, and I will look forward to the day when we have a transition that will allow me to step back a little bit and let someone else do it for a little while.
Brett: For me to separate between family and business is probably a little easier than it is for some, but there are times when subconsciously you have these familial ties and you know that you have to make a certain business decision and the two don’t necessarily coincide. We’ve got a lot of second-generation family members involved in the board of directors. There is no director to date from the second generation that is more actively involved in the industry and the business than my dad. And I’m very thankful and fortunate for that because I’m not dealing with the director or chairman of the board. I’m not dealing with someone linked into the business side of the industry, I mean he’s out there winning races at the NHRA.
George: Yes, I’m the racer in the family, I pushed to have us create a pro stock motor and enjoy being involved in the NHRA. So while I have not been in operations since October of 1993, I have constantly been more involved in the business probably more than any of the other owners of S&S.
Brett: No, there’s no probably, that’s a fact.
PSB: What’s something that few people in the industry know about S&S Cycle?
George: When we were developing the Super EG and Super D carburetors in the early 1980s, I actually did most of the test riding on the carburetors when we were doing the tuning. It’s interesting because the one fall I had was in 1983, and ironically I wasn’t testing a V-twin. I was testing carburetors on a Kawasaki, because we were really close to coming out of a set of carburetors for them, and I was chasing another racer around an S-curve. So the one time I had an accident and really busted up my shoulder was on a metric bike of all things.
Brett: I remember them carrying you upstairs in your vest and having to cut your shirt off and all that stuff, and I remember the ambulance coming in to bring you to the hospital.
George: Yeah, that was something I’ll never forget, that’s for sure. psb

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