How to become the CEO of a family company and step down from your role

June 27, 2023

Welcome to another episode of Meet-A-CEO, a podcast series dedicated to providing insights and advice from some of the world's most successful business leaders. On today's episode, we're talking about how to become the CEO of a scale-upfamily company and step down from your role. While SODAQ is not a family business in the traditional sense, it was founded by father and son, and while growing into a professional organization required a transition of leadership outside of the family.

For this Episode, we welcome two very special guests: Ollie Smeenk and Robbert Woltering, two CEOs who run SODAQ. 

SODAQ creates unparalleled solutions to some of the most complex supply chain challenges. We produce durable, solar powered IoT tracking and sensing hardware designed for B2B and large scale deployment. They also offer services.

SODAQ’s Engineering Services creates custom IoT solutions, or functions as an extension of engineering departments to create hardware, software, and industrial design solutions tailored to your unique needs.

Ollie Smeenk - Co-Founder and Sales Director of SODAQ

Ollie Smeenk is the co-founder and project sales director at SODAQ. With his focus being on sales, he used to be the former CEO of SODAQ, having taken over the role from his Father. In this episode, he gives useful insights into what values and characteristics are important to run a company, and what he learned before and after giving his role to Robert.

Robbert Woltering - CEO of SODAQ

Robbert is the current CEO of SODAQ, having taken over the role from Ollie Smeenk. He talks about his experiences, how it was compared to a former job as he used to work for a big American corporation, and how he structures his current processes inside the company.

Both Ollie and Robbert are in the CEO role and have had different experiences. Ollie has handed over the reins to Robbert and stepped down as co-CEO of SODAQ. This is exactly why both guests offer the perfect practical insights on what it means to relinquish the CEO's role. In doing so, we shed light on both perspectives. The role of the former CEO as well as the role of the new CEO.

Family businesses and the global economy

Family businesses are an integral part of the global economy, with over 90% of all businesses being family-owned. However, being the CEO of a family business can be a challenging task, as the line between professional and personal life becomes blurred. Additionally, stepping down from the role can be a difficult decision, but it's essential to ensure the success and longevity of the company. One of the most important things to consider is understanding your role and responsibilities as the CEO.

Your Role as the CEO

As the CEO of a family business, you have the ultimate decision-making power and are responsible for the success of the company. However, as a family-owned business, it's crucial to balance the interests of the family with those of the business. To achieve this balance, it's essential to understand your role and responsibilities, including establishing clear communication channels, developing and implementing a succession plan, maintaining a positive public image, and prioritizing the well-being of employees to foster a positive company culture. Additionally, to ensure the company's long-term success, the CEO must align the company's values with those of the family. One strategy for maintaining this balance is to consider hiring an outside CEO.

Hiring an Outside CEO

While it's not always the best option, hiring an outside CEO can be a smart choice for a family-owned business. An outside CEO can bring fresh ideas and perspectives to the company, as well as valuable experience and expertise. However, it's essential to ensure that the new CEO aligns with the family's values and culture. Before deciding to hire an outside CEO, it's important to evaluate the skills and experience needed for the role, as well as the current state of the company. Additionally, it's crucial to involve the family in the hiring process and consider their input. Communication is key in this process, as family members may have concerns or reservations about bringing in an outside CEO. It's important to address these concerns and establish clear expectations and goals for the new CEO. Furthermore, the family should provide support and guidance to the new CEO to ensure a smooth transition and help them understand the company's culture and values. Overall, hiring an outside CEO can be a positive step for a family-owned business, but it requires careful consideration and planning to ensure success. One very good example of a very successful company that hired an outside CEO is Ford.

Ford Motor Company and their CEO structure

Ford is one of the largest automobile manufacturers in the world, and it has been family-owned for over a century. However, in 2006, the company faced significant financial challenges and mounting pressure from shareholders to improve performance. The Ford family realized that they needed a new leader with a fresh perspective and experience outside of the company.

They hired Alan Mulally, a seasoned executive from Boeing, to be the new CEO. Mulally was not a member of the Ford family, but he had a proven track record of turning around struggling companies and had a reputation for strong leadership and strategic thinking.

Under Mulally's leadership, Ford underwent a major restructuring, including the sale of non-core brands and the introduction of new, fuel-efficient models. He also implemented a "One Ford" plan that aimed to unify the company's global operations and improve efficiency.

Mulally's leadership was instrumental in Ford's turnaround, and he is widely credited with saving the company from bankruptcy. He remained as CEO until 2014, when he retired and was succeeded by another non-family member, Mark Fields.

The example of Ford illustrates that even the most well-established and family-dominated companies can benefit from outside leadership, especially during times of crisis or significant change. It also highlights the importance of selecting a CEO based on their skills, experience, and ability to execute a strategic vision, rather than solely on their family ties.But not only Ford made the successful step to hire an outside CEO. Ollie and Robbert give you their insights of the process that they were running through. 

What you can learn from Ollie and Robbert:

In our podcast, Ollie described that the challenges his company has been facing as a growing organization have mainly been related to operations, such as growth and profitability, as well as other related topics, rather than internal or political struggles.

Furthermore, Ollie mentioned that it was never his intention to hold the CEO position for a long time. His core priority is the success of the company, and he believes that different individuals are suited to lead the company at different stages. In the early stages, someone is needed who has a radical vision that others may not agree with and who can continue to push the idea towards success. However, Ollie sees himself more as someone who can bring people together and act as a social glue within the company.

This is where Robert's skillset really shines. He can take the company further and ensure that SODAQ makes more growth strides. Ollie recognizes that he is not the right person for this role and that he took on the CEO position out of necessity. He is grateful that he can now trust Robbert's leadership to guide the company towards success.

After recognizing that Robert is better suited for the CEO position, Ollie decided to step down from his role. It's important to note that stepping down from the CEO position in a family business can be a delicate process. There are several key factors to keep in mind when transitioning leadership, such as maintaining family relationships, ensuring a smooth succession plan, and preserving the company's legacy. Here are five important considerations to keep in mind when making this type of transition:

  1. Select the right successor: It is critical to select a successor who has the skills, experience, and vision to lead the company successfully. This person should have a deep understanding of the business, its culture, and its values. It is also important to consider whether the successor is a good fit with the rest of the family and the company's stakeholders.
  1. Develop a clear transition plan: A smooth transition is essential to the ongoing success of the business. The outgoing CEO should work closely with the successor to develop a clear transition plan that outlines the responsibilities of each party and the timeline for the handover of duties. This plan should be communicated clearly to all stakeholders, including employees, customers, suppliers, and investors.
  1. Maintain open communication: Good communication is essential during the transition process. The outgoing CEO should be transparent and honest about their reasons for stepping down and should keep all stakeholders informed of the progress of the transition. This can help to build trust and ensure a smooth handover.
  1. Provide ongoing support: Stepping down from the CEO role can be a difficult and emotional process. The outgoing CEO should provide ongoing support to the successor and be available to offer guidance and advice as needed. This can help to ensure a smooth transition and minimize any disruption to the business.
  1. Embrace a new role: Stepping down from the CEO role does not mean that the outgoing CEO is no longer involved in the business. It is important to embrace a new role within the company and find ways to continue to contribute to its success. This could involve taking on a new role within the company or serving on the board of directors.

By keeping these five factors in mind, the outgoing CEO can help to ensure a smooth transition and set the stage for the ongoing success of the family business. Make sure to tune in to Ollie and Robbert's experiences in the episode, where you'll also hear some of these tips reiterated.

But there is one factor that is very important and shouldn’t be left out: Having a good team that trusts each other! But how do you build a good team that can trust each other during the process?

Built a strong team with trust

Building a strong and trusting team during the CEO transition process is crucial, especially between the outgoing and incoming CEOs. Here are some tips on how to foster a strong team:

Clear Communication: Communication is key to building trust and a successful transition. The outgoing CEO should clearly communicate their vision for the company to the new CEO, and the new CEO should also share their ideas and strategies for moving the company forward.

Encourage Collaboration: Collaboration among team members can help build trust and create a positive work culture. The new CEO should encourage collaboration among team members and foster an environment of open communication.

Define Roles and Responsibilities: Clearly defining roles and responsibilities can help prevent confusion and ensure that everyone knows what is expected of them. The outgoing CEO should work with the new CEO to define their roles and responsibilities, and make sure that all team members understand their roles as well.

Foster a Culture of Learning: Learning and development opportunities can help team members build trust and respect for one another. The new CEO should encourage a culture of learning and offer opportunities for professional development. 

Lead by Example: The outgoing CEO should model good leadership behavior and work collaboratively with the new CEO. This can help build trust and set a positive tone for the transition process.

By following these tips, the outgoing and incoming CEOs can build a strong team that works well together and supports a successful CEO transition.

In the episode, Robbert explained the importance of trust in his journey to becoming the CEO of the company. SODAQ was initially founded by a father and son, who successfully grew the company. Later, Robbert joined as a commercial director, and they worked closely together, referring to themselves as "the father, the son, and the Holy Ghost" in meetings. This close relationship was built on a foundation of trust and shared decision-making, where everyone was open and transparent with information. This led to a strong alignment in strategy and execution, which further strengthened their trust in each other. Ultimately, this foundation of trust and shared vision made the transition of leadership from father to son and ultimately to Robbert as CEO a smooth and seamless process.

Ollie emphasizes the importance of valuing each other as equals within the company. Robbert encouraged a more distributed approach where it's not just about who founded the company, but rather it's a team effort. Ollie also mentions that he and Robbert have a great relationship and enjoy working together, whether it's visiting customers or attending events. Overall, the team has a positive attitude towards each other and focuses on utilizing each other's strengths rather than negativity. This positive approach helps to foster good relationships and a collaborative work environment.

You want to understand more about the story of Ollie and Robbert and their leadership iterations?  Then, be sure to listen to our podcast episode and hear what our distinguished guests have imparted about these topics.




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