The vast majority of family-owned businesses do not survive a first generation. With only one-third successfully transitioning from first to second generation ownership, succession planning, turf battles, relationship management and the unique culture of a family business all play a vital and sometimes precarious role in the success or failure of a potential dynasty. Steber International is one such family dynasty that has succeeded, not only in being multi generational, but also through achieving success in the international business arena.
For over six decades, Steber International, a family-operated boat manufacturing business specialising in fibreglass, has grown from building small run-abouts to internationally exporting large commercial and recreational vessels.
Steber International has craftily navigated de-centralisation, market losses, government departments, economic crises, expansion and a major company restructure to currently employ 50 staff, including three Steber brothers, in key management roles. The company has sold boats to Mauritius, the Seychelles and Dubai and has projects pending in Bahrain, Malaysia, Fiji and PNG.
Indefatigable Executive Director, Alan Steber, talks to FOCUS about essential guidelines for running a buoyant family business.
> Your father Bruce founded the formerly named Stebercraft in 1947. He built his first boat at 14 and continues to be actively engaged in Stebercraft International today, as is your mother, Beryl. How have times changed for the company since its inception?
Our first large export market was to Japan in 1983, and it’s been a great market for us. Bruce was initially reluctant to export, but once the younger generation of Stebers readily embraced foreign credit, finance and language barriers, Dad could see the value in exporting.
> Steber International has transitioned itself from a local business to a formidable international enterprise. Are there benefits to working with family in expanding businesses?
As a family, we discuss business issues daily and make day-to-day decisions immediately. We don’t need a board to make vital decisions. We tried a General Manager to control the business, but found it just didn’t work.
> Does trust in business come naturally when working with family?
Trust has been integral to our success. It’s also very important generally in dealings. If you say the wrong thing to a customer about a boat – say, its speed, distance, range or fuel – you’ll get caught. Trust, reputation and service are everything.
> What advice would you give to families considering going into business together?
Never argue. Ever. We may have a difference of opinion, but it’s discussed and we make decisions together. You must maintain respect, and it’s imperative to have a succession plan, which we’ve mapped out. We focus on each other’s strengths and our employee’s strengths.
> What sort of a ship do you run?
I keep staff enthused by keeping them informed. You need to be honest with people. We have a monthly staff meeting which table’s safety and sales reports. Feedback is provided regarding what may have gone wrong with a boat. Management and staff training are also important.
> To expand or not to … Is there ever a safe time to expand in business?
No, there’s not. The GFC hit as we were expanding and as a family we decided to go ahead and said, “Let’s do it”. Market preparedness is essential, and we have to beat imported boats head-on to produce the best police, rescue, security and recreational vessels. Instead of looking back, we decided to upgrade skills, tools and planting machinery, plus increase training for when the market turns positive.
> How productive is your business for local economy?
We maximise local and Australian content and buy local plumbing and timber supplies, carpets, furnishings, light fittings, tools plus wire and electrical. These are just to name a few of the many businesses we obtain local supplies from.
> How do you deal with bureaucratic government departments?
We’ve been dealing with government departments on minesweeping projects on security and navy boats. You need to plan at least five years to realise a project, and you need to outlay the time and effort. Networking is vital.
> Steber International is a pioneer in fibreglass manufacturing. Is it important to stick with what you know?
Fibreglass is far superior to aluminium in its application and natural insulation. We’re experts at it, and we know it as a material. Diversification is also an element to our business, and we’ve moved into mining, army, navy, airforce and security equipment. If a war broke out tomorrow, we’d probably get a phone call.
> Is yours a true rags-to-riches story?
Yes, through pure hard work. Businesses go up and down. The main thing is to remain positive.
> Is a sound succession plan imperative for continued success?
Yes. Part of our succession plan is that everyone follows suit within the corporation structure. The overall production coordination needs to seamlessly link up with the management system.
> What piece of advice has your dad passed down to you?
It must happen on the factory floor. The product and quality has to be right. A boat just can’t leak at sea.
> Thank you to Alan and the Steber family.