As fourth-generation executives in the Lyden family business, True North Energy, cousins Bailey Lyden and Lindsay Lyden credit the generation above them for easing their integration into the company and positioning the chain for the future. They also know firsthand the joys and challenges of joining a family company as next-generation leaders.
In 2019 the Lyden family is celebrating the 100th anniversary of True North Energy, which started as The Lyden Oil Co. in 1919. Based in Brecksville, Ohio, the company operates 108 truenorth c-stores in Ohio and Illinois and supplies fuel to 200 dealer locations.
William Geoffrey Lyden Sr. — Bailey’s and Lindsay’s great-grandfather — founded The Lyden Oil Co. in 1919 as a bulk fuel delivery business. Over the next 50 years, the company grew to include 120 filling stations. When the second generation — William Geoffrey Lyden Jr. — became CEO, he propelled the business forward into c-store retailing and opened the first c-store under the banner Fast Check Food Mart in 1982.
The third generation, William Geoffrey “Geoff” Lyden III (Bailey’s father) and Mark Lyden (Lindsay’s father), were at the helm in 1999 when The Lyden Co. formed a 50-50 joint venture with Shell Oil and created True North Energy. Geoff Lyden served as CEO from 1994 until he passed away in November 2018. Today, Mark Lyden serves as CEO.
“The third generation really brought the company to the next level,” said Lindsay Lyden, vice president of development. “They had the vision to form the joint venture with Shell after the BP and Amoco merger. They purchased assets in Chicago at the right time. My dad and uncle excelled at buying assets at the right time, and we were able to grow a lot because of their foresight.”
Lindsay joined the company in 2006 after graduate school, first working in the purchasing department buying capital items for raze and rebuilds and other construction projects. “That gave me a great foundation,” she said.
The position gave her a broad tutorial on the c-store business as she purchased dispensers and pipes, tanks and fountain machines and gained insight into how the different parts of the company worked together from a building and equipment operating perspective.
Bailey anticipated joining the family company from a young age.
“It was always my goal to work for the company and to support it in any way I could,” said Bailey Lyden, vice president of retail. At 14, he got his chance to start working at the stores. While he wasn’t old enough to work the register, a manager taught him everything from stocking shelves to cleaning restrooms.
“It helped me grow an appreciation for what our employees do every day,” Bailey Lyden said. “I think that is really important. It also helped me earn a little street cred from all our operational folks.”
In 2007, after graduating from the University of Colorado, he joined the company full time, overseeing the chain’s car wash business.
Passing the Baton
A common challenge among young executives can be convincing older generations to give them an opportunity to lead. At truenorth, however, the third generation paved the way for the fourth generation to carry the torch.
In 2008, truenorth brought in consultants Chris Harris and Rhonda Cain from Retail Strategies, who recommended focusing on the ‘inside business’ of c-store retailing.
While the third generation excelled at distributing and retailing gasoline, they had limited knowledge in operating c-stores. Cain and Harris wanted to take the fourth generation, whose knowledge wasn’t clouded by gasoline retailing, teach them c-store retailing and let them own that aspect of the business.
“(The third generation) allowed us to take on the responsibility. It was a nice compliment that they believed we could do this, rather than hiring somebody else from the outside,” Lindsay Lyden said.
With their parents’ blessing, the fourth generation learned from Retail Strategies how to run all c-store categories themselves. Bailey handled merchandising and learned how to negotiate with vendors, while Lindsay oversaw marketing.
“We treated gasoline as just another SKU,” Bailey Lyden said. “We invested a lot in our backend system. We (collected) scan data for line item inventory, so we became more sophisticated as a retailer. That helped me understand the business more.”
What stands out to both Bailey and Lindsay is the third generation’s open mindedness in shifting focus to the in-store side of the business. “We were very lucky they had that vision,” Lindsay Lyden said.
The move secured truenorth’s stability during a decade permeated by evolving customer expectations, family business closures and industry consolidation.
“Today you need 15 cooler doors of beverage selection, a beer cave, big and nice restrooms, and foodservice,” Bailey Lyden said. Because of the third generation’s foresight, the company was able to reinvest in its locations and was well positioned to deliver on those expectations.
When the time came to add more support staff in terms of category managers and field merchandisers, the third generation supported the fourth generation in taking that need seriously, and also foresaw the need for bigger stores to accommodate changing demands. The truenorth stores have grown from 2,500 square feet to 4,200 square feet, and the chain’s SKU count has expanded as well.
“It’s driving profitability, and it’s paying off,” Bailey Lyden said.
As her father’s industry role expanded, Lindsay transitioned into the position of vice president of development. Her early experiences at the company prepared her for her current role.
“Because I did all the purchasing when I first started, I knew how all equipment worked. Now I oversee the permitting, planning, zoning and building of sites from the ground up,” she said.
Bailey transitioned into the role of vice president of retail in 2015.
“Bailey and I were very fortunate that we did shift our focus from being gasoline retailers to convenience retailers early in our careers here at the company,” Lindsay Lyden said.
The move gave them opportunities to prove their leadership capabilities early on.
Navigating a Family Business
Working with your family can bring both challenges and benefits. Getting to work with your family members every day can be a fun privilege. Lindsay’s husband, Daniel Niese, works for the company, too, as treasurer.
Working with family can also have the added challenge of making business conflicts feel more personal.
“When you get to those tough times, it’s a little harder because it is your family you’re reporting to. You have to have the boundary not to take it home with you,” she said.
For example, Lindsay and her husband travel to and from work together. “We have to consciously say, ‘We are on our journey home. This is where work shuts off.’”
Both Lindsay and Bailey have the same piece of advice for other young executives navigating the family business: “Be patient.”
In many cases, older generations aren’t ready to hand over the reins when the younger generation comes of age.
“Learn and soak up all you can from previous generations, and then when the transition happens, it will be smooth,” Lindsay Lyden said. “Enjoy the process.”
Remember that the business is bigger than your day or your generation, and focus on how to best contribute to extend that legacy for the next generation and beyond, she said.
The current generation can do much to aid the transition of the incoming generation. At truenorth, Bailey and Lindsay credit the third generation with creating a welcoming environment for them.
“Their vision for our generation was so well received by our employees that the respect was there from day one,” Bailey Lyden said. “But we also had to earn credibility, and be humble and respectful.”
Lindsay Lyden noted it can take time for new generations to win the trust of those above them at the company. “People didn’t really take me seriously until I was involved in the company for a good amount of time.”
While most young executives want to move forward quickly, the first steps are earning respect and observing before trying to influence.
“It’s important to listen more than you talk early on,” Bailey Lyden said. “You’ve got to know and understand the industry experience around you. Know that you don’t always have the answer. Learn to ask the right questions.”
Appreciate your competition, he said, and learn from them as much as you can.
“If you don’t have a good understanding of the business, you can’t really be that impactful,” he said. “Some employees had 25-plus years with us. I took the attitude of, ‘We want to learn from you. Tell us how to support your efforts.’ That perspective helped us to be well received.”
Succession planning is a challenging but necessary discussion for family businesses to have early to protect the business for generations to come.
“You plan for it. You embrace it, and it’s always going to be tough,” Bailey Lyden said.
When his father, Geoff Lyden, passed away last November from cancer, it brought a sudden change in how the family operated the business, but having plans helped keep the business running smoothly despite their loss.
“We were prepared for it in the sense that we had plans in place, and the family has worked and studied over the years to make sure we stay (committed to) quality control, which is of the upmost importance to us,” Bailey Lyden said. “We have too much at stake, and we’re responsible for too many people to have anything break that apart.”
“He was very influential,” Bailey Lyden said of his father. “I learned a great deal from him, and it’s because of his efforts that the company’s in the position it is now. He was so smart, and he always was looking forward. That really helped us.”
Today, the company is continuing to reinvest in its c-store business. “We believe in the company. We believe in this channel of businesses, and we think the c-store industry has some real staying power long-term,” Bailey Lyden said.
Time will tell if a fifth generation will enter the family business one day down the road.
Bailey’s younger brother, William, who is not currently active in the business, and Lindsay’s sister, Colleen, a veterinarian, both have young daughters. There are also two children on the other side of the family.
“Everybody’s under the age of seven in the fifth generation now,” Bailey Lyden said.
When the fifth generation does come of age, the fourth generation has been well prepared from their own experiences to aid their transition into leadership.