Succession Works at Quality Switch
NEWTON FALLS, Ohio – When Horace Sewell started building transformer switches inside his machine shop in 1952, his intentions were modest: to make enough money to send his kids to college.
“When he started the business he encouraged my brother and I to look at other places,” recalls Russell Sewell, the CEO and second-generation owner of what is now Quality Switch Inc., based in Newton Falls.
Today the third generation – Russ’ sons, Adam and Jeremy, and daughter, Laura Whitmore – are preparing to take over, although much had to go right (and wrong) to get them where they are today.
“We weren’t really looking to get into it,” says Adam Sewell, oldest of the three.
Their father was a different story.
Russ would often accompany Horace to work on weekends and pass the time playing on the shop floor. His first real job at the company was cleaning the bathrooms.
Soon, he was making deliveries and performing office work. He began working in the shop at 18. “I put switches together so I knew what it took and I knew how much stuff costs,” he says. “You have to know how much everything costs.”
When he expressed interest in one day running the business, Russ recalls his dad telling him, “If you’re going to get anything, I’m not giving it to you. You’re going to have to work.”
He went to college, earning a degree in business administration with a minor in accounting.
Eventually, his brother, Rick, joined the business, an arrangement that worked well because of their complementary skill sets.
While Russ managed the office and personnel, Rick handled the production side, drawing on his training as an engineer.
Horace retired in 1992 and Rick left in 2006 to run Quality Machine when they decided to split the two divisions into separate companies.
All the while, an astute observer to the events likely would have noticed the third generation busily performing duties on the periphery over the years.
The drone of a lawnmower would signal that one of Horace’s grandchildren was trimming the company’s lawn. Loud banging throughout the shop was a dead-giveaway that Adam was collecting scrap, a job likely assigned by Russ.
The first of the second generation to join Quality Switch was Jeremy, who came on in 2001 after another job offer fell through.
He started interviewing and received several offers from companies out of state, but his fiancé wanted to stay in the area, and he was beginning to see a bright future at the family business.
It was company President Larry Dix who suggested he apply for an engineering position.
“My dad said, ‘I don’t want to interview him. You can interview him.’ That’s how it started,” Jeremy says.
His younger sister, Laura, joined the company in 2003, followed by Adam, who came on in 2008 when his job at Delphi appeared in jeopardy.
Today, Adam is a design engineer, Jeremy has his hands in sales and engineering, and Laura handles the purchasing, although everyone “wears many hats,” Jeremy says, just as with any family business.
“Laura does purchasing but she also does a lot of other administrative stuff. She helps with payroll too,” he adds.
The first challenge the siblings had to overcome was helping the business grow, which needed to happen quickly, because at the time it wasn’t lucrative enough to support them all.
Quality Switch began focusing on selling its products internationally, and today, exports account for 40% of all sales.
As a result, Russ says, the company has almost tripled in size since 2002, now employing 40.
In 2012, the company received a patent for a grounding switch, an effort Adam spearheaded, and in 2016, it opened the Horace H. Sewell High Voltage Testing and Research Center.
“We’ve been fortunate enough that we’ve been able to grow the business,” Jeremy says. “We’ve come a long way.”
The fact that they all get along has been a big help.
“I’ve actually fought less with Jeremy since I started working here,” Adam says.
In some ways, Laura says, it’s more of a headache for the family members not employed there.
“You take it home. When we get together outside of work, we talk about work,” she says.
“It drives the rest of our family crazy,” Jeremy adds.
The family says they recently revised the succession plan put in place five years ago. Russ, who has begun “cutting back a little” at work, says he learned the importance of succession planning from his father.
“He was smart enough to know that if you’re going to continue, you need a transition plan. Don’t wait until the last minute.”
Horace continued coming to work every day until he died in 2011, and his example is one reason the Sewells are unable to turn their passion for the business on and off as if it were one of the switches they manufacture.
“You get a little extra motivation,” Jeremy says.“I want to help make this company grow and succeed and make my grandfather proud and carry on that legacy.”
While Quality Switch today is a far different business than the one Horace started nearly 70 years ago, it’s still one he would no doubt enjoy coming to work in everyday. His son sure does.
“It’s still fun to me,” Russ says. “Even after 45 years it’s still exciting.”
Pictured: Laura Whitmore, Jeremy Sewell and Adam Sewell are the third generation at Quality Switch, following in the footsteps of their father, Russell Sewell, and grandfather, who founded the Newton Falls manufacturer in 1952.
Copyright 2019 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.
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