Looking for insights to run your family business? Discover how this fourth-generation business leader built on her family's legacy by staying true to herself.
Before the development of modern vehicle suspension components in the second half of the twentieth century, suspension systems could not always handle the weight of the vehicles they were designed to support, resulting in a ride that was often less efficient and more dangerous for drivers. Rudy Hellwig, who by the early 1940s was used to seeing cars and trucks sagging under heavy loads, recognized the need for innovation in the industry and the opportunity to make vehicles safer and easier to drive for all—so he got to work. In 1946, he invented the Helper Spring—a product to strengthen and stabilize existing vehicle suspensions—which he and his son, Don, installed in customers’ driveways. Fast forward nearly 80 years and the company Rudy started from scratch has emerged as an industry leader, producing a range of suspension components for cars, trucks, RVs, and military applications. Based in Central California, Hellwig Suspension Products is a fourth-generation family-owned business headed today by Melanie Hellwig White, Rudy’s great-granddaughter and the company’s first female president.
While Melanie has driven new and exciting growth since taking up the mantle in 2005, her path into the family business was not a typical one—she never intended to take over her great grandfather’s company. Out of college, she started her career managing a bakery. While the hours were not the right fit for her long term, it was here that she discovered her true passion. Through her time at the bakery, she realized that she enjoyed working with people and helping them solve problems. She knew that she wanted to pursue a job where she could build relationships and find creative solutions for others. So, as she began searching for a new career, she had her sights set on sales.
When a sales position opened at Hellwig Suspension Products, the company that her family built, she decided to give it a try.
Melanie’s Business Journey
Melanie’s first position at Hellwig mainly involved cold calling potential clients, which she says was a great way to quickly learn about the company and its products.
“Cold calling taught me a lot that I still apply today,” she says. “I had to be able to help solve problems. I had to gain trust, and I had to follow up. While all the situations were a little different, the method wasn’t.”
Over the course of her 18 years with the company, Melanie, now 43, worked through a variety of jobs—including leadership roles in sales and marketing—before moving up to a vice president role where she had a bigger say in strategy and eventually taking the reigns as President and CEO. As a family member, Melanie made a conscious effort to work her way up the ladder and disprove any notion that, as the next-generation leader, she hasn’t had to earn her position.
“People who don’t know me think that I had this gold road to becoming president of Hellwig, that I just came in one day and opened the door to being president,” she says. “That wasn’t at all what happened.”
Since she’s been at the helm, the company has thrived, remaining committed to its mission of manufacturing high-quality products in the U.S. and resisting massive pressure to outsource labor and materials and take investment from private equity groups.
But despite all her achievements over the past two decades, Melanie’s business journey hasn’t been without challenges. Family businesses, of course, face all the same difficulties as other small businesses, with the added dimension of family history and emotions. As she moved through the ranks, Melanie has learned many lessons that contributed to her success in the face of adversity.
Below, she shares some Do’s and Don’ts for other next-gen leaders of family businesses.
Do develop your own leadership style.
As a fourth-generation leader, Melanie struggled early in her career to craft a leadership style similar to that of her father’s and grandfather’s. Part of that simply reflected their different paths to leadership, since Melanie’s father had risen primarily through the production side of the business, while most of her experience focused on sales.
“With that alone, we saw the business through different lenses,” she says. “Me, looking at what the customer needed and how we could adjust to that, and my dad on what our production needed and how we adjusted customer expectations to that.”
Over time, Melanie developed a more authentic leadership style.
“I was trying to make them proud and react as they would to situations,” she says. “But it was out of alignment with who I really am. I’m of a different generation, and I am also the first female leader within Hellwig. I realized that I wasn’t going to be successful unless I showed up as myself.”
In addition to no longer trying to emulate previous leaders, Melanie took extensive leadership training through the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) to give her the tools and confidence to run the business on her own.
Don’t be afraid to make changes.
Melanie is committed to keeping jobs in America and using American steel, just as her great grandfather did when he founded the company right after World War II more than seven decades ago. But she has also found ways to modernize the business so that it remains competitive—and poised to continue its growth into the future.
Melanie’s approach is to run the midsize manufacturing business like a startup. Through modern techniques, like just-in-time manufacturing and investments in infrastructure and digital marketing, she has been able to transform the way Hellwig does business.
Do pay attention to the development of non-family employees.
Melanie says that as a family member, she had the flexibility to take on more responsibility over time, often before she had even received a formal promotion to the position. While that may have benefited her career, it also may have intimidated other, non-family members who were concerned about their own future with the company.
“It’s a bummer, because we lost some talent that way,” she says. “When I look back, I could have done a better job making sure that everyone felt like they were in a good position to move forward with the company.”
If she could do it over, Melanie says she would talk more to those employees and let them know that she’d be leaning on them and their expertise. That’s an approach she takes now with non-family employees.
“We are having open conversations about what team members want to achieve in their career and doing our best to map out a plan to match,” she says.
Don’t hesitate to ask for help.
Putting a proper succession plan in place and transferring ownership of a business can be challenging, whether you’re passing it along to a family member or an outsider.
“We met with some people to help us understand what our financial options were as well as how to approach the personal dynamics,” she says.
Melanie says she has also benefited from joining Vistage, a CEO networking and executive coaching organization.
“I would highly recommend this organization as a resource,” she says. “Not only was it instrumental in my transition, but it was also instrumental in my growth as CEO. They helped me navigate a lot of obstacles through the years.”
Do welcome input from previous generations.
While Melanie’s father may take more fishing trips now than he did as CEO, he still regularly comes into the office, a practice that Melanie welcomes.
“I run the day-to-day, and he is here to be a historian,” she says. “I can pick his brain. It’s really nice that he hasn’t completely stepped out of the business.”
Don’t force the next generation to join the business.
Even after she joined the company, Melanie says she never felt pressure from her father to ultimately take over the business.
“In retrospect, I think that was good,” she says. “But I proved that I was invested, and that I wanted it. You have to have that fire in your belly and that desire to do what’s necessary in the business.”
She hopes to take a similar approach with her own son.
“I don’t want to pigeon hole him into coming to run the business because if that’s not in alignment for him, then it won’t be a good fit for Hellwig,” she says. “My interest is making sure that Hellwig is good and healthy moving forward. That is my job as the CEO and owner, to make sure it continues in the future. If my son isn’t the right fit, I don’t want to push that.”
That said, Melanie says she plans to remain at the helm of the business for many years to come, and she hasn’t given too much thought yet to her future successor.
“I still am having fun being CEO and owner of Hellwig,” she says. “We’ll see what happens.”
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