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Fifth-generation UK family business reflects on its textbook succession

By Jessica Tasman-Jones

While many family businesses struggle with succession planning, a former fifth-generation chairman at the UK's William Jackson Food Group says the leadership transition to his younger brother could be described as “text bookish”.

Christopher Oughtred retired from the Yorkshire-headquartered family business in 2007. William Jackson Food owns a number of household food brands, including frozen foods producer Aunt Bessie's and organic food delivery business Abel & Cole.

He was a founding trustee of the UK's Institute for Family Business.

In an interview published in The Journal of Family Business Management Oughtred details the process of succession planning and execution as it happened at William Jackson Food.

Founded in 1851, the company last year saw its revenues rise 17.5% to £268.5 million, and its operating profit rise 24% to £16 million.

Oughtred said the family constitution guided the year he chose to retire well in advance as it determined chairs of the family business were to be elected for five-year terms.

At the beginning of his second term he told his family that he felt a 10-year term was “about right” and the wheels were set in motion to start considering who his successor would be.

While many family business leaders remain at the helm of the business into old age, Oughtred retired in his 50s, paving the way for succession within the same generation, rather than to the sixth generation, which was still relatively young at the time.

During the succession process, Oughtred explained in the interview, candidates from the fifth generation met with a human resources consultant who examined what was best for the business, and also developed career plans catered to each candidate. “There were no losers in this process,” Oughtred explained.

His brother Nicholas, 10 years his junior, ultimately succeeded him in the role and remains at the helm today. Norman Soutar, a nominee in this year's CampdenFB European Families in Business Awards, is the non-family chief executive.

“I don't think I'd have wanted to have done it in any other way than we did,” Christopher Oughtred says in the article, which is a transcript of a panel discussion with family business consultants Barbara Murray and Ken McCracken.

While William Jackson Food's leadership transition was a success, only 3% of family businesses make it to the fourth generation or beyond.

Speaking on his retirement, Oughtred said he felt it was important to leave the business behind, and it has been a pleasure to see his brother take on the responsibility of chairman.