By Jessica Lovell
When Frank Hasenfratz started his company more than 45 years ago, it was a one-man operation. Now it employs more than 15,000 people in eight countries, but Linamar is still a family business.
The successful passing of the reins from father to daughter was one of the most interesting aspects of the Linamar story, said Rod McQueen, co-author of a newly released book on Hasenfratz and Linamar.
“It is a family business,” says McQueen, noting “Frank is the first to say, yes, this is nepotism.” But he notes also: “I can’t think of another company where the transition was as smooth.” Author McQueen, a Guelph native who now lives in Toronto, penned the latter half of Driven to Succeed, subtitled “How Frank Hasenfratz Grew Linamar from Guelph to Global.” The early years of the Hungarian immigrant’s story were written by TV producer Susan Papp.
“She wrote the first six chapters. I wrote the rest,” says McQueen.
The idea for the book came from Hasenfratz himself, he says.
“Frank decided that maybe Linamar was worth a book,” says McQueen.
Papp, who had worked before with Hasenfratz on a documentary about people who fled Hungary to come to Canada, was confident in writing the early part of his story, when he came to Guelph following the 1956 revolution in Hungary. But she wanted a business writer to handle the business story.
McQueen almost didn’t take the job, being wary of collaborative projects and the inevitable headaches that accompany them, but in the end the story won out.
“It’s a great story,” says McQueen.
It’s the story of a man who began an auto parts company with a single contract, making oil pumps in his basement shop, but managed to turn it into a global operation.
The book is based on about 20 hours of interviews with Frank Hasenfratz, as well as about 30 or 40 interviews with his friends and members of the Linamar executive, including his daughter Linda Hasenfratz.
The elder Hasenfratz turned the company over to his daughter in the 1990s in a transition that was remarkably successful, says McQueen.
“It’s very difficult for founders to turn over power and responsibility on their baby,” he says, noting that “often the second generation comes along and has no idea what they’re doing and they run it into the ground.”
But Linamar has actually tripled in size since the younger Hasenfratz took over, he says.
This success is at least partly due to the way in which the father prepared the daughter to succeed him.
“He said, ‘There’s only one job where you start at the top, and that’s digging a hole’,” says McQueen, explaining that Linda Hasenfratz began her Linamar career in workboots on the shop floor, learning all aspects of the business first-hand.
She was clear that she didn’t want to take over the reins if it was going to be in name only, says McQueen. When Linda was ready, Frank made her chief executive officer, and he stepped back and let her run the place, he says.
“It’s why the company has done so well under her leadership,” McQueen says.
Frank doesn’t always agree with Linda. For example, he was against setting up shop in China – but “she’s the boss,” says McQueen.
Linda may be the boss, but Frank Hasenfratz still keeps a hand in the business, particularly when it comes to cost savings, going into his plants each year looking for cost savings, says McQueen.
“Everybody knows he’s a real penny pincher,” he says, relaying a story from the book in which workers glued some pennies to the floor and watched as Hasenfratz struggled to pick them up.
“He laughed along with everybody else,” McQueen says.
But there’s more to the business than being cost-conscious.
To keep up with the demands of the business, Linamar has had to set up shop in places like China and Mexico, even though it doesn’t always feel like the best way to make a profit, says McQueen.
“The plants in Mexico are not as productive as the plants in Guelph, but they have to be in Mexico,” he says. “They’re not there because it’s cheap; they’re there because their clients want them there.”
Because auto makers have plants in Mexico, they therefore want their auto parts suppliers close by, explains McQueen.
While the company continues to expand locally, another interesting aspect of the story is the shortage of skilled labour, McQueen says.
“There was a period when that kind of job was viewed as a good job,” says McQueen, but attracting people to the skilled trades has become increasingly difficult, he says.
The Hasenfratz story might remind people what kind of success is possible from that kind of start.
“I think he wanted to let people know what he had achieved,” says McQueen of Hasenfratz’s reasons for wanting to share his story.
McQueen expects it is a story that will appeal to many, including those who enjoy business books, family stories and immigrant stories.
“There’s a wide audience for business books in general in this country,” says McQueen. “There’s a particular audience who wants to read about people who dream big and fulfill their dreams.”