Case spotlight: Heatherlea: Succession in a Modern Family Business

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This case was featured in the May 2024 issue of Connect.

Who – the protagonists

Kevin and Caryl Shaw, owners of Heatherlea.

What?

Located at the heart of the Cairngorms National Park in Scotland, Heatherlea had grown to be one of the UK’s leading wildlife-watching companies.

Heatherlea offered mainland Scottish holidays based at their own premises; Mountview Hotel, a 3-star country base hotel.

The company also offered other holidays in the rest of the UK, and overseas on all continents and oceans.

Stag in the Scottish Highlands

Why?

In 2019, Kevin began to think about his eventual withdrawal from the business, having founded the company in 1991.

Kevin and Caryl saw Heatherlea as ‘their baby’, and Kevin considered it an essential component of a successful exit that Heatherlea continued its path and that customers and employees were looked after.

After conversations with industry experts and consultants, along with a few sleepless nights, Kevin narrowed his options down to three - 1) family succession; 2) company sale; and 3) employee ownership.

When?

Heatherlea was originally located in a small guest house, but in 1998 Kevin and Caryl moved the company to the larger Mountview Hotel, which had twice as many available rooms, of which all were en suite. The premises also held a full hotel licence, vital to happy holidays.

Tours away from the hotel to the Scottish islands began in 2000, and the first overseas tours were held in 2003.

Staff numbers grew as well, with 26 employees working under Kevin and Caryl in 2019. Caryl’s daughter and two grandchildren worked for the company over the years but moved on to pursue careers in other sectors.

As of 2019/20, Heatherlea’s net revenue was around £2.3 million.

Where?

Mountview Hotel was based in the stunning surroundings of the Scottish Highlands in the north of the country.

Key quote

“Do I have a career here, or do I just work for you?”
A question from a Heatherlea guide, which prompted Kevin to find a serious plan for the security of the company and its employees.

What next?

Kevin and Caryl wanted to ensure the safe continuation of the company into the future, and nothing else.

But which of the three options would best achieve that?

AUTHOR PERSPECTIVE 

On the reasons for writing the case…

Kevin said: “My working history is quite unusual. At the age of 34, I decided to give up a career in general management (which I entered through roles in marketing) to start my own business. This idea was based on my hobby of birdwatching, not a common field for the foundation of a successful and enduring limited company.

“After 30 years leading Heatherlea, and as I progressed towards thoughts of how to exit the business, Bingbing suggested that this experience would be of interest to others. There are many aspects to the overall case opportunity, though the one of immediate interest was how succession might be best taken forward. There were no family members who might take over the company, so what to do?”

Bingbing explained: “Heatherlea presents a distinctive scenario in family business studies, both the family formation and the desire of the family to exit the business, are topics that are often overlooked in family business classes. Therefore, it's valuable both for students to understand the heterogeneity of families in reality as well as the dynamics in succession. It is worth noting that only about 30% of family businesses successfully transition to the second generation, highlighting the significance of teaching the students such cases.

“Additionally, while many businesses in similar situations might prefer to avoid attention, Kevin was transparent and cooperative. Recognising this, I invited Kevin to develop an insightful case study for students of family business.”

On the case writing highlights…

Kevin commented: “The biggest challenge was to extract myself from the management role and try to see things in a dispassionate and objective manner. Having 'lived the dream' in a very intense way with my wife Caryl and a team of dedicated employees/friends/fellow enthusiasts, what were the realistic options, and how might these be addressed? The key highlight was that progression towards employee-ownership was being lived alongside the case itself, and developing even beyond exit, as we explored my feelings into retirement.”

Bingbing added: “Crafting an intriguing case, which brings the students ‘out of the box’, poses the primary challenge.

“Given that the business was already undergoing the employee-ownership process and information was readily available online, it's crucial to enrich the options as they were to foster meaningful discussions in the class.

“As a first-time case writer, I discovered the immense value in seeking feedback from various sources, including the Writing Effective Cases workshop, The Case Centre editors, and my mentor Professor Charles M Carson, whom I consulted during and after the North American Case Research Association Annual Conference.

“Additionally, conducting trial runs in classroom settings proved invaluable in refining the case and enhancing its effectiveness for educational purposes.

“These steps have been instrumental in refining the case and ensuring its effectiveness in stimulating students’ learning.”

On teaching the case…

Kevin stated: “My experiences divide into two areas.

“Firstly, a narrative of ‘what we actually did’ as a living case in the classroom. This has been valuable to show students a practical entrepreneurial mindset in action, and to give them the opportunity to challenge and question my decisions.

“Secondly, as a means of arriving at their own entrepreneurial decision within the case, in other words ‘what should Kevin do?’ at various stages, including start-up and exit.

“This has been particularly rewarding for me, as I can visibly observe students growing into the body of the case; enjoyable and illuminating”

Bingbing continued: “The case is well-received, and has been successfully employed in both undergraduate and postgraduate classes.

“Initially, students may resort to Google to gather information about the case, and lean towards option three based on the business's current situation. However, their engagement spikes when encouraged to ‘step into Kevin's shoes’ and explain what they would do ‘if they were Kevin’.

“The role-play element (explained in detail in the teaching note), in particular, has yielded diverse and insightful results across various classes, proving to be a highlight of the teaching process and fostering enjoyable and enriching learning experiences for all involved.”

students in discussion

On how students react to the case…

Kevin said: “I have found their reaction remarkable. In some classes I attended the case workshop as an undefined 'observer', and watched the students develop their own thinking during the session. As they discussed my options, they became more involved, and at the great 'reveal', that the case subject was in the room, the session really took off as the students bombarded me with further questions.

“The obvious one was 'which route did you choose?', swiftly followed by 'what happened in the end?' This takes the role of 'Entrepreneur in Residence', which I have held at Lancaster University Management School for some years, into new territory. Instead of merely recounting business experience, I'm directly involved in the teaching process. It’s a privilege and a pleasure.”

Bingbing continued: “The students' diverse perspectives have led to unique outcomes in each class, enriching the learning experience. Each class ends with heated discussions. They particularly appreciate the role-play element, which allows them to apply their academic knowledge in real world scenarios and hone their negotiating skills. This element also transformed from a traditional single-answer class to an open-ended situation, which has captivated their interest and prompted active engagement. The students’ active engagements indicate an enjoyable and dynamic learning experience.”

On case writing tips…

Kevin explained: “Make each option enticing and entirely plausible. There is no right answer, all routes should be credible and viable, it is the original thinking which should make the case valuable to the student. Be sure to transmit your own passion for the business, the students will feel completely engaged, and consider the options as though they were directly involved, as they share your dilemma and look for a resolution.”

Bingbing commented: “While I still am at the beginning of writing cases, I find the most important tip for writing a good case is to have the students in mind. Through my experience, three things stand out:

  • First and foremost, a fun class is a good class: how do you engage with the students? If the case is not interesting to you, it might not be for the students.
  • Moreover, case need to be relevant and provide ample real information. It is the real-world scenarios that attracts the students.
  • Last but not least, compliment a good case with excellent an teaching note that underpins the combination of theoretical knowledge as well as practical activities, including multimedia, gamification, and (potentially) guest speakers.”

Final word…

Kevin added: “This process has given me a unique opportunity to evaluate my own business history and decision making in a way I didn't previously think possible. Living in the moment, one is perhaps not always aware of the strategic process taking place. By working with a professional academic of no mean ability, I began to see that there was a clear route through the chaos of existential influences and critical choices which I made. As a newcomer to writing cases, this was a revelation. Fortunately, I seem to have made sensible decisions most of the time. I hope to continue with more case studies.”

Bingbing concluded: “While the process may be daunting at times, the joy and fulfilment derived from crafting and teaching your own cases make it a journey worthwhile. I wholeheartedly encourage everyone to continue exploring this enriching path in higher education, especially for business schools.”

THE CASE 

The case

Who – the protagonists

Kevin and Caryl Shaw, owners of Heatherlea.

What?

Located at the heart of the Cairngorms National Park in Scotland, Heatherlea had grown to be one of the UK’s leading wildlife-watching companies.

Heatherlea offered mainland Scottish holidays based at their own premises; Mountview Hotel, a 3-star country base hotel.

The company also offered other holidays in the rest of the UK, and overseas on all continents and oceans.

Stag in the Scottish Highlands

Why?

In 2019, Kevin began to think about his eventual withdrawal from the business, having founded the company in 1991.

Kevin and Caryl saw Heatherlea as ‘their baby’, and Kevin considered it an essential component of a successful exit that Heatherlea continued its path and that customers and employees were looked after.

After conversations with industry experts and consultants, along with a few sleepless nights, Kevin narrowed his options down to three - 1) family succession; 2) company sale; and 3) employee ownership.

When?

Heatherlea was originally located in a small guest house, but in 1998 Kevin and Caryl moved the company to the larger Mountview Hotel, which had twice as many available rooms, of which all were en suite. The premises also held a full hotel licence, vital to happy holidays.

Tours away from the hotel to the Scottish islands began in 2000, and the first overseas tours were held in 2003.

Staff numbers grew as well, with 26 employees working under Kevin and Caryl in 2019. Caryl’s daughter and two grandchildren worked for the company over the years but moved on to pursue careers in other sectors.

As of 2019/20, Heatherlea’s net revenue was around £2.3 million.

Where?

Mountview Hotel was based in the stunning surroundings of the Scottish Highlands in the north of the country.

Key quote

“Do I have a career here, or do I just work for you?”
A question from a Heatherlea guide, which prompted Kevin to find a serious plan for the security of the company and its employees.

What next?

Kevin and Caryl wanted to ensure the safe continuation of the company into the future, and nothing else.

But which of the three options would best achieve that?

AUTHOR PERSPECTIVE 

Author perspective

On the reasons for writing the case…

Kevin said: “My working history is quite unusual. At the age of 34, I decided to give up a career in general management (which I entered through roles in marketing) to start my own business. This idea was based on my hobby of birdwatching, not a common field for the foundation of a successful and enduring limited company.

“After 30 years leading Heatherlea, and as I progressed towards thoughts of how to exit the business, Bingbing suggested that this experience would be of interest to others. There are many aspects to the overall case opportunity, though the one of immediate interest was how succession might be best taken forward. There were no family members who might take over the company, so what to do?”

Bingbing explained: “Heatherlea presents a distinctive scenario in family business studies, both the family formation and the desire of the family to exit the business, are topics that are often overlooked in family business classes. Therefore, it's valuable both for students to understand the heterogeneity of families in reality as well as the dynamics in succession. It is worth noting that only about 30% of family businesses successfully transition to the second generation, highlighting the significance of teaching the students such cases.

“Additionally, while many businesses in similar situations might prefer to avoid attention, Kevin was transparent and cooperative. Recognising this, I invited Kevin to develop an insightful case study for students of family business.”

On the case writing highlights…

Kevin commented: “The biggest challenge was to extract myself from the management role and try to see things in a dispassionate and objective manner. Having 'lived the dream' in a very intense way with my wife Caryl and a team of dedicated employees/friends/fellow enthusiasts, what were the realistic options, and how might these be addressed? The key highlight was that progression towards employee-ownership was being lived alongside the case itself, and developing even beyond exit, as we explored my feelings into retirement.”

Bingbing added: “Crafting an intriguing case, which brings the students ‘out of the box’, poses the primary challenge.

“Given that the business was already undergoing the employee-ownership process and information was readily available online, it's crucial to enrich the options as they were to foster meaningful discussions in the class.

“As a first-time case writer, I discovered the immense value in seeking feedback from various sources, including the Writing Effective Cases workshop, The Case Centre editors, and my mentor Professor Charles M Carson, whom I consulted during and after the North American Case Research Association Annual Conference.

“Additionally, conducting trial runs in classroom settings proved invaluable in refining the case and enhancing its effectiveness for educational purposes.

“These steps have been instrumental in refining the case and ensuring its effectiveness in stimulating students’ learning.”

On teaching the case…

Kevin stated: “My experiences divide into two areas.

“Firstly, a narrative of ‘what we actually did’ as a living case in the classroom. This has been valuable to show students a practical entrepreneurial mindset in action, and to give them the opportunity to challenge and question my decisions.

“Secondly, as a means of arriving at their own entrepreneurial decision within the case, in other words ‘what should Kevin do?’ at various stages, including start-up and exit.

“This has been particularly rewarding for me, as I can visibly observe students growing into the body of the case; enjoyable and illuminating”

Bingbing continued: “The case is well-received, and has been successfully employed in both undergraduate and postgraduate classes.

“Initially, students may resort to Google to gather information about the case, and lean towards option three based on the business's current situation. However, their engagement spikes when encouraged to ‘step into Kevin's shoes’ and explain what they would do ‘if they were Kevin’.

“The role-play element (explained in detail in the teaching note), in particular, has yielded diverse and insightful results across various classes, proving to be a highlight of the teaching process and fostering enjoyable and enriching learning experiences for all involved.”

students in discussion

On how students react to the case…

Kevin said: “I have found their reaction remarkable. In some classes I attended the case workshop as an undefined 'observer', and watched the students develop their own thinking during the session. As they discussed my options, they became more involved, and at the great 'reveal', that the case subject was in the room, the session really took off as the students bombarded me with further questions.

“The obvious one was 'which route did you choose?', swiftly followed by 'what happened in the end?' This takes the role of 'Entrepreneur in Residence', which I have held at Lancaster University Management School for some years, into new territory. Instead of merely recounting business experience, I'm directly involved in the teaching process. It’s a privilege and a pleasure.”

Bingbing continued: “The students' diverse perspectives have led to unique outcomes in each class, enriching the learning experience. Each class ends with heated discussions. They particularly appreciate the role-play element, which allows them to apply their academic knowledge in real world scenarios and hone their negotiating skills. This element also transformed from a traditional single-answer class to an open-ended situation, which has captivated their interest and prompted active engagement. The students’ active engagements indicate an enjoyable and dynamic learning experience.”

On case writing tips…

Kevin explained: “Make each option enticing and entirely plausible. There is no right answer, all routes should be credible and viable, it is the original thinking which should make the case valuable to the student. Be sure to transmit your own passion for the business, the students will feel completely engaged, and consider the options as though they were directly involved, as they share your dilemma and look for a resolution.”

Bingbing commented: “While I still am at the beginning of writing cases, I find the most important tip for writing a good case is to have the students in mind. Through my experience, three things stand out:

  • First and foremost, a fun class is a good class: how do you engage with the students? If the case is not interesting to you, it might not be for the students.
  • Moreover, case need to be relevant and provide ample real information. It is the real-world scenarios that attracts the students.
  • Last but not least, compliment a good case with excellent an teaching note that underpins the combination of theoretical knowledge as well as practical activities, including multimedia, gamification, and (potentially) guest speakers.”

Final word…

Kevin added: “This process has given me a unique opportunity to evaluate my own business history and decision making in a way I didn't previously think possible. Living in the moment, one is perhaps not always aware of the strategic process taking place. By working with a professional academic of no mean ability, I began to see that there was a clear route through the chaos of existential influences and critical choices which I made. As a newcomer to writing cases, this was a revelation. Fortunately, I seem to have made sensible decisions most of the time. I hope to continue with more case studies.”

Bingbing concluded: “While the process may be daunting at times, the joy and fulfilment derived from crafting and teaching your own cases make it a journey worthwhile. I wholeheartedly encourage everyone to continue exploring this enriching path in higher education, especially for business schools.”

THE CASE 

Read the case

Educators can login to view a free educator preview copy of this case and its accompanying teaching materials.

ROLE-PLAY - Reference no. 823-0063-1
TEACHING NOTE - Reference no. 823-0063-8
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