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A real-life lesson in business succession

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Dan Laird, standing, is president and owner of Commonwealth Fire Protection Co. He recently named an executive team to help lead the company after his business partner's death. They are, sitting from left: Jeffrey Fromm, director of design build and construction; Charmaine Zercher, controller and corporate treasurer; and Michael Borkowski, director of sales and estimating.
Dan Laird, standing, is president and owner of Commonwealth Fire Protection Co. He recently named an executive team to help lead the company after his business partner's death. They are, sitting from left: Jeffrey Fromm, director of design build and construction; Charmaine Zercher, controller and corporate treasurer; and Michael Borkowski, director of sales and estimating. - (Photo / )

Dan Laird doesn't need a sales pitch on business succession planning. He has lived through it. Twice.

Paul Hoffnagle, co-owner and CEO of Commonwealth Fire Protection, died in August.
Paul Hoffnagle, co-owner and CEO of Commonwealth Fire Protection, died in August. - ()

He lost his longtime friend and business partner in August, a little more than three years after the death of another partner in the same business, Commonwealth Fire Protection Co., a fire sprinkler system contractor in Upper Leacock Township, Lancaster County.

"We’ve been through a heck of a lot," said Laird, who is the company’s president and owner.

The company’s former majority owner, Stephen Scott, died of a suspected heart attack in 2014 just short of his 56th birthday. Scott's father, John W. Scott, founded the company with two partners in 1977.

Paul Hoffnagle, who joined Laird in taking over the business, died in August in a chain-saw accident. He was 52.

"We were very close with Steve on a personal level and obviously Paul and I were very close. We were best of friends," Laird said.

In fact, Laird and Hoffnagle graduated together from Central York High School, became design draftsmen and went to work initially for the same York County firm. They landed at Commonwealth Fire in the 1990s. Laird joined in 1991 and hired Hoffnagle seven years later.

Around 2000 they both approached Scott separately about becoming partners in the business, Laird said. Scott encouraged them to talk to each other and, most importantly, was not averse to planning for succession, even though many business owners avoid the subject.

"He was the smartest businessman I ever met," Laird said of Scott. "He knew he needed to do that."

Around 2004 they formed a leadership team. In 2012 Laird and Hoffnagle bought out a minority owner, Greg Foster, who continues to work for the company as a part-time estimator.

After Scott died, the two friends were able to buy the company from Scott’s estate. And they started planning on their own.

Now, following up on those plans, Laird has named both an executive team and a management team for Commonwealth Fire Protection, made up primarily of longtime employees.

The executive team includes:

  • Jeffrey Fromm, director of design build and construction, who has been with the company for 25 years
  • Charmaine Zercher, controller and corporate treasurer, a 32-year veteran of the company
  • Michael Borkowski, director of sales and estimating, a 21-year veteran
The newly named management team at Commonwealth Fire includes, sitting from left: Kate Friedenfeld, office manager; Mark Heath, service-inspection department manager; and Chad Kreider, design manager. Standing from left are Andrew Dykie, safety coordinator-technical and quality assurance director, and Ronald Green Jr., facility and fleet manager.
The newly named management team at Commonwealth Fire includes, sitting from left: Kate Friedenfeld, office manager; Mark Heath, service-inspection department manager; and Chad Kreider, design manager. Standing from left are Andrew Dykie, safety coordinator-technical and quality assurance director, and Ronald Green Jr., facility and fleet manager. - ()

The management team includes:

  • Katie Friedenfeld, office manager
  • Mark Heath, service-inspection department manager (and the only new hire in the group)
  • Chad Kreider, design manager
  • Andrew Dykie, safety coordinator-technical and quality assurance director
  • Ronald Green Jr., facility and fleet manager

Laird sees the appointments as a confidence booster not just for the leaders on the two teams but for the company’s workforce as a whole following the shock of Hoffnagle’s death and the questions it prompted about the company's future.

"They’re sitting around, 'What is Dan going to do now? Dan’s all by himself. He doesn’t have his business partner. Is Dan going to sell?’" Laird said. "So it really did expedite that announcement to say, ‘No, guys. We’re here. We aren’t going anywhere. And Dan has a team that’s going to carry us into the future.’"

He credits good planning with allowing the business to continue to prosper despite the tragedies. It has annual revenue between $14 million and $15 million, up from around $8 million to $9 million in 2014.

"You have to have a plan because, my God, not only do we have 90 employees, we’re impacting 300 to 400 lives," said Laird. "It’s their families, their spouses, their kids. It’s a pretty overwhelming thing when you think about it."

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Joel Berg

Joel Berg

Joel Berg is editor of the Central Penn Business Journal. Born in Philadelphia, raised in Northern Virginia and now living in York, he's a graduate of Franklin & Marshall College and the University of Maryland. Have a question or story idea? Email him at jberg@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @JoelBYorkPa.

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