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Reaching Beyond the Family Sometimes a Wise Move

September 16, 2008
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Related Topics: Career Development, Employee Career Development, Strategic Planning, Workforce Planning, Featured Article
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For Joanne and Scott Ulnick, the wife-and-husband team at the top of Troy, Michigan-based Ducker Worldwide, growing the business doesn't mean staffing the shop with family members.

CEO Joanne Ulnick joined the market research firm founded by her father as an entry-level research analyst. Father William Ducker, she says, wouldn't have had it any other way. Expecting a slow but steady progression through the company ranks, Ulnick was promoted to project manager. Then, more than a decade ago, Ducker began preparing to retire.

"He wanted to start transitioning the business to key employees, but that was a little bit difficult because not all the key employees turned out to be the leaders we had hoped for," she says. "We joke about that because I was quickly promoted then."

Around that time, husband Scott Ulnick, whose expertise was in computing, joined the firm.

"I was now in a leadership role, and we were starting a family at the same time," she says. "I said, ‘It would really be helpful if you would consider helping us out in the family business’ "; Scott Ulnick's experience at such companies as Unisys and Lexis-Nexis didn't hurt.

Ducker passed away in 1996, and the Ulnicks were thrust into the company's top roles. Ducker Worldwide has grown, with offices in Paris, Shanghai, Berlin and Bangalore.

But that experience of Ducker's well-laid succession plans falling apart stayed with the Ulnicks.

"We started to hire more people, and our team grew," Joanne Ulnick says. "We built a young team of professional project managers, and started to bring on additional shareholders, or partners, which enabled our growth."

Today she is CEO and Scott Ulnick is chairman of the board, and both are managing partners. The company reports revenue of about $17 million a year. They have three teenagers; all have worked in entry-level jobs at Ducker, though Joanne Ulnick says it's too early to know if any will enter the business.

But, Ulnick says with pride, Ducker is capable of running sans a family connection.

"We built a team of trusted leaders in our executive leadership team," she says. "On a global basis, we think the same but we challenge each other to grow and continue to grow the business. Without the team we have in place, we couldn't have gotten as far as we have, and it will live beyond our years."

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