Family business report: The real towing business

Highway Thru Hell family members are hands-on
Quiring Towing heavy recovery operator Al Quiring: growing the business for the next generation

Quiring Towing has been on the road for over 50 years, and heavy recovery operator Al Quiring is one the company's most recognizable faces. He's so familiar that drivers are pulling over their cars to yell out the window, "Are you that towing guy?"

The tow truck might be the giveaway, but Quiring has gained recent notoriety through his recurring appearances on the Discovery Channel's Highway Thru Hell reality television series. Quiring plays Hatfield to towing competitor Jamie Davis' McCoy as they square off on the icy roads of the Coquihalla Highway.

"We'll have to wait and see what comes out of my mouth this season," said Quiring, who recently shot some footage for the show's second season. The show bills Quiring as a "lone wolf, tough-as-nails wrecker."

Quiring's daily reality is living the role of third-generation family business owner. His grandparents, Elmer and Ann Quiring, bought the towing company in 1962, and in 1975 sold the business to their four sons. It eventually fell to sole ownership by son Robert Quiring and his wife, Pamela.

Quiring's parents are still active in the business, with Robert spending time in the yard and Pamela working part time in the office.

His sister, Tami Quiring, manages regulations and the business side of the company. Al Quiring is confident that his sons, Cary and Lucas, will eventually join him in the business.

"Cary is already driving part-time, and Lucas just got his 'N.' Both boys are taking entry-level mechanics at school," said Quiring. "I grew up in the business; it was always part of my life. My boys are the same."

Family business owners grappling with succession issues are familiar to David Bentall, founder of Next Step Advisors and adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business.

He recommends three tactics to improve (but not guarantee) chances of keeping the company in the family:

1. Hold regular family meetings for all family members, not just those in the business. Use the meetings to head-off issues before they become a problem.

2. Have a formalized strategic planning process with all the business' stakeholders. Provide opportunities for the next generation to bring its ideas forward and also learn about career opportunities that might open up down the road.

3. Recruit a board of directors from outside of the family. This will help ensure that ideas win rather than politics – advice Bentall shares from John Ward of Northwestern University.

Quiring Towing doesn't have these formal business practices in place, which leaves each family member firmly entrenched in his or her active role within the business. Robert and Pamela, now semi-retired, only started taking vacations three years ago.

"It's who you are, 24 hours a day. If there's a wreck, you have to go, that's life," said Tami Quiring, who grew up with a norm of missed birthday parties and half-eaten Christmas dinners.

"It's a stressful business, and it can be heartbreaking. Every fatal, every serious accident affects you."

Al Quiring spends a lot of time on the road and sees the uneven workflow as more of a curiosity in his day than a stressor. He is more focused on cargo and vehicles than business regulations and isn't regularly involved in day-to-day operations.

Bentall believes that not all family members need to manage the business, or even be involved in it, if it doesn't meet their needs.

As family businesses get further into the line of succession, there tends to be greater separation between management and ownership. What is necessary is that all the family members can enjoy a welcoming environment that accepts their level of involvement.

"I encourage families to think about possible roles for each member. They need to learn this vocabulary: managing owner, governing owner, passive owner and former owner," said Bentall.

"It's a common misunderstanding that business owners are also managers. In reality, all the family members do not necessarily need to know all the details of the business."

As for TV popularity, Quiring's having fun with his 15 minutes of fame, despite the hate mail from television viewers who don't distinguish reality programming from real life.

But it's all in the family for Quiring: "At the end of the day, there's no one I can trust like my sister."

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