Steve and Rachel Epley were featured in the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s "My Job" series. Below is Steve's interview with Laura French of the Star Tribune.
Stephen Epley’s academic background is “psychology — cognitive and social psych. How people think, how people form their impressions.”
He taught for five years at Wartburg College, then briefly at the University of Iowa before going to the research firm Frank N. Magid Associates. “We were helping local TV stations understand the audience perceptions of their newscasts and news capabilities,” he said. He started his own company in 1987. “I had no intrinsic interest in broadcasting. When I started my own company, I was interested in helping companies understand their customers.”
He developed an approach that his customers refer to as an “Epley Study.” “We don’t do focus groups. We engage in intensive dialogues. We know half of the people bought the product and half didn’t. We want to understand the whole decision process from beginning to end,” he said.
The company was hit hard by the 2008 recession, just as Epley was beginning to think about retirement. He tried to scale back, but, he said, “When you’re in business for yourself, it’s hard to get out. I really do like this work — I more than like it. When you start walking away, you’re not doing work you love, you’re not meeting with clients. You miss that, and you discover that you’re not really ready to do that. You just hang on.”
The decision to hang on, he said, “created an opportunity for my daughter Rachel” (profiled in last week’s My Job). After following her own path for a decade or so out of college, Rachel Epley agreed to help out with a big project. “As we continued working together, I was really struck with how much she seemed to be liking this. I was amazed with her affinity — how easy it seemed for her, what a creative flair she brought to it,” he said. “I asked her if she wanted to join the company. She said she did.”
Initially, Epley said, the idea was to spend several months exploring the market to determine whether the father-daughter succession plan was viable. “I didn’t want Rachel entering into a life that wouldn’t be a good life for her,” he said.
Within months, the perspective had shifted, Epley said. “We have decided we will make this work. The goal is not try and see; the goal is to move forward. That changes everything.”
What was your approach to succession planning before Rachel joined the company?
You may think you thought about it, but really you were clueless. You’re always looking forward, working at how to be a good boss, make a profit. You’re always on the hunt. It’s not in your nature to back off or withdraw.
What’s the best thing about having your daughter succeed you?
I’ve had the experience that not one in a thousand people have — of seeing the daughter that I know so well in a completely different environment, with gifts I had never seen because I had never been there. There is a measure of satisfaction in that.
What’s the biggest challenge?
I don’t want for my daughter what I had — the business volatility. I don’t want her to have a life on the road. We need to look for work and the type of company where she can be challenged, happy, be an improved version of her dad and have a good company that’s respected by clients — maybe not a thousand clients, but satisfied.