Illustration: Mark Smith
Letting go may be the toughest challenge for any entrepreneur. Ken Sim and John DeHart did it in the prime of their careers. The founders of Vancouver-based Nurse Next Door, which provides home care to seniors, stepped down as co-CEOs, even as their company was on the cusp of rapid expansion into the United States. They learned to trust new CEO Cathy Thorpe, former director of Canadian operations for the Gap, as she took their franchise network in new and unexpected directions—and learned to keep their opinions to themselves.
Sim, DeHart and Thorpe discuss candidly how they navigated the swamp of succession.
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Ken Sim: There was never any consideration given to [selling out]. I’m the largest shareholder of the company. I want to be involved until I’m buried or cremated. First, this company has an incredible purpose of making lives better. So for me it’s not about the money; the money is a by-product. We’re taking care of people’s parents in their own homes. We’re letting people age in their own places with dignity. I get really stoked about that. Second, I’m not a flipper. I just think the company’s phenomenal, so why would I ever want to give it up?
John DeHart: My peer group is entrepreneurs. They all have the same issue. Somewhere inside they all want to do it: step back and let someone else run their companies. I’ve been asked so many times how we did it.
Ken Sim: We tried to do the co-CEO thing. The reality was we couldn’t make it work. If people didn’t like my answer, they went to John. If they didn’t like John’s answer, they came to me. John and I have two totally different styles of running the place. We both acknowledged that we were the biggest impediment to the company’s success—more than the competition, more than the economy. We had to make a change so one person was accountable. And so one of us had to step aside.
John DeHart: We knew we would eventually have to go with one CEO. It ended up being me [in 2012], but then that brought a new set of problems. I didn’t want to report to Ken. When we sit down for a board meeting, whose side wins? We both struggled with it. Eventually I realized it would be better if we, as owners, were on the same side of the table.
Ken Sim: I remember talking to Milt Wong [the late Vancouver financier and philanthropist] about five years earlier. He said, “You’re going to struggle emotionally, Ken. You’re going to lose your sense of identity. You don’t get your sense of identity from your title or your paycheque, but from how people interact with you. People are not going to be coming to you to solve problems.” I said, “Thanks, Milt. I’m ready for that one.” When I stepped back from the day-to-day operations, I went through probably six months of depression. Emotionally, it was just a train wreck. It was something I had to work through.
John DeHart: Early on, I thought that when we got to 100 locations, I would hand this off. I’ll want to launch the next brand. By 2013, we were nearing that 100-location threshold. But it becomes an execution piece. Verne Harnish, one of our mentors, said there’s a 50% failure rate for businesses going from the founder to an outside CEO. And I’m saying to myself, I don’t know if I can risk 50%.
Ken Sim: While Johnny did some amazing things, it became clear that we needed a different skill set to take the company to the next level.