G&G, Costeaux share differences in their experiences

NORTH BAY – In the same class at Cardinal Newman, raised in Sonoma County, Teejay Lowe and Will Seppi have both taken the reins of their family businesses, G&G Market and Costeaux Bakery, respectively. While the mechanics of the transfers may have some similarities, the two stories of the families' succession planning show two very different experiences.

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G&G supermarket was founded in 1963 when Gee Kai Gong and Robert Gong formed a partnership. With the help of their spouses Fong and Carrie Gong and Gee Kai Gong's children Betty, Dick, Lee, Don, and Dorothy, the foundation was set for the future of G&G Supermarket.

“My father and grandfather on my mother’s side started the store, and when my uncles returned from the navy and national guard, they became partners,” said Mr. Lowe, now the chief executive officer and a managing partner and director.

He said back at that time, if you wanted to be part of the company you could be.

“They all had equal shares at that point, and as a first-generation business, that is not too big of an issue,” he said. “As it grows you start experiencing the growing pains and you have in-laws and cousins, some are not sharing the moral fabric. You have to start making decisions.”

The original owners started that succession plan about 15 years ago, he said.

“The conversation started with a blend of what is business and what are the core principles of family life," said Mr. Lowe.

“The thing about our business is that we all have our job and title, but you go where the needs are,” he said. “We pick up what needs to be picked up when it needs to be picked up.”

With the succession plan, he said there were two separate issues, the management and the ownership. He said they decided the management would not always be internally in the family.

“We just formalized what we have always been doing and developed clear outcomes and a clear vision for the future of the business. And we have real transparency because without transparency there is anxiety of what happens next.”

The owners/shareholders are Robert Gong, Betty Gong, Dick Gong, Lee Gong and Don Gong. The managing partners/board of directors are Betty Gong, Dick Gong, Lee Gong, Don Gong and Mr. Lowe, and the executive officers are Mr. Lowe, Carol Drake and Betty Gong.

They have worked with financial planners, business consultants, accountants and attorneys to put together a plan that works for the family.

“We set up on a quarterly basis a family meeting composed of the cousins, kids and spouses that are not working in the business, and we share what is going on in our lives. We try to keep the business out of it.”

The succession plan itself is a constantly changing thing. He said they try to keep it somewhat fluid because a rigid plan that can’t be improved makes no sense.

“I say to people, my son is my version of management succession planning.  I hope if he wants to he has the talent,” he said.

The plan is always on the table, and what the family ultimately wants is a sustainable and successful business where everyone in the family is given the opportunity to work within the company, should they want to.

Costeaux Bakery has a very different setup.

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Karl and Nancy Seppi have run the bakery for 30 years and are passing the torch to their son, Will Seppi.

“The plan has taken a lot longer than we had envisioned,” he said.

It has been roughly six years since they began the plan, and Will is now in the top position. Unlike his contemporary at G&G Market, Mr. Seppi is the one person in charge, and his siblings are not involved at all.

Karl and Nancy wanted to turn the business over to their children at some point, and he was the only one who wanted to step in.

He said some of the difficulty with their situation lies with one generation coming in and wanting to change the landscape.

“Things like ingredients and what the consumer wants come up, and there are ideas here and there, and issues arise. You are going through the first change, and mom and dad have spent 30 years of their lives, blood, sweat and tears making this business, and here I am changing things. It has to be tough in their shoes,” he said.

Mr. Seppi said it takes a lot longer than you think if you want to work it out well.

“You have to work though everyone’s agenda and the connections and emotions.”

While Will is taking over in terms of running the business, Karl and Nancy are still involved.

“He depends a lot on them,” said Abby Whitenack, the bakery’s manager for marketing and communications.

They have built connections throughout the industry, she said, and people know and like them.

“And Karl can fix anything,” said Nancy.