Growing Up Charleston

Independence Day came early this past year at Charleston’s Rigging in South Carolina – at least that was the joke circulating around family get-togethers in the Sawin family last summer.  July 1st, 2011, marked the date that new owners and siblings Jessica Sage and Skip Sawin took ownership of Charleston’s Rigging and Carolina’s Rigging from parents Rick and Valerie Sawin after 23 years in business.  Jessica and Skip grew up in and around the business, actively engaged at various times and undoubtedly involved by necessity at other times as all family businesses operate.  Most recently, Jessica has served as Chief Financial Officer (CFO) and Skip as Chief Operating Officer (COO) and both will continue to serve those roles in addition to their new ownership status as well.  But how this came to be was never expected, and Skip recalls that, “nothing was ever planned for the ‘family business.’”  Their attention to detail throughout the process, professionalism and vision set the stage to ensure that the transition not only seemed natural but, most importantly, maintained the meanings of both the words ‘family’ and ‘business’ in each of their own respective ways.

Rick and Valerie Sawin had worked tirelessly to build the company to its current heights since it started; and it was clear that the same efforts that had propelled that success would be expected from future owners as well.  Nothing would be given or handed down, and everything would be earned.  Both Skip and Jessica had a similar approach – eyeing the business opportunities present in combination with their shared skill sets despite the family connections.  “It’s not who we are that brought us here, it’s the business that brought us here” Skip further explains.  Rick had seen other transitions between families that hadn’t gone as planned, and everyone wanted to ensure that the process would not interfere with the day-to-day operations of the business.  “We all agreed in the beginning we were going to do this the right way.  After all, you don’t want to lose your mom and dad in the process of taking over a family business” recalls Jessica.  In fact, certain rules were set, one being that “we were going to try not to talk business after five o’clock… because if you get us going we won’t stop.”

This now generational business grew from scratch.  In 1988, ‘economics’ was the basic drive for Rick and Valerie Sawin to start Charleston’s Rigging.  Rick had started at Seaport Marine in Chesapeake, VA, before he headed to J. Henry Holland to work outside sales.  He learned he had a passion for sales and moved to Newell-Davis where he was promoted to general manager.  It was at this point that Rick reached the ceiling for growth in his position.  He wanted more opportunity and saw the next step to start his own business.

Starting the business was a gamble.  As Skip recalled of his parents, “they put everything into the business.  Rick and Valerie worked 100-hour weeks.  They were ‘going for broke.’”  When they moved to Charleston to start the business, they had a rental house that fell through.  The whole family (Rick, Valerie, Skip, then age 13, and Jessica, then age 10) had to actually live in the shop for three months.  Skip remembers the experience as ‘awesome’ while Jessica recalls quite a different perspective of the experience, noting simply that it was ‘horrible!’

Today, Charleston’s Rigging and Carolina’s Rigging employs nearly 50 people.  The company, which also has offices in Columbia, SC and Augusta, GA, offers a range of services. With annual sales of more than $10 million, the company is a supplier for maritime and commercial construction, maritime shipping, stevedores, port-related activity, and both light and heavy industry primarily throughout the Carolinas and Georgia.  Charleston’s Rigging and Carolina’s Rigging also supplies local steel mills, power generating stations and manufacturers. Additionally, the firm specializes in stock and custom fabrication of material-handling slings and devices for overhead lifting and has a field service division that provides repair, inspection and installation of overhead material handling products.

Transition from one Generation to the Next

When asked about the transition plan, everyone admitted that nobody had one.  Rick and Valerie had a plan to get to a certain point, but visions of legacies and transitions just weren’t in the mix when things were getting started, and idle time to consider it was a luxury that few have when running a business.  It turns out that the visionaries to take the next steps were busy with other jobs initially.  Skip ran a millwork and cabinet company while Jessica worked as a biotech researcher.  When Jessica came onboard first, she was at a point in her career where certain goals had been met and growth was needed.  One conversation with Valerie led to others, and soon enough, she joined the company in her current capacity as CFO.  Jessica recalls those first days on the job, noting, “there was no grooming for positions, and the best experience was being able to grow up in the business.”  She also remembers, “when I was old enough to count, I did my first inventory.”

Similarly, Skip was looking to expand and grow, and his company was at its height.  What began as a conversation with family over Thanksgiving dinner led to the epiphany that “if there is ever any chance that we are going to do something together, this was it.”  Consequently, just twelve months, Skip joined in charge of operations.  At this time, both Rick and Valerie were President and Vice president.

When the ownership transition plan began to hatch, there were many concerns and questions.  Initially, both Jessica and Skip talked with other employees about the transition, as well as their long-standing customers, many who had known both since they were kids.  What resulted was a clearly communicated plan that helped instill confidence both inside the company and out.  Perhaps it was natural for these conversations to happen first.  Because as Skip notes, “without our employees, our people, we’re just a big old warehouse with a bunch of stuff.”

Growing for the Future

While Charleston’s Rigging has met with great success to date, both Skip and Jessica realize not only the present challenges, but the opportunities awaiting them as well.  They note their company’s ability to be flexible to volatile changes in the market, able to accommodate customer’s needs where other companies simply cannot.  They also realize that times are tough, and focusing on the basics is essential.  Skip offers the example that “even when costs of materials goes up, it places an additional burden on the customer and you have to work twice as hard just to maintain the same level of service.”  But Jessica and Skip also see some great opportunities on the near horizon.  With an established footprint in the Carolinas and Georgia, the company is primed to strategically expand sales coverage throughout the Southeast U.S. and grow additional physical locations as well.   They are also proud to note another recent accomplishment, citing no layoffs over the past few years despite the trying times.

 A New Legacy Built on the Past

Looking back now, the Sawin Family can probably connect the dots and understand that the generational transition was merely a matter of timing.  While Rick and Valerie may have provided the spark that initially grew the business, both Jessica and Skip seem to have the same passion to continue to fan the flame.  A family business is just that – a business that is experienced by every member of the family, for good or bad.  Skip recollects on growing up in and around the business.  “When we were growing up, as kids would go out to dinner with customers, and sometimes there was separation [from the family business] and sometimes there wasn’t.  The business is what brought us here [to South Carolina] and was and continues to be a big part of Mom and Dad’s life.”

Skip continues, “I understand my father now.  I understand the sacrifices you have to make for this business to make sure everything goes right.”  Skip should know, he also has two boys, ages 10 and 5, who he hopes have the same opportunities to pursue their own goals that he has had.  Likewise, Jessica is continuing the legacy started by her parents with a similar appreciation and respect. From working in other fields, “I learned how special this company is and how specialized this business is – ever try to explain a wire rope shop to someone?” she laughs.  “It is a family business and employees are part of this family,” she concluded.

Just as Charleston’s Rigging started with humble beginnings when Rick and Valerie Sawin founded it nearly a quarter century ago, the new era of ownership by Jessica Sage and Skip Sawin also shares a similar path.  With no illusions of entitlement, once Jessica and Skip were involved, they had to show the capacity to run the business.  Additionally, both want to not only forge their new legacy moving forward, but respect the one already started.  As Skip puts it, “we have big shoes to fill.”

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