In family businesses, legacy isn’t built overnight. It’s scaffolded through generations of stewards who uphold and transcend the values of their families and businesses. Architects of Legacy is a series profiling West Michigan family business leaders brought to you in partnership between Family Business Alliance and Memory Lane Jane.
What was your first job?
In 1972, my dad bought the business. The previous owners had a big safe—larger than my whole desk—partially stuffed with various coins and bills. My first unpaid job, at the age of twelve, was to count and roll all of that cash with my sister. She ended up finding a 1908 VDB penny, which I was so jealous of.
How did you become involved in your family’s business?
I earned my bachelor’s and master’s in Social Work from Alma College and Michigan State University. I started with internships until I landed my first official (paid) job as a counselor and psychology professor at an area college. At first, my dad was mad I chose a social service position over his business, but he soon realized the unique people skills I’d honed. Eventually, he told me, “People skills will carry you anywhere. Now’s your chance to come into the family business.” I listened.
At the time, I was one of two women in a company of a dozen or so men. I took a pay cut to work for my dad because I couldn’t make more than what the other woman in the office was making. I was responsible for spearheading the implementation of computer systems. It was a real time of change within our company.
I’d been working here for about a year when my dad seemingly caught a bad cold and lost his voice. He went to the doctor and was diagnosed with cancer. Less than a month later, he passed. My cousin George was thirty-five at the time, and I was twenty-eight. All of a sudden, we had a business to run and people to take care of. We were terrified but tried to convey confidence. We must have done something right because we’re still here and growing!
What was most challenging about stepping into the leadership role of your family business?
As a woman in business, there were moments when I needed to say things a few times before I was heard. But, for the most part, I felt listened to and respected. I was a twenty-eight-year-old woman in an industry of ninety-nine percent men. I remember sitting in the office with George needing to make decisions with an insurance agent when the agent looked at him and said, “Will you have your girl get me some coffee?” It was certainly a different time for women in business back then!
What was most exciting?
Today, there are more women in the industry than ever before. We’re hiring and finding more women—some without building material industry experience—who can learn and support one another. Together, we’re driving cultural change. That’s the most exciting part.
What leadership lessons have you learned from the previous generation that you rely on today?
There are so many lessons that it’s hard to choose! My dad always said you can’t surpass your self-imposed limitations. So, while others may limit you, never limit yourself—reach for the stars.
I also learned to do what you say you’re going to do by the time you said you’ll do it. Being genuine in that way builds trust, which is at the base of any great relationship. If you’re correcting someone, make it a growing conversation for all sides. People are the foundation of your entire business. Cheer them on, hear them, and give them the tools they need to succeed.
How do you keep your family business’ story and legacy alive?
Many of our people have worked with Monsma for decades. My cousin George is still an integral part of our company—going on fifty years. We recently had a truck driver retire after working with us for more than forty-two years. But he’s already been back here doing some one-off runs and subbing in for vacations. That’s the thing about Monsma. We always draw you back in somehow. Many legacies here are long-standing. Our employees are like our family. They’re all part of our story.
People don’t bring a blank slate to work every day. Many have struggles; most have more priorities than they’re able to handle. No one works in a nice little bubble. We try to acknowledge that, help each other out, listen, and do nurturing things for our employees when we can. As leaders, it’s our job to make work a safe and collaborative place for our folks to learn, grow, reach higher individually (and as a team), and celebrate wins.
What makes you most proud of your family business?
I’m proud of the “family” aspect of our family business, and not just our family. We had a woman who recruited her dad to come drive a truck for us. A pair of sisters were brought in by their aunt. We have a father-son team—one in computer data and the other a great inside salesperson. We are really proud that our people want to bring other good people to us, which makes us better overall.
I’m also proud that we’re competitive in the marketplace but collaborative with each other. We want to win our customers’ business; we want to win on our customers’ behalf. We represent our product mix with knowledge and pride. With each other, however, we share the load. If someone’s having a bad day, we step in to support. We’ve built and sustained an extremely collaborative environment.
What advice would you give to the next generation of women in family business?
There are a lot of lies out there—the ever-unattainable “balance,” for example. Constantly striving for balance is not something one can ultimately achieve. Life will always be a lot, especially for young working mothers. I remember that struggle well: I could get half of seven things done but could never focus on just one thing because that meant six other things were slipping. Give yourself grace and give others grace. Prioritize, and do your best.
Gloria Steinem once said, “There is always one true inner voice. Trust it.” Listen to what you’re being called to do, even if there are seven opinions against you. You have to trust yourself just as much as you trust other people. Another quote I love comes from Shirley Chisholm: “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” I had to bring that folding chair to many meetings in my early years. Strong women have come before you—women who have faced similar struggles and have overcome challenges. Listening to their stories is powerful.
What do you think makes a family business unique?
Relationships really set family businesses apart. In my opinion, that’s the number one priority: If you take care of your people, they’ll take care of their people. If you hire somebody, invest time in them—you either coach them up or coach them out.
What is bringing you joy right now?
Having all four of our kids want to join the family business makes my heart sing. I get to witness their dedication, their care for our growth, their transparency, their authenticity, and their genuine interest in the work we do—everything we hoped to teach them. It’s so rewarding and special to watch them fall in love with the experience and the quest to be better each day.
About Monsma Marketing Corporation
Monsma Marketing Corporation has been providing premium brand products with outstanding service and delivery to retail building material dealers for over 90 years.
First operating as Grand Rapids Reserve Supply, Mosnma initially sold mostly commodity building products, gradually pivoting to specialty building products and materials. In the early 1990s, we launched into a new specialty building product category with fireplace inserts. The advances in this industry are stunning, and hearth now represents about one-third of the business.
Interview Completed By Memory Lane Jane
Memory Lane Jane partners with individuals, families, and family-owned businesses to preserve their history and legacy in commemorative heirloom books.