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Raising the Next CEO

As the co-CEO of Virginia Tire & Auto, I’ve had the great fortune of building on the legacy that my parents created when they started this company 45 years ago. Today, I am leading a company of about 300 employees across 17 locations, while raising five children ages 4–13.

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Now, before I continue, I have to say that I am fully aware of the great fortune that my parents gave me by starting this company and successfully running it for almost four decades. Few people have the opportunity to lead and grow a family business, and for that, I know that I am incredibly fortunate.

But as I reflect, I realize my great fortune doesn’t stop there. When thinking about my upbringing I can pinpoint specific ways my parents set me up to succeed as a woman navigating the complexities of a growing business in the traditionally male-dominated industry of automotive repair.

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And while I’d be thrilled if any of my children followed in the footsteps of my parents and their grandparents, I’m most interested in making sure they are kind-hearted, empathetic leaders in whatever field they choose.

So, if you are looking to raise your own future leader, here are some insights from my childhood. Perhaps they can inspire ideas or prompt you to pause and see the ways you are already teaching your children about how to be the best them they can be.

What my father taught me

My father would always start my day with morning pep talks (I’m talking 5 am, in the dark, early morning pep talks). Even though I was half asleep for most of them, I remember them fondly. He wanted to provide me with a positive mindset to start my day and make sure I always focused on the positive. And it worked. His words of wisdom were and continue to be prolific. His lessons also included:

  • “Never give in.” My parents were born in 1942 and both came from a hard-working background. My father’s father worked in a steel mill, my grandmother worked at the HG Heinz factory. They were committed to making sure their children had better lives and that they could send my father and his siblings to college. And my mother grew up on a dairy farm in Canada where hard work was a way of life. They both had a resolute work ethic upon which they built their lives, making it clear that obstacles were there to be overcome. So much so that some of my father’s most memorable pep talks included quotes from Winston Churchill’s famous speech “Never Give In.” He’d encourage me to dig deeper when times got tough and to “never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense.”
  • Live a disciplined life. Along the same lines, my parents were incredibly disciplined in their approach to running a business and a home. And this consistent approach is applied to everything from showing up when you say you are going to, to living within your means.
  • Become an expert. My father learned everything he could about the automotive repair industry so that he could understand every aspect of his business. He made sure he was an expert and taught me that it was vital to success.
  • “Don’t complicate your life.” And by that my father would mean, live with integrity. He was always careful to point out that everything else fails if you don’t have integrity and emphasized how important it is to play by the rules even when no one is looking.
  • The best work doesn’t feel like work. Having a positive attitude toward work helped me associate work with something that could bring fulfillment. Work was always just a part of our lives and was never seen as a burden. Even though I knew my parents worked incredibly hard, my Dad rising early and my Mom burning the middle night oil, they loved what they did because they were able to make people’s lives (both customers and employees) better. It was, and still is, always about so much more than car repair.
  • You are always on parade. Both of my parents not only worked hard, but they also focused on how they showed up. I learned from a very early age that everyone who worked with my Dad knew who he was, and they were evaluating, perhaps even judging, what he did. Because of this, they placed a priority on how I showed up and, for example, never wanted me to wear jeans to school. While today jeans are the new black in some offices, the message is as relevant as ever. How we show up matters. I’ve taken this lesson and applied it beyond personal appearances, bringing professionalism to an environment where customers don’t expect it, prioritizing clean stores with fresh green apples that greet customers in the waiting room. And along the way, I learned to become comfortable with a certain level of scrutiny and to accept it as a part of the responsibility that comes with leading.
  • Talk about the bad. Neither one of my parents brushed difficult topics or conversations under the rug and having these difficult conversations not only helped me grow, but they also helped me become comfortable with the numerous difficult conversations I’d have to have in my professional life and my role as Mom.

What I am teaching my children

Mike and Julie Holmes, co-CEOs at Virginia Tire & Auto, with their five children.

Now that I have my own family, which includes my husband (who works with me as co-CEO), five children, two bunnies, one hamster, one dog and a horse, I am doing everything I can to set my children up for success and to build on the lessons from my parents.

I must offer a big disclaimer here as well. I am in no way the perfect parent, but there are intentional parenting decisions I am making to point my kids in the right direction.

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  1. Don’t sweat the small stuff. I’m a recovering perfectionist. Before working at Virginia Tire & Auto, I was an attorney and clerked for Hon. H. Emory Widener, Jr. on the U.S. Court of Appeals and was also an associate in the corporate and real estate departments at Covington & Burling LLP. I was second in my law school class and loved having a plan for my plan. But having a large family has helped me let go and lean into the headwinds at times because I literally cannot control every single thing that happens throughout the day. Maintaining perspective on what is really worth focusing on, helps me let go of the small things that aren’t.
  2. Just because you didn’t win doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good experience. In our house we commonly talk about how a good experience isn’t defined solely by the outcome and how not succeeding at one thing, shouldn’t stop you from doing the next. Putting yourself out there is part of growing and learning. We also focus more on the activities and less on the actual results (i.e. preparation for the test versus the test score). And being upset when you don’t achieve your desired outcome is completely part of the process, as is naming the feelings. Once they are named, we can discuss, learn, and move on.
  3. Meet people where they are. Having five children with very different personalities has opened my eyes to the fact that everyone learns and thinks differently. While empathy can be an overused buzzword, parenting my children has shown me that the best way to connect with someone is to, to the best of my ability, really look at things from their perspective. I’ve learned so much about people, become so much less judgmental and more tolerant, recognizing that what works for one person, does not work necessarily for the other.
  4. Divide and conquer. As I’ve mentioned, my husband is co-CEO of our company because that is what works best for the business and our family. He focuses on the financial and technology side of the business, while I focus on day-to-day operations, marketing, and people aspects. We also have two sets of parents in the area and additional help getting kids where they need to go and more. Asking for help and accepting it is critical to leading a company.
  5. “Make winners out of people and they make winners out of you.” This is something my father has said, that I’ve adopted and now say quite often. While he emphasized becoming an expert, I’ve learned that the best experts know where their knowledge ends. I’m teaching my children to surround themselves with good people, and if they aren’t an expert in something, they should turn to someone who is.
  6. Creativity happens when you are bored. My family and I flew from Virginia to Florida recently and my children boarded the plane without any electronic devices to occupy their time. I want my kids to be bored, to have space to think, and to make eye contact when they talk to people. As unpopular as the decision may be, I don’t allow them to have phones (the soonest my daughter will get one is in 8th grade) and I don’t see any value in social media accounts of any kind for them.
  7. To whom much is given, much is expected. At Virginia Tire & Auto, we host events like car seat clinics, provide free auto repair services to low-income families, and are partnering with local public high schools offering internships to students interested in the auto repair industry because we feel it’s part of our responsibility to help our community. I’m also focused on creating opportunities for our team where they can grow a meaningful career and provide for their families while feeling valued and respected.

In the last 2 years, we have re-organized our store structure to create more job clarity, clearer path to growth and have a pay for performance model which allows our staff to give themselves a pay raise every single day. We are always trying to promote from within and I know almost every employee’s name.

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For my kids, the idea of being a part of a larger community begins with tasks as simple as emptying the dishwasher and clearing the dinner table. They are required to be good citizens of the household and work together in the best interest of the home.

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