A Family Affair
By Tim Eberly
Three years ago, Mike Tilleman picked up the phone after deciding he wanted to keep his car dealership in the family.
He called his oldest son, Craig, who was working as a chemical engineer in Washington, with the request.
"I looked at the downside of selling it," said Mike Tilleman, owner of Tilleman Motor Co. in Havre since 1979. "There was no question in my mind that I wanted to pass it on. I thought it was an opportunity for him and an opportunity for us."
Mike and Craig Tilleman work side by side for one several family-owned businesses in the process of changing hands and generations in Havre.
Craig, a 1987 graduate of Havre High School, needed some time to think about it, but Mike steered him in the right direction. The father sent Craig training videotapes for sales managers the position he wanted his son to fill.
It took Craig a month to say yes. "It was a pretty tough decision," he said. "I really enjoyed being a chemical engineer. Being an owner obviously presented different opportunities."
Post-college, Craig had been making hydrogen peroxide for six years with Solvay Inc., an international chemical company that enabled him to live briefly in Houston and in Belgium.
He graduated from Georgia Tech in 1992 with a bachelor's degree in, of course, chemical engineering. During his freshman year at Georgia Tech, Craig, the son of a former professional football player, earned a walk-on spot as an offensive guard on the Yellow Jackets team.
The next season, Craig chose not to continue playing and instead focused on his studies. "He's the only one in the family that can read and write," joked Mike, who also has a daughter, 30-year-old Suzanne.
Beginning in 1965, Mike spent 12 years in the NFL, with teams including the Minnesota Vikings, New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons.
Throughout high school, Craig washed cars and made deliveries for his dad's business. Now the 32-year-old married father of two has a tad more responsibility. One of two sales managers at Tilleman Motor Co. the other is Craig's cousin, Larry Tilleman Craig supervises seven salesmen, orders vehicles and reviews inventory. Overall, his main objective is to "make the store better," he said.
"It's a lot more interesting than I thought it was when I came into the business," Craig said.
When he first started, Craig trained under the previous sales manager for about six months. Mike helped ease the career transition with lessons from his 25 years of experience.
"I had nobody to help me and I made a lot of mistakes through the college of hard knocks," said Mike, who purchased his first car dealership in 1977 in Chinook before moving to Havre a couple years later. "So I hope I can prevent him from making those mistakes."
One of 38 employees at Tilleman's, Craig has given his father something in return a new outlook.
"He's brought his own perspective in a lot of ways," said 58-year-old Mike, who handles most of the administrative work and manages the farm implement lot at Tilleman's. "He went out and worked and understood what it was like to work for people."
Unlike Mike, Craig believes in ongoing sales training. "That's one of the main differences between him and me," Mike said.
Last fall, he took three salesmen to a three-day seminar in Minneapolis. Three times a week, Craig and his salesman watch training videotapes.
"I respect his decisions and he respects mine," Mike said. "We have the same goals."
Said Craig: "Some father-and-son places, I think they butt heads a little bit. I don't think we butt heads."
Mike places high stock in the learning experience offered by Craig's original career path. In fact, he would welcome his youngest son, 21-year-old Chris, into the family fold, but only after he spends some time working elsewhere. Chris is a junior at Montana State University-Northern.
After he turns 65, Mike plans to retire and pass the ownership baton to Craig. But the changing of the guard has already been set in motion.
"I'm working my way out. He's working his way in," Mike said. "Every year, it passes more to him. It shouldn't be very long before he'll take over."
If Mike is gone for a week, Craig handles all his father's business. So he isn't intimidated by the prospect of running a car dealership in the near future.
"I don't think much will change," said Craig, whose wife, Kathy, is a stay-at-home mom raising the couple's children, 3-year-old Mackenzie and Jackson, 1. "I'll have a few more responsibilities."