A Scientific Approach to Family Business

When Colin Campbell was twelve years old, his father started Decagon Devices, now METER Group, and it has been a family endeavor from the very beginning. He started helping out at age 14 by sweeping the floors and doing other menial tasks, knowing that he needed to do his part to help the fledgling business succeed.

Colin went on to pursue a degree at nearby Washington State University, while he continued to help out at METER, applying what he was learning at school directly to his work. He had an epiphany while taking Introduction to Biophysics, a class taught by his father which Colin now teaches, where he was learning about data loggers tracking changes in voltage, which in turn could be used to calculate wind speed. He was working in the lab, and literally ran into his dad’s office, exclaiming that he’d finally put the pieces together and it was so amazing. In typical fatherly fashion, his dad responded that he was proud of him, but that he probably should have figured that out by now.

From Shipping Clerk To Research Scientist

At 21, after returning from a mission trip, Colin went back to work at METER, this time as a shipping and production clerk, fashioning the measurement instruments his father designed and sending them off to their clients. A short while later, METER decided to expand their soil science projects, and Colin added that to his growing list of duties.

Having reached the ceiling of what he was capable of with an undergraduate degree, Colin left to pursue his Master’s and PhD at Texas A&M. Upon completion, he returned to METER for good, this time as a full-fledged research scientist, as he describes, “prepared to do more fun things.”

Translating Ideas Into Sellable Products

In this capacity, it was Colin’s chief role to “translate the ideas from Dad’s head into sellable products.” Colin says that he enjoyed every moment of working with his dad, and that he was perhaps uniquely suited to such a position as he is able to anticipate and interpret his father better than anyone else. He describes the elder Dr. Campbell as a very unique and humble individual, who is creative, intelligent, and bestowed with an uncommon grace when interacting with people of all ages and walks of life.

Colin and his father were not the only family members working at METER, though. His sister, whom Colin describes as “a dear, dear friend,” was president of the company, but she has now handed the reins over to another brother, Scott, a driven, dynamic, and passionate person with a passion to better the business.

Family Business—Positioning Others For Success

As you might imagine, with so many family members working in such close proximity in different capacities, tensions would arise from time to time. Colin credits training with the Arbinger Institute to help reframe their mindset and particularly with helping him find his own place in the company. He said, “You can easily get in a ‘me’ mindset and try to convince others to take sides, without realizing how your actions impact others.” His advice boils down to “If you think about going into a family business situation, you have to be committed to seeing others as individuals and focus on how you can put them in the best position to be successful.”

Colin goes on to reflect that what makes his family and their business the most successful is what often gets that them at each other’s’ throats, as well, “we see the world in drastically different ways, which pushes us out of our comfort zone in a productive way.” He maintains that it takes different perspectives to succeed, and you can’t benefit from other perspectives if you’re not willing to meet people half way. Balancing these differing perspectives has been key to METER’s continued success.

Mindset And Maturity

When reflecting on his experience to offer advice to others considering going into the family business, Colin said, “Mindset and maturity are most important to provide a good foundation. You need a certain amount of humility, because the [first portion of your time] will be spent listening and learning.” He suggests that asking questions and taking the time to gather information and being open to any advice offered will put you in a great position to be an asset in the years to come. Colin recalls that his father would take the time to sit down and listen intently to whomever he was talking to, and that this was perhaps his father’s greatest strength, and one that he strives to emulate and engender to his own family.

When asked how the previous generation approached welcoming their children and extended family into the business, Colin said that they require at least 5 years of experience outside the family business before they are allowed to come back as adults. He says that the “experience and time in the world really helps you value what you have at home.” For Colin, working with his dad was never a foregone conclusion, even though his sister lobbied hard for him to return, but he could not be happier with his decision to carry on the family legacy.

In summary, working closely with your family can be a tremendously rewarding experience, but you have to approach it with humility and take special care to consider the perspectives of others, which applies equally to older and younger generations.