Many entrepreneurs dream of building a business that lasts beyond their lifetimes. Yet, to be successful in this enterprise leaves the owner to figure out what will happen to the business when he dies.
One man who found himself in such a position was John Lowrance, the founder of Princeton Scientific Instruments based at 7 Deer Park Drive.
Lowrance, 79, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in September, 2011, and died on October 6, 2011. Knowing time was short, he had only three weeks to decide what would happen to the company that he founded and spent three decades managing. There were three weeks to decide who should lead it when he was gone and how to pass along the knowledge required to run the business in his absence.
Lowrance had a lot to think about in his last days besides his company. He had a wife, three children, four grandchildren, and many friends. He had never seriously talked about a transition plan before. But as his illness worsened, he began to wonder what would happen to the small company he founded in 1981, and moreover, what would happen to its four longtime employees.
Lowrance’s problem was one faced by many small business owners. As the sole proprietor, Lowrance was the heart and soul of his business. As things stood, it simply couldn’t operate without him. “Most of the company was in John’s head,” said former employee Greg Lemunyan. “Most of the company was John’s relationships.”
Princeton Scientific Instruments was in the business of developing scientific instruments on a contract basis. Companies would hire Lowrance’s team to build a device. After they were done, they would move on to the next contract. Over the last 30 years PSI made cameras for NASA, sensors for the military, and skin measurement devices for Johnson & Johnson.
Princeton Scientific thrived on Lowrance’s ability to obtain Small Business Research Initiative grants. Lemunyan said Lowrance was an expert and prolific writer of proposals, and that he had a vast array of contacts in the world of research, academia, the government and corporations.
Without Lowrance at the controls, what would happen to Princeton Scientific? What would happen to Lemunyan and the three others who had worked alongside Lowrance for decades?
In the 1970s Lowrance was an engineer working for Princeton University’s astrophysics department, making instruments that would go up on rockets. Specifically, they were concerned with sounding rockets, ships that would go into the upper atmosphere, open their windows to space, take in data, and come back.
One day the Max Planck Society came to the astrophysics team with a request. Could they build a closed-circuit camera that could be used in sounding rockets? Princeton said no, but Lowrance said yes. It was Lowrance’s first independent contract job.
Eventually, Lowrance quit the university and went to work at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab, where he designed a camera that could take 1 million photographs per second. In 1981 he started his own company, PSI, to pursue further scientific instrument contracts.
One of his early hires was Lemunyan, who came on board at first as a consultant. Lemunyan, born and raised in New York state and the son of a lineman and a secretary, worked as an electrical and software engineer at the Plasma Physics Lab. His first project was to help build an infrared camera to capture meteors entering Earth’s atmosphere. He worked as a consultant on many projects before he was hired as a full-time employee in 1997.
Over the years, Lowrance further developed his network of contacts and worked on an array of instruments that went into outer space or stayed on the ground for more mundane uses. His team designed a muzzle reference device that would measure the angle of tank cannons to help fire them more accurately. The system was to be used on the army’s Future Combat System project, which has since been canceled.
Lemunyan said that after September 11, 2001, contract work became harder to come by, and Lowrance began to worry the company would not have a good revenue stream in the long run. So they began to develop a more steady source of income from Johnson & Johnson, which needed to make devices to test how skin reacted to its products.
“Say they make a claim about some skin cream or product,” Lemunyan said. “They have to come up with ways to objectively quantify it . We got involved with instruments to measure skin parameters: electrical resistance, the speed of sound through the skin, light reflecting off of it or even fluorescence.”
That was what the company’s focus was in 2011 when Lowrance got the bad news. Like many small business owners, Lowrance had no system in place to give PSI to new leadership. He considered closing the business. Instead, he devised a transition plan on his deathbed.
He left the company to his son, John M. Lowrance. The son, who was not previously involved in the business, would take a hands-off approach and let the employees manage the company.
However, the founder had not groomed a successor. The way the business worked, Lowrance would get the contracts and he would largely trust his employees to use their expertise to solve problems. It was an approach that worked well but would be fragile after Lowrance was gone.
“To have a true successor, he would have had to pick someone to basically follow him and parallel him for a number of years,” Lemunyan said. “I don’t see how anyone else could do what he did. John was the idea guy, and it was up to us to make his ideas come true. A blacksmith of yesteryear would have apprenticed someone to spend years working alongside him.”
Instead, the remaining employees had to decide who would lead Princeton Scientific Instruments. The job fell to Lemunyan, who had never held ambitions of leadership.
“If you think about a Three Stooges-type of situation, where people are lined up in a military line: all the volunteers stepped forward, and then everyone stepped back except me. I was a reluctant leader,” Lemunyan said.
But Lowrance didn’t leave Lemunyan without help. He found a unique way to ease the transition that took advantage of his huge network of contacts. Lowrance set up a weekly teleconference where he invited friends and colleagues associated with PSI to act as mentors and give encouragement to the small team. Those conferences continued for about a year and a half.
Lemunyan began working seven days a week. “I knew what I was up against,” he said.
He also hired a personal coach to help him develop leadership skills. Lemunyan began to build PSI’s revenue stream and develop relationships with clients.
But in April of this year Lemunyan found himself packing up PSI’s Deer Park Drive offices. It turned out PSI, as it stood, just couldn’t live without Lowrance. “Despite our best efforts, we were unable to do it,” Lemunyan said. “The soft economy hasn’t helped. Things were starting to turn around, but it didn’t happen on our watch.”
Although PSI didn’t make it, Lemunyan is optimistic about the future. He has started a new company, LeMur Technology Consulting, which he runs out of his home in New Hope. He hopes to bring all of the past PSI employees on board as consultants.
He said leading his own company is something he never would have imagined doing if he had not had leadership thrust upon him.
Although PSI didn’t make it, Lemunyan doesn’t consider the transition plan to have been a failure. The employees have landed on their feet even if the company didn’t. And Lemunyan said Lowrance, who handpicked everyone who worked at PSI, was always more concerned about the people who worked at PSI than he was about the company.