Luck Stone is an old-line Virginia company that has been in business for nearly a century. It is a thriving, essential, unglamorous enterprise that employs hundreds of middle-class workers, builds roads and developments, and contributes to the gross national product.
This isn’t just people in an office moving money around, which I stipulate is a crucial part of capitalism.
Luck Stone is run by Charlie Luck IV, one in a long line of Lucks who have led the family-owned firm.
I spent a day with Luck a few weeks ago, touring his company quarries in Northern Virginia in his SUV. He told me that one of his biggest preoccupations as chief executive of the Luck Companies is figuring out a way to keep the enterprise in family hands. That means deciding whether anyone in the next generation — i.e., any or all of his three children — will have the right skills and passion to run the firm.
There is no hurry. Luck is only 53, which I — as a 58-year-old — consider to be the new 30. But Luck, who started working at Luck Stone when he was 12, said he wants to get this right.
“One of the worst things in the world you can do is put any person in a company role, family or non-family, that does not align with who they are, with their skill set and their capacity. That is unethical.”
Luck Stone is one of the Old Dominion’s jewels. It owns 17 quarries in the state and one in North Carolina. It has four in Northern Virginia, in Bull Run, Fairfax and two near Leesburg. The projects mine gravel for roads, parking lots, real estate development and things like underground sewer lines.
When you drive on Interstate 66, the Capital Beltway or Route 50, you are likely cruising on something Luck Stone dug out of the earth.
Quarrying is by far the biggest part of the family’s array of businesses known as the Luck Companies. In addition to crushed stone, the Luck Companies supplies stone to house interiors and exteriors. The Luck Companies also invests in real estate projects and even builds clay tennis courts around the world under the Har-Tru brand.
All told, the businesses gross between $200 million and $400 million a year. Luck would not tell me the profit, but it’s a lot. The average profit margin in the crushed stone industry is between 20 and 30 percent of gross revenue. The company spends a sizable chunk of its profits purchasing million-dollar dump trucks and loaders, funding plant expansion and making other capital investments.
With all that at stake, Charlie Luck takes family succession seriously.
“My grandfather . . . was a smart businessman,” he said. “He had friends of his that were lawyers, and they worked with him back in the ’50s and ’60s to do estate planning. It allowed family ownership to go from him, generation one to generation two, which would be my father.”
One of the keys, Luck said, is moving shares in the company to the next generation early and often through gifting. Tax law allows a certain amount of gifting of shares from parents to their children. The key is to be aggressive and start moving the shares while they are relatively young to avoid a crushing hit from inheritance tax later in life.
The Luck Companies is owned by Charlie IV and his dad, Charlie III, known as Charles. Charles Luck is nationally respected in the aggregate industry and grew Luck Stone from a small firm to one of the top 10 family-run quarry companies in the country.
Charlie IV is only gifting nonvoting shares to the children until he, and presumably his wife and his father, decide on a succession plan for leadership.
That is the difficult part.
“Three percent of family-held companies make it from generation three to generation four,” Luck said. “When my wife and I learned that, we said: ‘Wow. We have the cards stacked against us.’ ”
So nearly a decade ago, Charlie and Lisa Luck reached out to a consultant, David Bork, who helps families transition their businesses from one generation to the next.
The Lucks have three children: one boy and two girls. The oldest, Richard, is 24 and finished Virginia Military Institutein 2012. He worked for Teach for America for a year and now runs a Richmond-based nonprofit start-up whose goal is to help people break out of the cycle of poverty. Daughter Sarah, 21, is getting a master’s degree at James Madison University. Margaret, the youngest at 18, is applying to college.
Bork told the Lucks that the two most important rules in transitioning a family business from one generation are to establish trust and to establish communication between family members.
The Lucks started holding family meetings six days a year, attended by Charlie, Lisa and the three children. Charlie’s two sisters were not part of the meetings because they had sold their shares in Luck back to Charlie and his father years ago.
The Lucks identified a set of family values, including love of family, strong work ethic and faith. The idea was to create some commonality or glue between the family members, which keeps them together whether they are in the family business or not.
“Many families get this confused . . . that if you aren’t in the family business, there are mixed signals around love, respect and trust,” he said.
The Luck children have been told that their No. 1 goal is to find something that they are passionate about, then go after it. For example, Luck’s sisters do not work at the company. One became a teacher, and the other became an interior designer.
Charlie IV didn’t automatically gravitate to the business. After graduating from VMI in 1983, his passion was stock car racing. He was good at it, too. But he didn’t want a racing lifestyle, so at age 26, he gave it up and headed into the Luck Companies. He spent eight years in various jobs before his father deemed him suitable to take over.
Luck became president in 1995 and chief executive in 2000.
Each of Charlie Luck’s three children have been summer interns at the company, which they were allowed to do — or not — when they turned 16.
There is also an agreement among the family that after college, the children must have two years of work experience elsewhere if they want to enter the family business.
If they decide to join the family firm, they have until their mid-30s to prove they have the qualities to take over.
Charlie Luck IV will be watching closely and evaluating.
“The last thing I want to happen is to screw this up,” he said.