By Kim Hoey
Special to the Delaware Business Times
Carrie Lingo used to stop by her grandfather’s Rehoboth office every day on her way home from elementary school in the 1980’s. They would discuss the day for both of them while she sampled from his drawer full of M&M’s and peanut butter crackers.
Now at 36, she is a former Olympic athlete who turned down several big name university coaching opportunities to go into the family real estate business. The candy jar is on her desk now.
She retells the childhood story as one of her fondest memories and an example of the bond of the Lingo family. That bond is the number-one reason the family members give of why their company, Jack Lingo Realty, has survived as a family-run business and not been sold off or absorbed into a national company. They look out for each other, the business and everyone who works there as if they are all family.
John “Jack” “The Colonel” Lingo, started the company in 1974 after retiring from the Air Force as, yes, a colonel, and moving back home to Rehoboth – the family homestead since the 1600’s. It was a quieter resort back then with barely two good pizza restaurants and locals still talking about the storm of ’62 that practically washed the whole place to sea. He saw the potential in his hometown and was rewarded as the building boom of the 80’s and 90’s brought in a steady influx of new people wanting their piece of the Sussex County dream.
His business grew as did the respect other agents had for him.
“The biggest compliment the Colonel ever gave me, he called to ask my expertise,” said Pat Campbell-White, a competing agent who has been in the Rehoboth real estate scene longer than the Lingos. “He grew up with my mom and dad. That’s the type of community we’re in. We work together.”
His four boys, John, 70, Bill, 65, Bryce, 63, and Derrick, 51, who run the company now, say their father didn’t start the business to build a dynasty. He encouraged them to get good educations and careers they’d love. However, he did welcome them, as they slowly, over years, joined him. The family motto to this day is, don’t go into real estate unless you’re ready to go full-time. His agency was open on holidays and in snowstorms, and no phone call request was too early or too late. His work ethic and influence were a major factor right up until his death in November 2015. His mailbox in the office and chair at the board table are still there. “And always will be,” said John Lingo.
Although the Lingos joked that they expected the Colonel to be there forever, he took very planned steps to make sure the transition from one generation to the next was smooth.
That is a good thing, said Wayne Rivers, CEO of the Family Business Institute. Statistics show that about 30 percent of family businesses survive into the second generation with only 12 percent going into the third. “Research indicates that failures can essentially be traced to one factor: an unfortunate lack of family-business succession-planning.”
It’s often the same problems, said Rivers, of why small businesses fail in succession from one generation to the next. Generally, the small companies are too dependent on too few people for decisions; have poor hiring practices or no guidelines at all; have no clear roles, responsibility and accountability, and they don’t look forward with their business analyses.
By Rivers’ standards, the Lingos are practically a textbook case of doing all the right things, with guidelines created by the Colonel.
Today, decisions are made with a group approach, and are spread out across the family. Often business discussions are at family dinners where the conversation invariably veers to real estate. Everyone brings his or her own expertise to an idea, as well as history and perspective. It keeps everyone responsible and accountable.
“You can’t have a thin skin,” said John Lingo, who remembers starting out at the Lewes office where he sometimes worked as the secretary and the janitor to learn the ropes. Generation three starts at the same bottom rung as everyone else.
Yes, sometimes there’s yelling and there have been tears, said Bill Lingo, but in the end, the Lingos are a family and the burden of the business is shared.
The boys think the fact they moved around so much as a military family taught them to both stick together and to adapt to new cultures, situations and personalities. They drill loyalty and flexibility into their children today.
While they walk in unity as a family, each person has his own role in the business. Bill Lingo, a former banker, handles finance. Bryce Lingo is known as the idea guy, specializing in marketing. Derrick Lingo does a little bit of everything and John Lingo, a former state trooper, manages the Lewes and Millsboro offices. He is also the one to call when a firmer hand might be needed in a situation – like when the lifeguard at one of their developments calls to say some cyclists off the Junction and Breakwater bike trail had invaded the pool. He wasn’t afraid to ask them to leave.
The next strength of the company is in its hires.
“Never be afraid to hire somebody smarter than you are,” John Lingo said. There isn’t much turn over at Lingo, where most of the associates say they are treated like family. They don’t duplicate social groups in their hires, so agents aren’t working against each other in the same areas, Bill Lingo. They look for people with diverse experience to help the company. They have more than 120 agents in their three offices.
As for the future, it’s something that Carrie Lingo, one of the third generation to come on board, thinks about a lot. Years ago, she bought a book about company succession for her grandfather, and they both read it. The third generation usually fails unless they bring something new, she said. Looking at her two sisters, Lilly and Maggie, she said maybe the third-generation change will be a more female perspective.
Rules to work by
By Jack Lingo
When his boys were young, Lingo taught them three rules to put boundaries on their love of pulling pranks:
- Don’t hurt anybody
- Don’t damage property
- Always tell the truth
As they got older and started working in the business, the rules changed slightly to:
- Always give back where you live. The Lingos do this in so many ways. For example, the Rehoboth Museum. They donated the building and then gave money for it to be started as well. Then there are the thousands of dollars they give to the schools. Just the list of donations for 2015 filled three pages.
- Customer Service – Always be productive. The agents at Lingo are available 24/7. There is a story that one New Year’s Day the Colonel was the only person in the office and his was the only office open, when a diplomat came in looking for a vacation home and ended up buying a whole floor of a condo building.
- Create a project you can be proud of. The Junction and Breakwater bike trail in Lewes probably wouldn’t exist without their land donations. They preserved more than 250 acres of green space along Gills Neck Road in Lewes alone.