Ivor Tiefenbrun, who founded Linn in 1973, didn’t want his company to become a family business, says his son. Gilad Tiefenbrun says his father was against giving his kids an easy option, nor did he want to saddle them with the burden of running the business.
“He told his three children that they weren’t going to work for Linn,” says Gilad. “It wasn’t going to become a family business, even though his father helped him get started.” But, as anyone who knows the family business world well, such companies rarely evolve in a linear way, and what one generation feels at any given time can often change.
Gilad, who is now managing director of the Glasgow-based business, is proof of a changed perspective. But maybe also it wasn’t how Ivor really felt deep down, reckons Gilad. “In his private mind I think my father would have loved his kids to be involved in the business.”
That business makes some of the highest quality music systems in the world. Linn is best known for its Sondek LP12 turntable – ranked as one of the finest turntables ever made and still in production today after its introduction in the early 1970s. The brainchild of Ivor, the story of how it came into existence is now part of folklore at Linn.
“Back when my father was developing the turntable, everyone thought the speakers were the most important part of the system,” says Gilad. “But he realised the turntable was far more important to sound quality. So he set about making his own turntable that would improve sound quality by retrieving more information from the groove of a record.”
At the time Ivor was considered an iconoclast and ridiculed in some quarters, says Gilad. Of course, today the LP12 is revered among music connoisseurs and has underpinned the company’s commitment to high quality music products ever since.
Beyond the great heritage of its turntable, Linn is very much a 21st century business, operating from its Richard Roger’s cutting edge designed factory just outside of Glasgow. It makes state of the art digital music systems like its Klimax, Akurate and Sekrit network music players, as well as speakers and power amps. Celebrating its 40th birthday in 2013, Linn made a limited edition LP12 Turntable; the plinth of which is made from the Spanish oak casks used by whisky distillery Highland Park. The “whisky” turntables sold for £25,000 each, and sold out quickly, says Gilad. The company also has a record label – Linn Records – which specialises in classical, jazz and Scottish music recordings.
The music company employs around 175 people and exports its products around the world. Gilad wouldn’t be drawn on the financial numbers of Linn, but said the business has been strong and profitable every year since 2008. “As a long-term family business we don’t relentlessly push topline growth,” he says. “The main message we’re looking at is profitability and sustainability.”
Being a family business is clearly a big part of Linn’s culture today, despite Ivor’s earlier intentions. “A family business is the perfect structure to protect a set of values over the long term,” says Gilad. He adds that passion is a big part of those values, for which his father is probably the greatest embodiment of, adds Gilad. “When I came into the business I reinstated my father’s values – all else like the technology is a by-product, it is the values that ultimately count.”
Trained as an electrical engineer, Gilad worked in London for Symbian, which wrote the original smartphone operating systems for many mobile phone groups including Nokia and Samsung. Although there may have been little intention of joining the business during these years, Gilad was gaining the technical and business expertise that would sit well at Linn.
The opportunity to work at Linn, despite his father’s earlier protestations, came in the early 2000s. Ivor had had a change of heart, partly brought about by a serious illness, and decided that it would be a good idea to bring at least one of his children back into the business. Gilad was the obvious choice given his background, as Ivor’s two other children had decided to pursue paths away from the family business.
There was a sense, says Gilad, of coming home when deciding to work for Linn. Nevertheless, it was a difficult time to be joining the business. “Back then we were still making CD players – and I was asking managment – ‘what was your plan when it all goes online’. I could see what was coming down the line – music streaming was the way forward.” Soon afterward, Linn ditched the making of CD players and went wholeheartedly into making digital music systems.
Gilad became managing director in 2009. Before taking the top position, he and his father set up governance structures in an attempt to better maximize Linn’s efficiency and how the family interacted with the business. That process was aided by Gilad attending a series of courses at Harvard Business School, designed for the next generation at family businesses.
“We agreed to separate the family from the business,” says Gilad. “In the past, the board was just the family.” So, Ivor was made chairman and three non-executive directors were appointed to the board.
Gilad reckons that external groups like the Young Presidents Organisation, which he joined early on in his career, has helped him through the process of making the transition to managing the family business. “The organisation gives you a board, not for your business, but for you. It’s proven invaluable” He also acknowledges the support Linn got from family business consultant Peter Leach, who now works for Deloitte.
Still young at just 43, Gilad understandably isn’t thinking too much about the next generation coming into the business. He notes that his 12 year-old nephew came in for some work experience recently. And adds: “I would encourage any family member to come into the business, but fully qualified and with outside experience.”
Succession to the third generation maybe many years off, but one thing is for sure at Linn, these days the Tiefenbrun family, including Ivor, see the company very much as a family business.