This story is dedicated to my daughter Harper who just entered the maintenance phase of her cancer journey after nine consecutive months of fighting. I love you Harper and I pray that one day you will read this story and it will help you through challenging times in your career.
By writing this in the first person, my biases and personal experiences will shape the content of the story. Yet, just as our service minded team brings their authentic selves to pools and landscapes in South Florida each day, I want to bring a transparent and relatable story about family life and business at Reef Tropical to readers and followers. Maybe the story may move people towards action and shape beliefs, but primarily, it is a story of ethical and empowering leadership within a dynamic and competitive work environment.
Reef Tropical is a Service Organization - some customers say we are in hospitality.
We are targeted towards higher-end and luxury homeowners, property managers, general contractors, architects, and realtors. It was founded in Monroe County Florida in 1998 but has expanded to Miami-Dade and Broward County with locations in Key Largo and Florida City. Our mission is to serve our customers and our vision is to develop people who have a heart to serve. We operate on a culture of positivity through challenge, celebration of success, hiring & firing on core values and training on service mindedness.
A highlight amongst company accolades is the pioneering of luxury pool construction through industry relationships, salesmanship, and intricate execution. However, Reef Tropical is designed and formulated around people. We are growing a next generation of customer centered business leaders. On any given day, we calculated between 600 and 800 unique personal impressions between our team and people in our society. That is 160,000 to 210,000 moments of positive, negative, or indifferent experiences or opportunities to influence people every year. In addition to physical interaction, we have over 10,000 followers on a mix of social media platforms and over 14,000 unique views on our website content each month.
At the helm of the organization is my father Claude B Kershner III. He brings his true self to work every day with 23 years of Reef Tropical ownership and operational effectiveness. My father is a man of action and execution. He is also a man of faith and integrity. If you are around him, you are likely doing something constructive or engaged in a passionate conversation. His perseverance in his vocation is a lesson I glean from. He seldom takes extended vacations and when he does, he is available if needed - not out of necessity but out of selfless desire. He empowers his staff to make decisions and do the right thing through deeds and words. He says that our customers issues are our opportunities and has taught us how to turn customers experiences from a negative to a positive regardless of the way we are treated – guilt free and mission focused.
My father’s righteous actions, willingness to accept risk, edification of others, consistent demonstration of integrity, professed failures, above industry standard monetary compensation for his staff and shared wisdom in times of need are honored by his family and his team at Reef Tropical. This legacy will last countless generations and provides a light in a somewhat stigmatized “contractor oriented” business.
Community is something to work for and not take from
My father has volunteered his time and resources in multiple capacities while leading Reef Tropical. He has taught his followers about service to others. Yet, the greatest of his service is through the people of Reef Tropical and how they carry on impacting their families and respective communities. Currently there are eighty-five full time staff members employed with Reef Tropical. Over twenty team members have been with the company for twelve years or more and seven of them have been here since my father started. He would do anything for the people that show consistency and professional loyalty. He has taught me how to show grace and be intentional about honoring those who have served the company for many years. When my father had to take care of family, when he lost his father, when hurricane Irma hit the keys or when there were major transitions in executive leadership, my father’s loyal team members stepped up and took charge of responsibilities to continue paying payroll and feeding families. Twenty-three years is a long time and the humanization of a leader is inevitable. My father is not always right but he is always real and that’s why people love him.
What about the legacy?
The sacrifices of those who have come before me have created countless opportunities for myself and my team. Let me never forget to honor those people. My adolescent summers and school breaks consisted mostly of paid work in landscape maintenance, pool cleaning and construction. While in grad school, it was field service software implementation and marketing. There was no stagnation or vacation since I was old enough to work. My father and I would travel together to Reef Tropical in the morning and back in the evening. I was paid but was really doing it to make my father proud. I vividly remember the tiredness and fatigue that it took to stay consistent.
This kind of behavior was not an unexpected concept because my father, my grandfather and great grandfather were also business owners and leaders in commerce. They were no sluggards! The three Claude’s before me were gifted in customer service and sales. They were extensive conversationalists and boundary definers with subordinates. Collectively, there is nothing in human relationship they have not experienced. Those critical moments coupled with relational joys and pain produced character. This is one of many reasons why my family believes in business and how it shapes the American economy and provides blessings for family’s and generations.
I am Claude Bruer Kershner IV, genetically coded and ready for the challenge of sales, delivering customer expectations, fighting the good fight with my father, and driving profit. Right? Wrong….
Driving Towards Limits & Not Slowing Down: Break to Build
Although my family’s values can be constructive, I have learned the hard way that they can be destructive as well. There are times where I was unable to endure consistent hard work and expectations for achievement. As Reef Tropical continued to grow in sales and size, my work became my identity and every failure reminded me that I was unable to live up to the legacy. I was on 24/7 and did not know how to turn my mind away from work.
My father appointed me President of the family business in 2014 but at the time, I was not fit to be an effective and righteous leader. I was going through the motions but could not lead myself and therefore was not sustainable.
In college sports, I was a competitor and I transferred those behaviors to work. Although this can be constructive if channeled in a healthy way, codependency in work performance and family life became an issue. I could not outperform my feelings of relational inadequacy and lack of emotional intelligence. I remember ways in which I would act entitled and disrespect my father thinking it was perfectly permissible to speak to my boss that way. My father’s wife has seen it all in our relationship and God bless her for the patience and the wisdom she has demonstrated as a loving wife and stepmother. Climbing the metaphorical first mountain towards achievement and “resume virtues” is exhausting and falling off was inevitable. After my daughter was born, I had to learn how to compete for a different purpose besides self, ego and winning. To become a good father, I needed to learn about heart, soul, and relationalism. At work, I needed to embrace servant leadership boldly and wholeheartedly.
Understanding Sacrifice & Responsibility: Executing on both
After disciplined habitual changes, I still needed guidance that my father and community could not provide. While actively leading as president of Reef Tropical, I stepped into volunteer ministry directing and started working with a Christian life coach. This is when I fully conceptualized and embodied what it takes to lead people. It is about submitting to God, acknowledging my limitations, confessing my weaknesses, and leading from a posture of transparency in all my relationships. I started standing firm on truth about what I knew was right and refusing to accept an alternative falsification of reality when it came to identity through money, power, or success. I also learned how to best respect my father’s authority, submit to his authority, and pray for him when it came to work related disagreements.
Patrick Lencioni and Simon Sinek can speak to me about incredible stories and concepts to help Reef Tropical but experiencing pain through staff members lies, deceit, theft, and manipulation all while walking through personal loss is the ultimate refiner. Charles Lopez, Becky Conzelman, James Drake, Christina Watson and Guido Trinidad are the ones who spoke into my life and breathed hope and restoration into my leadership. They reminded me that I was never alone if I learned how to reach out.
Change my Playmates and Playground
I started walking in faith and making God the center of my company and my life. Only when my knees hit the ground in surrender, was I able to walk in courage to make the necessary changes in my life and embrace leadership as a man. This led me to my wife and the best decision I ever made. A marriage, a mortgage and a job made things real. Reef Tropical continued to change and grow with complexity but it was not insurmountable. I continued to learn and teach others about solving problems and making decisions. Then, in a matter of months my wife had two miscarriages, both of our grandmothers died and my daughter was diagnosed with cancer or more appropriately called Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.
Thankfully, I surrendered my desires for perfection years before and learned how to trust and obey God. My team at work, my community of faith filled friends, my family and my wife were postured for battle. It took years of hard work, effort guiding and coaching others, embracing the essence of servant leadership, and walking into a lifestyle that was congruent with my values. Only through this, I was able to onboard my team of trustworthy staff members who can successfully execute daily on service responsibilities. It was no game, it was the real deal in family crisis and business leadership where both my father and I were personally affected. From customer service to finance, the business was not without direction while I was healing with my family and daughter in the hospital for weeks.
Then a few months later, a global pandemic threatened our business. Once again God redeemed what was originally His. We were “designated essential”, supported by the American economy and our business never stopped moving. It gave us a unique posture of service for our customers and we were able to show a familiar face in a time of uncertainty. There is no “free lunch” in effective leadership and there is no YouTube video that can teach me how to be ethically congruent over decades. I am so grateful for my father’s example, his love and grace and my teams support. Our organization is built to last and has gone from good to great through essential business, building people and creating legacy.
There are more battles ahead
Although I have to put on the armor every day and get ready for future battles, I wanted to take a moment and look back at what it took to get to where we are and the battles we have fought together in unity. And in celebration of my daughter’s new maintenance phase of chemotherapy, I thought it was an ideal time to share this narrative.
As a generation of business owners move towards retirement, a next generation of leaders are looking towards a long runway in vocational pursuit. Both are asking powerful questions. Those retiring are looking from a lens of legacy and asking, “What have I built and what will it look like when I’m gone” while those moving into new positions of control are asking, “what does my future look like and how can I fulfill these responsibilities”? My prayer is that I never stop listening and inquiring from those who have paved a way. That I never lose respect, gratitude and admiration for the industry players and business leaders who have created a way and educated me when it seemed impossible. Thank you
Relatability in the story comes more through parenting and leading and not just business at Reef Tropical. Proverbs 22:6 says, “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old, they will not turn from it.” King Solomon, who wrote the book of Proverbs, was fabulously wealthy and wise. The juxtaposition in his life comes from lack of meaning through his wealth - he was never satisfied. His wisdom is what needs to be gleaned as he chooses to talk about legacy through children. He says, “start off, train up, direct and point your children”. Life brings suffering and pain and until I experienced that, I was shallow in my pursuit. Now, I commit to stepping into a legacy much bigger than myself, being a husband and a father and honoring my own fathers’ legacy and the people who “directed or started” him. I conclude and speak these words over your family from a song called “The Blessing” and the scripture that the song was based:
“May His favor be upon you
And a thousand generations
Your family and your children
And their children, and their children”
“but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” Exodus 20:6