Succession planning case study: Dial-An-Angel

Dena Blackman started Dial-An-Angel, Australia’s first private agency specialising in home-based services, in 1967 after finding it impossible to secure home help when she was laid low after the birth of her third daughter. Today that daughter, Danielle Robertson, is Dial-An-Angel’s CEO, running the show from Edgecliff, NSW. But this wasn’t always her plan.

“I’d be dragged into the office after school and during holidays,” Robertson remembers.

“I could see what running a business was like, and I thought, ‘Gee it’s hard work.’ I kept saying, ‘I’m never going to work in this family business.’”

But at age 19, tired of the back-to-back 18-hour shifts she was working in hospitality management, she asked her mother for a job.

“I didn’t have anything for her,” Blackman says. “So I told her she could come in every day for a few months to learn something. She found it fascinating. She’d say, ‘What are you doing?’ and when I told her, she’d say ‘Well I could probably do that.’ So I’d get her to try it. [And] she did it brilliantly. That was quite exciting for me. I thought, ‘This kid has real talent.’

“At the end of three months I asked her, ‘What do you really want to do?’ And she said, ‘I’d really like your job.’ I’d been waiting for years for someone to say that!

“I brought in a desk behind me and Danielle sat there. Whatever I was working on, I’d hand over to her and take on something else.

“After about 18 years, I decided I needed to take more time to look after my own mother, who wasn’t well. I told Danielle, ‘Only Prince Charles has served a longer apprenticeship than you for the top job.’ I gave her six weeks’ notice that I would be stepping down. That’s how fast it was.”

For Robertson, the short notice did come as a shock, since she and her mother communicated constantly about everything else. Not surprisingly, she now believes planning and communication are the two most important elements to successful succession.

“I think [Mum] knew that while she was alive and still mentally alert it was a good opportunity for her to take a step back and still be here if I needed to ask her questions or bounce ideas
off her or ask for guidance,” says Robertson.

She spent the six weeks leading up to the handover rearranging senior staff positions so she could take on the tasks her mother had been doing. It’s a period she remembers as “quite intense, but not that bad.”

They then made the announcement by hosting a party for all the staff, and Blackman presented them with gold medallions set with diamonds, rubies, emeralds and sapphires according to the length of time they’d been with the company.

That was nine years ago, and Robertson has spent much of her time since then modernising the business by rolling out a web-based database, revamping the finance department, and using an external HR firm. “The business has always been professional, but where I’ve made my mark is to corporatise it,” she says.

She believes the work she’s done will hold Dial-An-Angel in good stead when she eventually decides to step aside. “I have been giving some thought to my own succession,” she admits. But while she has a son and daughter, both young adults with attributes that could benefit the business, “I don’t want them ever to feel obligated to come into the business. I never did.”

So, even though there’s nobody who could step into her shoes immediately, she’s ensured that she’s not the sole person the company relies on. “The business would go on because I have such a good executive team and top staff.”

Learn from their experience: Dena Blackman & Danielle Robertson

  1. Timeliness: No-one is going to live forever. Think about your succession plan in the prime of your life, not when you’re starting to fade. (DB)
  2. Talent: If you’re not lucky enough to have someone in the family like I had, then look at your staff, look at what’s available in the marketplace. (DB)
  3. Flexibility: You have to be adaptable and flexible. The dinosaur could not adapt to a changing environment and he’s extinct today.  (DB)
  4. Communication: It’s important to communicate not only with the person you’re taking over from, but also with your staff to make sure there’s no shock or upset. (DR)
  5. Respect: Treat the person you’re succeeding with respect, and also those people under you. (DR)
  6. Integrity: Maintain the values of the business. When you’re succeeding someone, values have been instilled in the organisation. Carry them through. (DR)
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