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Can a Board Make You Better?

Kim Phelan

When you want to find out about a distributor, you probably go to their website and head for the Leadership page to see who’s running the ship. That’s what I did recently, and after reading about the president and a few others, I clicked to see who was on the board of directors. Impressed that they had one, I was a little surprised to discover nearly all of the last names were the same – obviously the surname of the family owners. It made me pause as I considered what their meetings might be like.

I have the greatest admiration for family-owned businesses and have known some exemplary second-, third-, and fourth-generation leaders who have defined parameters and principles for their organizations with great care and integrity, usually with the assistance of outside consulting. But what about a board? Is it necessary for a distributor to have one?

Jayne Millard, executive chairman of the board at Turtle, a company started by her ancestors in 1923, emphatically lauds the value of a board for every distributor, large or small. Featured in our cover story this issue, Turtle has had an independent board for about 40 years, Millard told me, but our conversation about boards was left on the article’s cutting room floor, as they say. As I review my notes, I couldn’t agree more with her point of view:

“They fill a really important function,” she said, “ . . . supporting the leadership in executing their strategic plan . . . but also providing checks and balances and governance to an increasingly more complex organization.”

She went on to underscore how a board provides expertise you’re not necessarily going to find in-house, expertise in areas such as commercial, legal, taxes, and compliance. The Turtle board is very active, she added, and brings a wide range of experience, vision, and skills to the table.


In Calvin Clemons’ book, “The Perfect Board,” he defines the attributes of an ideal board member, as well as some of the legal and procedural formalities to which a board of directors ought to adhere. Covering topics from loyalty, respect, and honesty, to unity, open-mindedness, and avoiding conflict of interest, the book is a compact “primer” that sets the bar for proper board behavior and mind-set.

By Clemons’ standard, boards aren’t clubs, family reunions, or social gatherings of the owner’s friends. And the atmosphere of a board meeting should be characterized by thoughtful and free expression, where each director is comfortable enough to speak his or her mind, even if it’s a dissenting opinion.

Good character, clear understanding of responsibilities, and commitment to the company’s success, coupled with strong but diverse industry expertise all make for a healthy board. It’s hard to imagine any distributor that couldn’t benefit from that kind of synergy.

Thanks for reading.

Kim Phelan

Kim Phelan

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2023 issue of Industrial Supply magazine. Copyright 2023 Direct Business Media.