Ken Moeslein, left, founder of Swing Line Windows, and the company's new president, his  son, Jeff.
Ken Moeslein, left, founder of Swing Line Windows, and the company's new president, his son, Jeff.

On January 3, Jeff Moeslein was officially promoted to president of Swing Line Windows, in Pittsburgh. But Moeslein was no stranger to the job. In fact, he'd been doing it, without the title, for a while. “He's our go-to guy, and we created the position he deserved,” says Ken Moeslein, Jeff's 57-year-old father and the company's chairman. But Ken gave little thought to bringing either Jeff or his younger brother John into the business when he founded Swing Line Windows in 1987. And it wasn't too long ago that Jeff, now 31, was having second thoughts about sticking around at a company where, he feared, “there was no room at the top for me,” and where his job “seemed kind of boring.”

Things changed four years ago when the company acquired a local Owens Corning Basement Finishing franchise, and Ken handed it off to Jeff “to make it work, or not.” That business has since expanded to territories in Erie, Pa., and Morgantown, W.Va., and accounted for $5.5 million of the company's $8.5 million in revenue last year. Within the next 24 months, Swing Line Windows will change its name to Legacy Remodeling, reflecting its diversification. Jeff aims to grow the company's sales to $20 million by 2010, at which point his father will already have eased into retirement.

THE HANDOFF Handing off a business to the next generation involves more than signing some papers. Money, personalities, and responsibilities come into play, especially when the parent is still looking over his offspring's shoulder. But these transitions are smoothest when children themselves decide to come into the business and are given enough leeway to put their stamp on the company before taking the top spot or assuming ownership.

Case in point: In 1995, after being passed over twice for promotions while in Enterprise Rent-A-Car's management training program, Adam Hollander took refuge at Weathertight Windows — which his 66-year-old father, Merv, started in 1991 — as an entry-level salesperson. There, Adam, now 35, says he discovered his “passion” for selling, and he helped the company open sales offices in Columbus, Ohio, and in Atlanta. In 2003, he moved back to the company's Girard, Ohio, headquarters to help Merv manage the business. Adam has since instituted a formal sales training program, initiated Internet marketing, and plans to expand Weathertight Windows into new products such as roofing and decking.

“I ‘recruited' Adam because of his sales ability,” says Merv, who, at 48, left his family's food-service business because “I could never fill my father's shoes.” At Weathertight Windows — where sales are on track to increase by 15% to $10 million this year — Adam manages sales, and Merv handles marketing and advertising.

BUT CAN HE SELL? Preparing kids to take the reins often starts with an introduction to the rudiments of salesmanship. Carlos Rodriguez remembers traveling to customers' homes when he was 15 to translate for his dad, whose English was spotty. “My pops would always tell me, ‘you have to meet with the customer,'” says the younger Rodriguez, 32, today president of Mr. Roofing, a South San Francisco-based installer that Miguel, 62, started in 1989.

Josh Zabec got the selling bug when he was in his teens, by riding along with his father, Michael. And the minute he got his provisional driver's license Josh was out selling on his own. (He attended Arundel High School in Maryland, which offers a program that allows students to work part-time.) Last year, Josh, now 20, sold $800,000 in jobs for Homeview Contractors, in Timonium, Md., where Michael, 60, is executive vice president of sales and marketing. Josh's brother, Jason, runs the company's office in Crofton, Md. Josh is Homeview Contractors' second-best seller, and its sales trainer. “I told my sons that the best way to start in this business is at the bottom and work your way up,” Michael says. “Josh started as a canvasser, and rode with a lot of people.” Indeed, Josh says he learns something new every day by talking to people, and doesn't think he's missed much by not attending college.

Shawn Feurer also questions the necessity of higher education as a stepping-stone for running a home improvement business. While attending the University of Utah, he worked as a gutter installer for Midvale, Utah-based Norton Quality Exteriors, which his father, Ralph, has co-owned since 1979. “I was learning more coming to work than I was going to school,” says Shawn, who was cleaning shutters and going on sales calls with Ralph at age 12. Now 33 — and having earned a degree from the University of Phoenix — Shawn is Norton Quality Exteriors' general manager and handles marketing, while Ralph, 52, oversees sales and sales training. “He's the glue that holds it all together,” Ralph Feurer says of his son.

DEFER TO AUTHORITY Contractor-owners usually have a hard time relinquishing control. But some of the younger sources contacted for this article say that they welcome their parents' advice and counsel. Jared Green's initial motivation for getting into home improvement was to make more money. But joining QualiTeX, a Canoga Park, Calif.-based home improvement contractor, seems to have brought him closer to his father, Mark, who bought the company in 1999. Jared, 30, started as a salesman, then moved into the office to learn different aspects of the business. Now he oversees all of QualiTeX's window production, its sales team, and its installers, leaving Mark, 56, to concentrate on expansion and finding better financing deals for customers.

“I know what Jared is capable of,” Mark says. “I don't micromanage him. I understand him and love him. He's my son but he's also my business partner.” Jared says that his father “allows me to be me. He trained me by letting me learn the business and figure out what I thought was best to do.” Mark's game plan is to “start taking it easier” in four years. Between now and then, he intends to expand QualiTeX's market penetration in Northern California, possibly opening two more offices, and to offer sunrooms in all territories. The goal is to increase sales to between $35 million and $40 million by 2010, from $20 million last year.