What Fran Tarkenton and Tommy Kramer Can Teach Us About Business Succession Planning

These are not easy days to be a Minnesota Vikings fan.  Not only is there a nasty debate taking place over a new stadium, but the on-field product has seen better days.

In the last few weeks, however, a light has appeared on the horizon; his name is Christian Ponder.  Ponder, the Vikings’ 2011 1st round draft pick, has taken the reigns as the Vikings’ quarterback, with the expectation that he’ll have the job for awhile.

Why the sudden optimism over a new quarterback?  Well, for most of the latter half of the Vikings’ 51 year history, the franchise has been marked by a penchant for patching in a quarterback for a handful of years rather than drafting and developing one of their own.  Jim McMahon, Warren Moon, Randall Cunningham, Gus Frerotte, Brett Favre and, most recently, Donovan McNabb, have all played for the Vikings in the twilight of their careers, with very mixed results.

It was not always this way for the Vikings.  In fact, if you would have told any Vikings fan in 1975 that their favorite team would one day be known for having quarterback issues, that fan would have laughed in your face (or worse).  That’s because for most of the 1960s and 1970s the Vikings had one of the best quarterbacks in the league, Fran Tarkenton, who when he retired held every meaningful passing record in the NFL. 

No one plays for ever, of course, and in 1977 the Vikings – one year removed from what would be their last Super Bowl appearance – drafted a brash young Texan from Rice University named Tommy Kramer.  Nicknamed “Two Minute Tommy” for his penchant for last minute (or sometimes last second) comebacks, Kramer made a few appearances in his rookie season after Tarkenton suffered a broken leg midway through the season, including a game versus the San Francisco 49ers where he threw three touchdowns in eight minutes to lead the team to a come from behind victory.  When Tarkenton retired in 1979, Kramer took the reigns for good and remained the Vikings’ starting quarterback through the 1986 season, and played sporadically for the team through 1989.  It would be another ten years before the Vikings would find another franchise quarterback (that being Daunte Culpepper, drafted in 1999 and the starter from 2000-2005). 

The Fran Tarkenton to Tommy Kramer transition was the one time in the Minnesota Vikings’ 51 year history where the team made a seamless transition between quarterbacks who were drafted and developed by the Vikings.  At the present time, the team’s failure to plan ahead as to a quarterback succession plan has resulted in a down period, relatively speaking, with absences from the playoffs in 2006, 2007, 2010 and almost certainly in 2011 as well. 

The Vikings’ quarterback foibles provides a lesson for business owners who similarly fail to plan their succession.  Over the years I have represented numerous family members of business owners who passed away without any sort of succession plan for their business, be it a lack of a proper estate plan or simply a failure to execute and fund a buy-sell agreement with their business partners.  When this happens, oftentimes the business and the owner’s family both suffer.  In other words, a failure to plan is a plan for failure.

The time for creating and implementing a succession plan for your business is not tomorrow, but rather today.  Just as the Minnesota Vikings selected Tommy Kramer a full two years prior to Fran Tarkenton’s retirement, and groomed him as Fran’s successor until the time he was ready, so too must a business owner identify the plan of succession and set the wheels in motion well in advance so that it is carried out with success.