Daughter steps in to take over construction company

When Dave Zerngast first approached his stepdaughter, Ashley Thill, about taking over as president and CEO of Zernco, the construction company he founded in 1991, she was hesitant.

She wasn’t sure she was ready. And her dad had his own team in place.

She had worked for Zernco twice.

But after college, Thill, now 42, wanted to go out and prove herself.

She first joined Koch Industries and then moved into the investment advisory industry in operations and business development.

In 2009 — a year after her dad first approached her with the offer — Thill decided she was ready to take on the challenge.

“I believed in Zernco,” Thill said. “My family made great sacrifices.”

None of her siblings was interested.

“I wanted to make sure I carried on the legacy,” Thill said.

After Thill had worked beside her dad for a time, Zerngast told her he was thinking of moving out of his office.

“I said, ‘What?’ ” Thill said.

“We had more confidence in her than she had in herself,” Zerngast said. “That weekend I cleared out.”

That year, 2011, which was a record one for the company in revenue and profits; 2012 was the company’s second-best year.

Today, Zernco is on track to almost double its revenue over last year.

Zernco builds restaurants, convenience stores and other businesses, such as Casey’s General Stores, Wendy’s, Applebee’s and Red Lobsters.

It employs 43 people in five states, twice the number from three years ago.

Zerngast began the company as a small cabinet shop in his garage – so he could travel less and spend more time with his family.

Eventually, a client asked him to build a restaurant, and the company grew from there.

Zerngast found it easier to start the company than to pass it on.

“You’ve got to make sure the vision is right, the character of the person is correct,” he said. “As an owner, you have a responsibility to your employees and to your clients.”

A succession plan can’t be rushed, he said. And it can’t be forced on children.

Thill is the right person for the job, he said.

She has stayed true to the company’s values, he said. And she’s a good manager.

“Her management style is better than mine,” Zerngast said.

Thill might not know how to put up walls, but she understands how to manage people in a broader way, Zerngast said.

“The company needed her,” he said. “It was outgrowing me.”

Thill has focused on employee development, training and ways to help employees advance.

The biggest challenge, Thill said, was stepping into her dad’s team and preparing for him to move on.

“They were used to calling me,” Zerngast said. “For employees here, it was a big transformation.”

And Thill still calls Zerngast for advice.

But she is the decision maker, Zerngast said.

“If I’m lucky enough, she’ll ask for my opinion,” Zerngast joked. “Sometimes she’ll even do what I tell her.”