Carol Van Wyk, an Entrepreneurs' Organization (EO) member in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is president of ABD Engineering, which specializes in architectural acoustics and audiovisual design. She assumed leadership of the company in 2017 when her husband--the company's founder--passed away after a seven-month battle with leukemia. We asked Carol about her experience and how she suggests other entrepreneurs prepare for the unimaginable. Here's what she shared.

When your husband, Kenric, was diagnosed, what conversations did you have?

He was an eternal optimist and didn't think he would die, so we didn't talk about anything until the doctor told us that we only had about three days left. Even then, I wasn't part of the business conversations. I knew the business would continue--but I had no idea I'd be involved.

The beautiful thing was that Kenric had already become less involved in the day-to-day running of the company. He and his COO had realized that Kenric was the visionary and his COO was the integrator. Since Kenric was away a lot at conferences, serving on boards and gaining new business, they'd implemented an operating and managerial system that largely removed him from operations. So the leadership team was able to keep things moving after he passed away. If they hadn't already set things up that way, the business would have been in bad shape.

What, if any, business experience did you have before you lost your husband?

None! I'd studied music education, taught school, been part of our church's children's ministry and home-schooled our son. I found myself with an ownership stake in the company and wanted to make sure our employees were well taken care of and that I used this gift as well as I possibly could.

I had to make decisions quickly. Two employees left within six weeks of my husband's death. We needed to hire people, maintain the culture, make new sales and visit architects who'd worked with the company for years to let them know the business was continuing.

Shortly before Kenric was diagnosed, the company had acquired a firm in Oregon whose principal was retiring. I went to Portland with our COO to throw him a retirement party and spend time with everyone. That was when I knew this would evolve into a leadership role.

What was the biggest surprise when you took over the business? 

What caught us all by surprise was that my husband was the only rainmaker in the company. He was great with people and a terrific networker. Our clients would get him to pitch new business with them. But those were innate capabilities, so he'd never taught anyone how to do that part of his job. After the first year, it became apparent that we needed to create a system for sales that would work well for the personalities left behind.

What is the most important lesson you've learned from this experience?

Honestly, what comes to mind for me is my spiritual journey. My husband was my provider and anchor. Pretty quickly, people forget that you're a widow and that you're struggling to make huge decisions on your own. I had to learn to lean on my faith in God. I pray like never before--for wisdom and to show me what's next and even to bless our meetings.

How has Entrepreneurs' Organization (EO) helped you along this journey?

Kenric was an early member of EO in Grand Rapids. When he got sick and passed away, people from his EO Forum came to see us. When I was invited to join, I ate up the education sessions and hearing about the issues my Forum mates faced. It taught me a lot very fast. At this point, two years in, the challenge is not just to survive, which we've done, but to thrive. That's very motivating!

How would you suggest entrepreneurs prepare for such an unexpected challenge?

  1. Build your team. Understand how important it is to have a team around you. Create accountability charts--and then fill key sales, finance and other seats with the right people. Select someone to shadow the things that only you do. Entrepreneurs sometimes have a blind spot about preparing the person who can step into their role.
  2. Invest in adequate insurance. Maintain short- and long-term disability insurance policies so that you avoid a huge change in income if you have a catastrophic illness or injury. Pay for a life insurance policy that will cover your funeral costs and will provide something for your spouse to live on during their transition, which may include downsizing or buying a new home.
  3. Keep your records in order. Write a will and keep it updated. Include details of trusts or other accounts and how they relate to the business. Write down passwords and safe combinations--not on your computer--and keep them updated.
  4. Talk with your spouse. Ask, "What would you want the business to look like if I died or became unable to run it?" Discuss options including keeping the business going, your spouse's desired role, and whether to sell outright or sell to the employees. Then make those arrangements. It will relieve your spouse from making those decisions when they are in deep grief, and their brain can't make good decisions.