Are you preparing to take over the family business, but unsure of how to broach the topic of succession planning with your parents? We don’t blame you. Succession planning is rarely an easy conversation, particularly within the context of a family business where there are so many relationship dynamics at play. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to help ease the conflict around such a sensitive subject. In this episode, Gene Marks and Karla Trotman, CEO of Electro Soft, offer their best strategies for navigating succession planning within your family business so that you can ensure a smoother transition when you assume ownership.

Podcast Key Highlights

  • What Can Prevent a Change of Ownership in a Family Business?

    • Educational requirements
    • Asset or credit expectations
    • Siblings with different managerial styles
    • Parents who aren’t ready to retire
  • How Can You Ensure A Smooth Transition as You Assume Ownership of the Family Business?

    • It’s a good idea to create a timeline with your parents specifying exactly when they will hand over the reins, rather than waiting until dire circumstances force them to make this decision.
    • Use the years prior to your parents’ retirement as a “training wheel” period, where they can observe how you work, but still have the opportunity to offer their guidance.
    • Holding family meetings once a month is another effective strategy because it ensures that everyone in the family agrees with all the major company decisions.
  • What Should You Do If Your Parents Are Reluctant to Retire?

    • If your parents are reluctant to retire, you may need to bring in a third party consulting firm to perform an analysis of your business and advocate on your behalf, provided it’s in the company’s best interests.
    • Initiate a conversation with your family about your concerns, frustrations, and your experiences as a member of the family business. Don’t forget to point out all the contributions and value that you bring to the company too.
    • Conduct yourself as though you’re already a CEO; this includes having all your assets and credentials lined up so that they see you’re ready to take over.
    • Should you reach a standstill, you may have to explore your other options or present your family an ultimatum.
  • How Can My Family and I Come to an Agreement About the Purchase Price?

    • Begin by having a third-party group conduct a value assessment of the family business.
    • Then, break up the various aspects of the purchase price into different agreements to ensure that all your bases are covered.
    • Lastly, make sure that you also discuss whether there will be any additional stipulations regarding the employment of additional family members.
  • How Can You Help Your Existing Staff Adjust to the Change of Management Once You Take Over?

    • While it’s okay to have your parents help you as the new owner, set some professional boundaries so that your staff doesn’t get confused by conflicting protocols.
    • Hiring an organizational psychologist can also help your employees cope with the cultural adjustment.



The views and opinions expressed on this podcast are for informational purposes only, and solely those of the podcast participants, contributors, and guests, and do not constitute an endorsement by or necessarily represent the views of The Hartford or its affiliates.

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Gene: Hey everybody, it’s Gene Marks and welcome back to another episode of The Hartford Small Biz Ahead podcast. Thank you so much for joining us. I am here today with a friend of mine, Karla Trotman. Karla is the CEO of Electro Soft and Karla, you’re in Lansdale, PA, correct? Outside of Philadelphia.

Karla: Montgomeryville, just right down the road from Lansdale.

Gene: Right down the road. Yeah, it’s all kind of at the same place. So Karla and I know each other, guys, we’re both Philly people and I’ve spoken to Karla before and interviewed you before. Karla, you run a family run… I mean, I think your business was started by your dad. Tell us a little bit about Electro Soft and how you came to be CEO.

Karla: Sure. So Electro Soft is an electronics contract manufacturer started thirty-seven years ago by my parents. My father was an electronics engineer. He has a computer science masters. He was the director of engineering and manufacturing for a company that did instrumentation. Basically they built DNA analyzing equipment. He would design it, write the software and oversee manufacturing for it. That company shut down. They needed somebody called him up and said, “Hey, you know manufacturing, can you build these cables?” He built the cables as a favor. The guy’s like, “This is great, can you build more?” And then all of a sudden Electro Soft is born on the kitchen table.

Karla: And I wanted nothing to do with the family business. I went to school for logistics. I worked in logistics, actually had my own business, but I had seen how small business and family legacy, that all started to make sense to me as I was working for other people and started a family. So I left corporate America, joined my family and said, obviously my parents were like, people don’t go into business with people that don’t have anything to offer. Thankfully, having worked elsewhere and also having had a business my own for eight years, I was able to integrate all of this newfangled internet thing and search engine optimization that might make an impact into the company.

Karla: And since then I’ve been my family, I bought them out in 2020 right before the pandemic, the best time to take over a company and we’re doing great now today. But what we do specifically is Electro Soft, we sell our time as contract manufacturers. We are contracted with other companies to build their electronics for them. We primarily focus on four areas, which are printed circuit board assemblies, cable wiring harnesses, which are complicated cable assemblies, and then box building closures, usually something that powers a device. And we’ll do either the full turnkey or just the labor only aspect of manufacturing. So we’re like the extension of several, about 30 different companies manufacturing.

Gene: So you’ve been running this company now for yourself. You bought out your parents in 2020, but you were running it from before that, is that correct?

Karla: Correct. We tried to do a little bit of an experiment for about three years where I would make all the business decisions. My dad was still there as training wheels in a sense, but he really wasn’t into the business part. My dad’s a tinkerer. He is an engineer, he likes to build things. So it was almost a relief for him to push all the business stuff off onto his daughter who knows all the business stuff. And we worked very, very well together. He still advises me whenever I need it. I have my own advisory board.

Gene: I wanted to talk to you about your workforce and about how many employees do you have in the company?

Karla: We’re about 30.

Gene: Okay. But I also, I’m actually more interested sort of in this whole transition process because a lot of companies out there are dealing with succession planning issues, and you just went through all of this in 2020. So let me take, if you wouldn’t mind, a few steps back. Did your father have any partners or did he just own the business outright?

Karla: By the time I took over the company, he was the sole owner. He did have a partner years ago, the partner passed away and they had a buyout clause in their agreement. So it was pretty clean. So that was pretty easy, that part. The hard part was then convincing my father it was time to move forward. And we had a little tongue in cheek conversation where I said, “You’re 70, which is not middle aged FYI.” And so he started to understand that. But when I left corporate to join the company, it was under the premise that in three years he would be retiring and that three years would come and go multiple times and it took 11 years for that succession plan and we could get more into that. But that’s how it started him saying it would take three, it took 11.

Gene: Right. So the 11 years was not planned by any chance. I mean that obviously was a while, was this succession plan, this wasn’t a written kind of plan, this was just sort of a handshake agreement between you and your dad, right?

Karla: I think like most parents, I have two brothers. So they thought, oh, well three of them will run the company. They’ll come to work together, it’ll be harmonious, we’ll make a lot of money and everyone will be happy. And it did not work like that because…

Gene: Surprise.

Karla: Right. I knew that my brothers and I had a different set of skills. Originally we were told that we could not take over the family business unless we had a college degree. I had gone, I had completed the degree, I had gone to graduate school, I had worked elsewhere. I knew what I brought to the table. I had my own assets, I had strong credit. I had the ability to walk into any company and be a buyer of that company because I had assets. I had things that would afford me that my brothers did not have that they had not finished college. So in essence, it would be for me, like walking in with two people who don’t know what they’re doing and putting forth all of my assets in order to run the company and then write a check back for sixty-six percent of the proceeds.

Gene: It’s a non-starter. That is a non-starter. Are your brothers, were they involved in the business before? Were they working in the business when you were arrived?

Karla: Yes, they had, I mean I had worked beforehand as well. I’m not an engineer by trade. I love the business piece. I love what we do. I have a lot of pride in the work that we do, but if I had to go back to school for engineering, it just would not have happened. I would not be here today. So it was great that I found my own rhythm, my own space and the management piece. I have a logistics background and really seeing the company holistically and having run a company. And for us, what I had to do was really highlight for my family what our different skill sets were. So I suggested let’s do family meetings once a month because whatever the decision is going to be, we’re going to need to be on the same page.

Karla: So if you bought a giant piece of equipment, why do we buy this equipment? How’s the money being spent? What are the profits this year? Let’s really look at the financials. Let’s talk about the direction that the company is headed and let’s do it as a family. So these family meetings were really strategic in allowing my parents to see how we make decisions as what is our thought process, but also how are we governing our personal lives when it comes to spending money? What are your credit scores? Why haven’t you finished? How far off are you from finishing school? Can you do that right now? And we had real conversations as if we were definitely moving forward.

Karla: In that timeframe, I had also engaged with another company because I knew that I was not going to push my parents over the finish line by myself. I’m still their child no matter how old I am. And I needed a company that would come in and partner with me, but specifically someone that could go toe to toe with my father and convince him that now is the time, you want to do it before something bad happens. You want to do it mindfully. You want to be able to be there and be proud of the transition and step in if need be. So in finding that partner, they then did assessments on myself and my two brothers to give them information, the actual data to show them this is what you’re dealing with. I think they knew it, but to confirm it from a third party, it was extremely meaningful.

Gene: Wow. So you brought in a third party consulting firm that did an analysis of your business and made their recommendations, and you made this decision because you knew that you couldn’t fight this battle on your own and you needed somebody from the outside. Now of course, I’m assuming that your dad and your brothers had to buy into hiring this third party firm. I’m assuming it was probably paid for by the company. So at least you got them to that point of saying, can we all agree that we should have this company come in and do their analysis? What kind of a company was that? Was it like an accounting firm or a law firm, a business appraisal firm? Just kind of curious for anybody that might be considering doing something similar.

Karla: They are a financial advisory company. They don’t exist any longer. They’re purchased and then repurchased, but it was United Capital. They have this Philadelphia office. Goldman had bought them and now Goldman had divested from them and I forget who they are now. But in this Philadelphia office, the same group of amazing people minus the managing partner who had since retired. But I still lean on them for advice.

Gene: Fascinating. And did you guys make any agreements as a family? And I hope you don’t mind me, this is, it’s fascinating with the family dynamics because so many businesses going through the same thing. Did you and your father and your brothers make any agreements beforehand? We will abide by whatever’s recommended by this firm, or did you guys just go into it saying, let’s just hear what they have to say?

Karla: I guess a little bit of both. I think my parents had in mind what they wanted. I knew what I was not going to do and what I was willing to do. And I think my brothers were just kind of the ambivalent. They’re just like whatever, and would just lean in whatever direction. There was no bad direction to really lean in. For me specifically, I mean, I don’t want this to sound like, oh, it was just so lovely and I brought in this firm. We had great conversations. It got ugly at certain points of time. I remember…

Gene: It doesn’t sound that way by the way.

Karla: Okay. Because I remember walking out of a family meeting and if I had a match, I would’ve thrown it over my shoulder and burned the building to the ground. I was very upset at various points in this process because I felt that I had put the time in. I did every single thing that was asked of me and that the bar kept going higher for me, but lower for them. And it just left really a sick feeling for me.

Karla: I came to the point, I had to realize the value that I had. I realized that there were people courting me to take over their family businesses and run them for equity because their children didn’t want to or couldn’t do it. And so it was very much an option for me, but I was holding on to really wanting to do my own family business, but I am the type of person that I don’t put forth an ultimatum unless I’m willing to live with both sides of it.

Karla: And it got to the point where I said, I’m of a, quote, unquote, protected class as far as age, I was over 40. My kids, I wanted to take them at a certain school, move another school I had to take in a pay cut. So I had invested a lot on the front end on my side of my family with my husband and my children. It was extremely stressful. My husband did not sign up to be in a family business. He’s like, I have a well-paid wife and now I don’t have a well-paid wife and she’s investing, putting a lot, all the chips on black and we really hope that it pays off. And I had faith that it would, but I knew at that moment it was very pivotal for us as a family, my family with my children and my husband, that I need to make a specific decision for us.

Karla: So I told my family, I will go and work somewhere else. Do whatever you want to do. Take 50 more years if you want. And if I’m available, I will come back. No big deal, no harm, no foul. I might come back, we’ll see, but if you’re not ready, I can’t put my clock, calibrate it to yours. And we’ve always been very open and honest. My dad wasn’t offended. I think at that point he realized that he kind of pushed it too much. And he said to me one day, “You know what?” Oh, before I even say that part, my dad said to me, “We always thought it was going to be you and your brother’s taking over.” And I said, “I cannot. You see how they make decisions, we are not in alignment. You would not go into business with someone you were not aligned with.” I love them. I will find ways to make it even somewhere along the lines. They will always be able to work here as long as they show up.

Karla: But as far as partners, I cannot put forth all of the effort for only thirty-three percent. And so one day I came in and he said, “I was thinking what you’re saying. You’re right. You should not put forth all the effort.” Because for me, one argument we had a while ago was, well, if you want us to be equal, then split the company up into three divisions and each person run their own and finance their own and then it will be equal. And he is like, “They can’t do that.” And I said, “I know. So why do you expect me to heavy lift?” And that was me really fighting for myself. It wasn’t me against my father, it wasn’t against my brothers.

Karla: I just, at a point in my life, once over 40, you’re like, I’m not going to do things that is going to cause me to hate myself. And that was just a bad deal that would’ve caused me to hate myself. I would’ve loved to have brothers who had gone, we’ve all went to business school and we all got our MBAs and we all took this… I think we’d go farther faster and it would be a tremendous thing. But that’s not what we have. But they support me in other ways. My one brother works in production. We need that. I have one brother who’s very talented in IT and programming our robots and whatnot. I need that. That’s what I can rely upon for them. And they’re compensated accordingly and bonus out as well. So it’s not that they don’t, we’re just not business partners.

Gene: The dynamics are fascinating to me as well. Are you the oldest of the three?

Karla: I’m definitely the oldest. I have oldest energy. I’m bossy.

Gene: But that helps. That helps that you’ve got… At least you’re the older sister, but to be, first of all, you’ve got the family dynamic where you’ve got the two brothers, but then you’ve also, you’ve got the sister. You’re a female and you’ve got the whole male thing going on there as well where they’re not taking in equity from their father. And there is that underline going on there as well, but somehow you managed to come to an agreement. And in the end, was it just your dad laying down the line and saying, everyone, I made this decision and I’m going to sell it to Karla? Or was it more of a mutual decision?

Karla: I think that through just talking to the advisory group and really favors, this is the move. When I was able to come with the banking and come with the lawyer and have my own team assembled through their advices of course and get all these things in alignment, it showed that I was serious. I think I’ve read a book a long time ago, I think it was called How to Be CEO. And I read it while I was working in corporate and it said, “Don’t wait for people to just make you CEO. You need to just be CEO so that people can see that type of energy.” And so I was making boss moves before I was the boss because I wanted that to be projected and in their minds that they see that.

Karla: So when my dad said, “Okay, we’re ready. I was ready.” I had everything in alignment. And it’s like what They say, get ready, be ready so you don’t have to get ready. And that’s really what I was doing. I had interviewed all of these banks. I had gotten all the term sheets. I had done all of the work beforehand when he was still hemming and hawing so that when it was time, I just picked up the phone and I was like, “Let’s go.” And we were able to put everything in alignment and happen very quickly.

Gene: How’d you come up with a purchase price?

Karla: Well, part of bringing in a group is that they will do an assessment of value. And when you’re doing a family purchase, a friendly purchase or a little discounted shares or what have you, it’s kind of like when you sell the house, you spruce it all up, you make sure that the landscaping is done. You don’t do that for a family transfer. You’re like, no, it’s fine. It’s fine. And then you just do the valuation as is. And so we took that as valuation. And so we came up with a way to… I think oftentimes people think when you take over a family business, if it’s worth a million dollars, you got to write a million dollar check. And it does not happen that way. And I’m sure the people that listen are very savvy.

Karla: But for those who may not know, there’s different ways that you can come to an agreement where you break up aspects of the purchase price in different agreements. So it’s the same body, but there’s different things. So maybe what you do is you keep your parents on the payroll and you pay them, you’re still paying their health insurance, and at the end of the month, the leftover salary for what they’re doing for you is like a hundred bucks. So you write them a hundred dollar check. You could also do gifted shares that are under the taxed, the estate tax, the gift tax minimum. There’s also ways where you can still write the monthly checks that come out of your profits, or you just go to the bank and ask for a loan. Now you wouldn’t ask for a loan because interest rates are insane. But at the time, a really good rate and was able to put a majority of the purchase price into that loan.

Gene: And did your father haggle at all or did he just agree to the price that was, or the appraisal that was made by this independent firm?

Karla: We did not haggle. It was very friendly. I mean, I think that he realized that he had this company for over 30 years. He made a good living. He’s paid off his homes, his cars. He’s traveled the world many times over. And so I think a lot of times that, and I’m very grateful that I have the parents that I have, they recognize how blessed they were and all that they’ve been given in life and the ability to have come where they come from and where they are today and their ability to say, it’s enough. We’re good. We’re good.

Gene: Did your father make a stipulation in this purchase agreement to maintain employment for your brothers or was that left out?

Karla: I think he realized I would never agree to that.

Gene: I’m getting that.

Karla: Because I think that there’s nothing in that agreement that would cause me to hate myself like I had said but it also doesn’t chain me to anything specific. There were some things that I had originally put in the agreement that once we got to the table, I was like, “I changed my mind. I don’t want to sign this part.” And so we just didn’t at that table because he was like, “Okay, that’s fine.” Because it wasn’t going to make or break the agreement. I just eventually may have come up with something like, I don’t feel good about this clause because what if this happens? And most of the time in business, what if this happens, happens. Like, what if we have a flood? We’re going to have a flood. So those are the reasons why we were able to haggle a little bit, but it was never contentious or anything like that.

Gene: All right, that that’s helpful to know. And as part of this agreement, was there a consulting side? In other words, is your dad still contractually involved with the company in any way? And does he get under your feet or on your nerves even now three years later? Is he showing up at the door?

Karla: No. In the beginning he was, no doubt about that. We got to the point where the staff started to get confused. They were getting mixed messages. I was trying to change the culture, establish new core values. Not new, but just really state the core values that we already had, but they just weren’t formal and do all the little businessy things that I learned in business school and had seen in other companies that I thought we needed.

Karla: And he was just not that way. We just have different energy in general. So I had to talk with him. I said, “Everyone’s confused, so if you have something you want to tell them, tell me.” He’s like, “Oh, I’m just trying to help you out.” And I think everyone had to figure out what the rhythm was. And I just told staff, I was like, “Look, listen to him, but just don’t do it. Just let me know and I’ll help you prioritize it so that he’s not offended just till we get over this hump.” And it worked out. But we did have a little bit of friction where I said, “Please stop telling people. That’s not what I want them to do.” And he’s like, “I’m trying to help you out.” I said, “I’m supposed to be helping you out, you’re consultant.” I was like, “Yes, consult. Consult me. That’s it.” And he laid off.

Gene: Right. I mean certainly it helped that you were at the company for a number of years before this, so the employees got to know you. But even having said that, what was it like the next day after the transaction when you were the legal owner of the company and now it’s your pure house? How was it? Did you experience turnover? I mean, did some employees, I mean, you’re changing the culture of the company, so I’m assuming it’s got to have some type of recourse. How was that in the days and months that followed the transaction?

Karla: Well, if you recall, I said I was running the company making decisions be beforehand. And I think that doing that, it kind of got used to the way that it is. I think if you asked them today, what is it like when Jim was running the company versus Karla now you’d say, oh, it’s different. I don’t think that it’s different, good or different, bad. I think we just still have that love of people, love of the people that work for us, the respect that we have for them and just the gratefulness that we have for them. None of that has changed.

Karla: I think really I’m a little bit more buttoned up when it comes to, like with the core values thing, I don’t care about the skills. I really need good people that believe in our presence team and pride aspect of our company because we’ve had some jerks work for us and it doesn’t work. It makes everyone miserable. And it’s hard to grow your company when there’s really bad energy in your environment. Manufacturing is hard enough to recruit for, so now they get here and they’re miserable. It just doesn’t work especially when you think about how all the baby boomers who are used to that type of draconian way of management.

Gene: Yeah, things have changed.

Karla: Yeah, they retire, the next group of folks really want to care, want you to care about the things they care about, they want to like where they come. It’s just a different mindset and it shifts generationally. So yeah, I think that the whole shift was different. I thought I would lose people. Some people I asked to no longer be here. I didn’t do it all at once. But the best thing that I did for my advisory board, they told me to, I was suggested to bring on an organizational psychologist, something I would’ve never thought of.

Karla: And that’s why advisory board is really good because, and it depends on the people you have on. And we could talk about that if you wish, but with my advisory board, I had one gentleman who had run a successful electronics manufacturing company and had an exit, successful exit. And I had another person who was an M&A attorney. And so he’s used to going in and stripping down companies and acquiring them and bringing them on. The M&A attorney said, “When I go in the companies and I go, especially with when you buy overseas in Asia,” he was like, “I fire all the managers because all the people are beholden to the management team. So they would never really get to the changeover.” I was like, “Well, I’m going to fire everyone.”

Gene: Right.

Karla: So they said the best way to turn the page is to really get someone that could help you with the culture. And it was the one of the best pieces of advice I’d had because it was definitely not on the bingo card. It was not in any MBA book that I had read coming up through school. And I had not known another company owner to even think of having an organizational psychologist. And that helped with people with their concerns and him help with frame of mindset and how to frame different things because our team isn’t huge. It was 30 people company we’re talking about five trying to get into alignment. And so with that, it was helpful. It helped us through a lot of the growing pains they’re in. And I think we’re in a really good place now.

Gene: You give a good advertisement for this. So this was an organizational consultant. This was somebody that was on retainer. Was that person on site every day or was it a short-term project or a long-term project? I’m fascinated by this.

Karla: I call it monthly therapy. Come in and he sits in the conference room and he has one hour sessions with folks. And in the beginning he’ll come in with me, we’ll chat, and he’s like, “How are things going? What’s the vibe? What’s the energy,” from my top down perspective? And he’s like, “Anything you want me to talk to them about focus on?” And some people from that point, he knows how to direct the conversation. And so we’ll have conversation and it’s still almost like patient client privilege, but it’s driven for the best interest of the company.

Karla: So somebody’s like, I don’t make enough money. I want to make $200,000 a year. And he’s like, really? Tell me more about that. And they’ll explain why. And it would be the same conversation they would come in with me frustrated. They’re not making enough money, but he’s able to give them the business perspective. And then he’s also able to almost counsel them because he’s a licensed psychologist. So he’s counseling them from the perspective of, okay, this is how business works. And because you may have financial issues at home, maybe what your issue really is budgeting and stress, and you need to focus on that because if you go and you look up what you’re supposed to be making, this is what you’re supposed to be making. So he helps calm people from the ledge in a sense. And it really helps put us on the same page. He’s not meant to be here forever. What he’s really meant is to help us build cohesion.

Gene: Makes sense. All right. Well we’re just about out of time, but I have one final question for you. Karla. How is Thanksgiving dinner at your house and with your family?

Karla: It’s really good because it’s at my house. I control everything.

Gene: Of course. Do I have any doubt? Of course it’s at your house. Do your brothers come or everybody good?

Karla: Everyone is great. Every once in a while, my younger brother will come up and tell me I’m doing a terrible job at something. And I’m like, “Thanks a lot.” But for the most part, we have a lot. I am very blessed to have the family that I have. My brothers are very supportive of me. Sometimes they act like brothers, sometimes they don’t. And sometimes you make the tough calls, but you were put in this position. That’s what I always remember. It’s my assets on the line. I have to pay the bills. I’m the one with the sleepless nights. Thanks for the suggestion, which you don’t have skin in the game.

Gene: Yeah, yeah. Really in the end, everything that you’ve done, all the sweat and the tears and the yelling and the screaming and all of that, you were doing it in your best interest for your family. You were doing it in the best interest for your dad. And even I think your brothers are in a better place because of this. And that’s not to mention your employees and your partners and your suppliers and your customers. So you’ve made some good decisions, but they weren’t easy. And I’m glad to see you’re on the right track. It’s a great story. Thank you.

Karla: Thanks Gene. I didn’t know that was doing a good thing until you told me because sometimes it feels crazy, but I appreciate it.

Gene: Yeah. Sometimes it does. Yeah. And people, you just got to take a step back and look at the big picture. There’s a lot of people relying on you for the decisions that you’re making. And sometimes you got to turn people, upset the craft a little bit to make the right decisions. And I think that you have, you’re not done yet. You still got way more work to do, but you’re definitely on the right path.

Karla: Thank you.

Gene: Very impressive. Karla Trotman is the CEO of Electro Soft in Montgomeryville, Pennsylvania. Karla, thank you very much for joining me. That was a great conversation. Everybody, you have been watching and listening to The Hartford Small Biz Ahead podcast. My name is Gene Marks. If you need any tips or advice or help in running your business, please visit us at or Thanks very much for watching here listening. We’ll see you again next time. Take care.

Gene: Thanks so much for joining us on this week’s episode of the Hartford Small Biz Ahead podcast. If you like what you hear, please give us a shout out on your favorite podcast platform. Your ratings reviews and your comments really help us formulate our topics and help us grow this podcast. So thank you so much. It’s been great spending time with you. We’ll see you again soon.

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