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The Transfer of Ownership: What are Your Options?
Many family businesses are started with an eye towards establishing a lasting family legacy for future generations. If life unfolds as one hopes, the family and business mature, a successor emerges, grooming begins, and plans for the transfer of management and control are unrolled and implemented - ideally. But life doesn’t always happen the way it is envisioned. Key pieces of the puzzle may be missing which force the consideration of alternative plans or options that were never envisioned. It happens this way more often than not for family business owners, so it would be important to assess your options as far in advance as possible.
The decision as to which option to consider is driven by a number of factors:
- Availability of a successor. For many family owned-businesses, the children are successor candidates. In some cases, none of the children emerge as qualified or interested in continuing the business. Business owners may not be able to find the right external person to bring in and groom as a successor.
- Financial position of the owner. The financial circumstances of the owner may dictate that the business be sold in order to raise cash for retirement or other financial needs.
- Marketability of the company. Some businesses have little intrinsic value or are facing financial difficulties due to market conditions which reduce their value as an on-going concern.
Any one or a combination of these factors will be the primary determinant for which option you will need to consider.
Business Transfer Options
Make it a Family Affair
Keeping the business in the family is often the first choice for many family business owners. If all of the pieces are in place, it offers the best opportunity for the successful continuation of the business. It takes a lot of planning that needs to begin while your children are relatively young. As part of a family business succession strategy, there needs to be a multi-stage development plan for the children who are candidates along with an objective way to assess their progress, their interest, their commitment and their competencies.
As the family and the business mature, it is important to create definitive ownership transfer plans that include clear objectives, expectations, roles, responsibilities and timetable. The plan must specify how the transfer of management, control and, ultimately, ownership will occur. Short of that, your successor candidates may become discouraged or resentful. It is important to keep their commitment level high by moving them along a timeline with benchmarks and milestones that indicate how the transition is progressing.
Going Outside the Family
It is not uncommon for a family owned business to go outside to find a successor. Either a qualified candidate doesn’t emerge within the family or none express any desire. So, the business owner who wants to see the business continue must commence a search to identify a possible successor. The search may begin inside the business if there are key people or partners that have demonstrated their commitment and competencies for running the business.
If there aren’t any candidates inside the business, then the search has to go outside. This is a much more difficult path and, unless you have a well-developed business network in your community, it is usually best traveled with a professional recruiter. This can take some time, as you will need to be as thorough in your search and selection as necessary to find a person with the skills and commitment you need.
If you are successful at bringing in a possible successor you will need a very detailed business plan that includes the succession strategy, the timeline, the terms of ownership transfer, a method for valuation, and method of financing. Very specific benchmarks should be established against which your candidate’s performance is evaluated. If the candidate is brought in as a partner, then a partnership agreement with buyout provisions should be in place. It is very critical to have competent legal and financial advice throughout the whole succession process.
Prepare for Your Best Option
Even though you may be years away from having to choose an option, the best course of action right now is to plan and prepare. Businesses that have a long term strategy in place and are managed in a way that increases the value of the business will typically have more options available to them.