Exiting a Family Business: Three Questions

Transitioning a Family Business has special issues. This interview was reprinted last week in the newsletter of Steven Bankler, CPA.

We asked San Antonio business consultant John F. Dini, one of the nation’s leading experts on business ownership and exit planning, for his advice on handing down the family business. As the author of Hunting in a Farmer’s World, Beating the Boomer Bust and 11 Things You Absolutely Need to Know About Selling Your Business, Dini literally “wrote the book” on succession planning. He recommends that Baby Boomers and other business owners with an eye on retirement carefully consider the following questions.

What will your role in the company be?

Dini says that many owners “hand off” their companies without a real succession plan, especially when the business is destined to stay in the family. In those cases, ownership is often passed on while control remains—officially or unofficially—in the hands of the original owner, which can cause significant problems.

“Discuss what you want your level of activity to be, and what your successors think it should be,” he advises.  “Keeping your old office, or showing up every day to ‘just check on things,’ cripples your successor’s authority and ability to implement his or her own vision for the business.”

Is your successor ready, willing and able to handle change?

Many second-generation owners are indoctrinated to run the business exactly as they were taught.  However, as Dini points out, that may not be the best course of action.

“Markets, products and technology evolve,” he says, recommending that you consider: “Is your successor ready to adjust to changes in the business? Does he or she have any experience in dealing with major disruptions, such as the loss of a key customer or employee?”

Also understand that you cannot replicate your own mix of skills and talents in a successor, especially when it comes to the experience and “battle scars” you’ve gained along your entrepreneurial journey.

“It’s often impossible to train a successor as a ‘utility infielder’ who can handle finance, operations and sales,” Dini explains. “If key employees are critical to supplement certain areas of running the business, they should be included in a family business succession plan with long-term incentives for retention.”

Does the company have the financial strength to thrive without your personal signature?

“As a family business expands, an owner’s ability to personally guaranty its liabilities usually grows with it,” cautions Dini. He recommends taking an honest, comprehensive look at how your departure will affect finances from both the business and personal sides.

“Can the company maintain necessary credit facilities if you don’t back them up? If not, consider talking to your bank about how to limit your exposure,” he advises. “Many parents have lost their savings because they stopped watching the business until the calls started coming from its creditors.”

Succession in family businesses is often a balancing act between the desire to give the children appropriate freedom to run the company and protecting the assets of the parents. Planning should encompass timing, authority and financial responsibility, with all parties agreeing on the parameters.

Do you know the owner of a family business? Please share!

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3 Responses to Exiting a Family Business: Three Questions

  1. David Basri says:

    I have read these columns for years. Enough with the exit planning already. Most of us are out here trying to succeed, not leave,

    • John F. Dini says:

      Thanks David. I know you’ve been a loyal reader for years, and I appreciate your comments. They’ve always been well-considered and erudite, if not necessarily in agreement with mine!

      I guess you missed my post on February 12th. I read somewhere that “A particular strength is using a variety of technologies to bring separate systems together into a coherent solution.” In my case, I was fielding requests for articles and speaking on multiple topics, blogging on a variety of subjects, developing planning tools for advisors and consulting on ownership transitions. Too much work for diffused results. It was time to get focused.

      I’d hate to lose you, but exit planning is what it’s gonna be…

  2. Ron Bento says:

    Wow – good article and good comments in response. Exit planning is very similar to planning a football game. One can not just field a team and see what happens if the intent is to win. One must anticipate the opponent. Plan and execute a play script at the start to see if your player skill and play strategy can adequately defeat, and with how much difficulty. Personally, I really enjoy reading about exiting regularly because it is practice. I remember Coach Lombardi mostly for saying, “It is not practice that makes perfect – it is perfect practice that makes perfect.” This is how we succeed today – by anticipation of and preparation for the leave.

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