Cambridge Chamber of Commerce

There comes a time in the life of most businesses when its founder, or owner, decides it’s time to step away. In the case of family-owned businesses, it can be especially difficult and requires often frank conversations when it comes to creating a viable succession plan.

 

“You may assume the next generation is going to take over the business, but did you have that conversation with the children and does it algin with their vision? Is there alignment?” says Carlo Ciarmitario, Partner and Regions East Family Office Leader, KPMG Enterprise. “It really could get even more complicated with larger families with multiple family members where some are involved in the business, and some are not involved.”

 

According to a succession survey conducted by CFIB last year, at least 76% of Canadian business owners plan to exit their business within the decade resulting in over the transfer of $2 trillion worth of business assets changing hands during this period.

 

Couple this with the fact that only 1 in 10 (roughly 9%) have a formal succession plan in place to assist in the transition of the business and the economic landscape in Canada is in for major changes.

 

“Those discussions are tough discussions that not everybody wants to get involved with,” says Carlo, adding he spends at least 60-70% of his time in this area. “It’s really about the founder wanting to let go and they may not be ready to let go. For many of them, the business is part of their family, and they can’t fathom the idea that somehow they’re not going to be involved in the business going forward.”

 

However, he says having a communication framework is fundamental to all succession discussions and must involve everyone, including third generation family members if necessary.

 

“There can be a lot of emotions involved in that discussion,” says Carlo. “But I think people need to know that discussion has to happen.”

 

 

To assist, he offers the following information:

 

Q. Is having a clear succession planning something many SMEs often put on the backburner?

 

Founders may not be ready to let go. Many do not feel that the next generation is ready or even capable of running the business the way they have been operating the business.  Many of these owners started the business from the ground up and have been involved in every aspect of the operations: whether it’s relating to the hiring of staff, or the way the business operates, to working with the bank and investors on financing the operations and maintaining profitability. Things to consider:

 

  1. Succession requires a communication framework and strategy for all parties involved.  It’s not as simple as the founders of the business say they are going to retire and that the next generation steps in.  A plan needs to be put in place on how the transition will take place, who will be succeeding the founders and the timing of the transition.
  2. Many of the next generation family members are not prepared.  They do not understand their roles in the family business and the required accountabilities with accepting those roles.  This becomes even more challenging when certain members of the next generation are involved in the business while others are not involved.
  3. Lack of a common vision between the various parties.  The founders may have a particular family member in mind to succeed them.  However, their vision may not align with the next generation:  Does the next generation individual want to be the successor?  How do the other family members feel about the succession plan?  This could lead to a lot of difficult discussions and conflict around sensitive issues.
  4. The majority of the founder’s wealth may be tied up in the business. If they have insufficient assets outside of the business, they may be unwilling to let go as they are concerned that they will not be able to maintain the lifestyle they have been accustomed to.

 

Q.    What are the first few important steps towards creating a successful succession plan?

 

An estate freeze is a common succession planning tool but is part of the overall succession planning process. At a high level, an estate plan involves the founders freezing their current equity interest in the family business shares at today’s fair market value. 

This is typically followed by having a family trust, the beneficiaries of which would include the founders’ children subscribing for equity shares that will enable the future growth of the business to pass onto the next generation.  When structured properly, an estate freeze allows the founders to cap the taxes their estates will have to pay on death while transferring the future value of the business to the next generation. Things to consider:

 

  1. Does the next generation want to be part of the family business?  An outcome of these discussions may be that family should sell the business rather than keep the business in the family which often is a difficult pill to swallow for the founders of the business who may have always envisioned the business being passed down from generation to generation;
  2. If multiple children involved in the business, who should be the successor of the business?   These discussions will also involve how to deal with children who are not involved in the business.  Do each of the children get an equal share of the equity of the family business or does the future equity get allocated in a different proportion or do some children do not receive any equity in the business but are somehow compensated with other assets the family may have?;
  3. Does the next generation of family have the appropriate skills, both operational and leadership, to successfully continue the business?  If not, the family may decide to bring in an independent third party who has the right skills and experience to run the family business;
  4. How will future business and investment decisions be made?  Is the first-generation still making the key business decisions?  Or will decisions be made jointly by the first and second generation with the goal that over time the second generation of family will be making all key decisions;
  5. Families will need to have discussions around implementing a governance structure. This ranges from having a Family Council Structure where all family members, owners and non-owners are involved, to an Advisory Board where input from individuals who are not part of the business can provide input on strategy and direction but the family still has the final say on decisions; to a formal Board structure which may include the appointment of outside third parties to lead or participate on the Board.

 

Q. When is the right time to create a succession plan? Are there signs to watch for?

 

There is no real right time to start a succession plan.  Just as the business did not grow over night your succession plan won’t happen overnight.  The process evolves over time

A good idea is to begin the process five to seven years prior to either selling the business (if that is what the family decides) or from the founder retiring/stepping back from day-to-day operations.  This will allow for enough time to affect a proper transition of the business or get it ready for a potential sale.

 

 

Q. Is creating a succession plan a difficult process?

 

The most difficult part is getting the conversation started as noted above.  The natural tendency is to avoid the conversation.  However, once the process gets started, most succession plans do have a positive outcome.  The key is getting everyone’s input and making the decision collectively.

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