How to Transfer a Family Business

Family business succession planning is the process of creating a plan to transfer control of a family-owned company to new leadership when the current leadership steps down. Succession planning generally can also include protocols to follow if a business owner needs to be removed from their role involuntarily. For example, a plan can include a path for transferring control should the current owner become unexpectedly incapacitated.

When a person is running a family business, passing it on to the next generation can be one of the most difficult decisions they'll make. Infighting, a hesitancy to show favoritism and being fearful of making the wrong decision for their family's legacy can make the process a challenging and emotional process for many business owners.

Below are a few points for those trying to determine how to write a succession plan for a family business.


When to Start Succession Planning

When you run a family business, you should start thinking very early in the company's life cycle about how to pass it on when you retire. For many entrepreneurs, family business transition planning can seem as challenging as starting their company originally. Early planning can help take the stress out of the succession process.

The day you start your business is the day you should develop your exit plan. Realistically, that doesn'talways happen, but ideally you should start planning at least five to 10 years before you pass on your business to family members.

Wealth planners often get initial calls for advice from business owners who say they are tired of the day-to-day grind and are ready to transition the business to their children immediately.

That's too late to do any longer-term planning like tax mitigation, so it's best to prepare for any business transition several years in advance.


Tips for Passing on the Family Business

Communicate Early and Often

It's important that family-owned businesses positioned for future transitions establish trust and communication among family members and other participants in the business early on.

“When it comes to having family members in the business, it can be difficult for everyone to remain objective," said Chris Van Atta, a trust advisor with City National Bank. “Don't underestimate sibling rivalry. Not having a process or procedure to mediate both professional and personal disputes can impact the performance of the company at large."

One of the best policies to adapt with a business ownership succession plan is to secure as many viewpoints as possible while creating one. Having input from multiple people can help a person leaving the family business make sure they're leaving it in the right hands.

Vantage points can come from various people with different interests, including:

  • Family managers: Family managers are those operating inside the family and inside the business. They include older and younger generations. At times, family managers risk sacrificing the well-being of the business by focusing on family matters and their own personal concerns, such as sibling rivalries.
  • Relatives: There often are family members who are inactive in the family business but remain concerned with management and outcomes. For instance, an older relative might have her own career but desire a future position in the business for her young children.
  • Employees: Employees have interests inside the business as well as outside the family. For instance, whereas older employees may want rewards for decades of loyalty, younger employees may focus their attention on growth opportunities and reasons to stay with the company.
  • Outsiders: This group operates outside of both family and the corporate family as competitors, customers, government regulators and consultants. They impact the family business, but their interests are likely independent of those of the business.

“Though situated outside of the business, outsiders should be considered," said Gaye L. Chun, a City National Bank senior wealth planner. “If the value of the business and footprint in the industry is sufficiently large, outside interests, such as private equity investors, may become involved and affect the owner's decision whether to pass the business to the next generation or seek to sell."

Whether a family business owner should transition the business to the next generation – or sell the business to a competitor or private equity investor in order to cash in on all of the time and money invested into the business – is not an easy question to answer.

“Because it really depends on the specific family involved, it is important that any decision made by the business owner is made after doing a complete due diligence review of the business," Chun explained. “There are a few factors to consider, including the readiness of the next generation to take over and drive the business engine to new levels of success; whether essential non-family key employees would react positively or negatively to working for the next generation; and calculating the true value of the business if the founders are no longer involved."

Have a Family Business Buyout Strategy

Some owners prefer buyouts over gifting a business because the process can show shareholders and investors that the family prioritizes the company's financial health. If your succession plan includes one or more family members buying the rest out, it's important to make sure the process is handled delicately.

Since family members are often more willing to be bluntly honest with each other, business buyouts between family members can sometimes devolve into politics and infighting. However, it doesn't have to be that way. A few precautions can help prevent a buyout from becoming contentious.

Tips for your family business buyout strategy include:

  • Having a plan and sticking to it.
  • Avoid making anyone involved feel rushed.
  • Consider the unique personality traits of your family and adapt the process accordingly.
  • Always include third-party advisors during negotiations.

If you'd like to transfer your business to multiple owners, providing extensive detail is the most important aspect of your succession plan. This process involves defining roles, communicating with shareholders and making sure every person involved with the plan understands it. Read more about this topic in our article about transitioning a business to multiple owners.

Take a Team Approach to Transition Planning

A third party can facilitate discussions to reduce potential family tension.

One of the main reasons family businesses fail is because the owners are not developing a process early enough for management and ownership transitions. One role of a wealth advisor is to talk about these processes and to bring in additional advisors such as attorneys, tax experts and estate planners, if they're missing.

It's important to have both the family's estate plan and business plans in alignment.

You don't want to have a succession plan in place that contradicts your estate plan, such as a will that states your business goes to your kids when you pass away and a business operating agreement with buy-sell documents in the bylaws to non-family members.

For example, your business operating agreement could give the right of first refusal on your business to a partner, yet your will could provide the same business as an inheritance to your kids.

You may need to explore options for segregating parts of your business so you can sell some parts, and structure a buyout or purchase life insurance to compensate offspring who aren't part of the business and won't get proceeds of a sale.

Often these plans require legal assistance. A lot of people avoid calling an attorney, even if they have one, because of the expense. Wealth planners work with families to streamline the questions they need to discuss with an attorney.

Don't Rush the Succession Planning Process

One of the most important aspects of a succession plan is making sure that it's designed to evolve. Naming a successor too quickly can alienate better options both inside and outside the family. Being open minded about your successor means that you'll be more focused on making the right decision – or changing your mind – at any step of the process.

Make sure your succession plan is designed to handle unexpected events that occur along the way. Constantly evaluating if the right people are involved with the process is a great way to do this. One person who seemed like the right successor early on might exhibit qualities later in life that reveal they aren't the right choice. It's important to remember that you don't have to be devoted to early decisions and changing your mind can be what's best for your business and family legacy.

Obtain Third-Party Business Valuations

A business valuation is an essential part of transition planning regardless of the actual plan.

If you plan to gift the business to your family, you need to know the value and to include the value in your estate planning and tax planning. In a way it's no different than if you were to sell the entire business or even just parts of it. You need a baseline understanding of the value.

Because the value will likely become part of relatives' inheritances, valuations are particularly important for families in which some members of the second or third generation are not involved in the business.

In fact, financial and experiential valuations are essential for all stakeholders to understand where the company stands.

For example, a financial valuation encompasses not only the main business's current financial state but also any extra ventures that family members have chosen to pursue.

“Knowing the current value of the business and having an understanding of what may affect its value is imperative to proper planning," explained Chun. “For example, knowing the value helps the owner see the transfer tax consequences of transferring the business to the next generation, or the projected impact upon the owner's personal wealth from a sale."

A financial valuation is what helps the owner define his or her goals and the consequences of such actions, said Chun.

The experiential valuation has a different purpose than the financial valuation. Conducted by a third party, an experiential valuation is unbiased and takes a look at a company's people. The valuation determines who is fundamental to the company's future and success and who requires training.

“It is important to understand the importance people play in the company and thus develop a strategy to continue to motivate and keep them," said Van Atta.

An outside consultant can analyze the work being accomplished by employees and family members in the business and make recommendations for restructuring and possibly additional education to maximize each person's potential.

“Determining owners' goals in advance helps them find particular strategies that may enhance their ultimate success in achieving those goals," explained Chun. “Still, it would be up to the company leaders to decide whether to implement those recommendations."

Prepare the Next Generation for Leadership

Because a succession plan is only as good as the people involved, an important step is to identify members of the next generation who want to run the business and determine how to prepare them for leadership roles.

“Whenever preparing for a chne in leadership, it's important to consider desire, education and demonstrated experience," said Van Atta. “Simply handing over the keys to someone who raised their hand is a recipe for disaster."

Work experience outside of the family business also can be beneficial, Van Atta noted.

“This way, mentoring can work both ways. While the founder passes on wisdom earned from building the business, the younger members share generational insights, external experience and ideas," he said.

Consider Your Retirement Needs

While some business owners have retirement funds from investments that can support them after transferring their business, others will need to rely on at least a portion of the sale of their business for their retirement income needs.

Ways to continue making income on your business after succession include:

  • Becoming a paid advisor to successors and the business.
  • Renting property the business uses to the company's successors.
  • Remaining an active investor with the company.


Avoid Succession Challenges by Aligning Family and Business Goals

A fundamental element of a successful multi-generational family business is aligning on the big picture, or finding a way to unite non-family members, family managers and family members outside of the business around a fundamental single purpose.

“The first step is to understand the perspective of each of the involved family members," said Chun. “Then, you might look at how best to achieve each of their concerns without sacrificing the overall health of the business. You also might consider the limits by which the business can meet those concerns."

Over time, the business owner should work toward establishing an overall framework for the family to work within, she explained. “From there, you work toward a plan that will satisfy as many of the concerns as possible."

Whether the business stays within the family or the owner decides to sell to an outside third-party investor or competitor, it is important that the owner works with an advisor who specializes in business succession and transition, who works for families and, most importantly, who understands the business involved and knows the players who would provide the owner with the best opportunity for success.

City National Bank can help you weigh your options. To learn more, contact our wealth managers today.

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