The idea of business succession planning for family-owned businesses has changed in recent years. In the past, it was assumed a child would one day take over the business from his or her parent. Now, however, that assumption has changed for a number of families. It is rare to see a business run by a second- or third-generation family owner.
We started seeing a cultural shift in the mid‑2000’s, when business owners who were ready to retire began coming to us and asking us to help them sell their business because they did not have a family member in place to take it over. In previous generations, an often unspoken powerful message was delivered by parents to their children: the “family business” means the family must run the company, irrespective of desire or competency.
Such heavy‑handed succession of family businesses resulted in a predictable failure of many of the family businesses. Far too often, children of family business owners lack the desire and/or the skills to be as successful as their parents or grandparents. Without such desire and skills, the transition of the family business to the next generation often times turns out to be the worst thing that ever happened to the younger generation taking over the business, the family business employees, and the senior generation.
We often describe the fall-off of business and related problems as the “succession planning dip.” The “dip” would be a dip in the business revenue, profit, and most importantly, family relations.
As education of family business owners evolved, owners getting ready to retire in the early and mid‑2000’s decided to take a different approach. Long before business succession was even considered, the business owners would recommend their children should “follow their dreams” and find a job they “love.” Such advice often led to children not being involved in the family business, and thus, owners with no family to take over their business.
Nevertheless, these business owners, like previous generations, were reluctant to sell. Like their parents and grandparents, not only were these business owners struggling with whether they were ready to part with the business they had spent decades building, they also felt responsible for their employees and to the community. Their fear was, as they had seen too often before, an outside buyer would make promises to keep the business in the region and take care of the employees and the community. Rarely are such promises fulfilled, and not long after the sale, the buyer’s strategy or management changes and the business is sold to another buyer, who does not know or care about such promises. The new owner either shutters or moves the business, resulting in valued employees losing their jobs and the community they cared about suffering from the loss.
The solution, it turned out, was relatively simple and has worked for dozens of business owners in northwestern Pennsylvania in the last decade. We call it the “Family Private Equity Model.”
The Family Private Equity Model allows families to retain ownership of the business while hiring a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and professional management to take over day-to-day operations. The senior generation business owner continues to stay involved as a chairperson of the Board of Directors. The concept is similar to a private equity firm buying the family business. But in this scenario, the family retains the business—perhaps the best investment the family may ever have. As many owners have said to us, “There is no place I could put my money that would give the yields that my own company generates and none that I could trust like I trust my own company.”
In many cases, we see the business owner staying on not just as the chairperson of the Board, but as an employee, often taking on a specific role they truly love and which meets their skill set. Such a role might be in product development or client development, allowing the owner to step away from the big, time-consuming day-to-day decisions while maintaining an active role in a position she or he enjoys. Often, they concentrate on the role they really wanted when they created the family business but found themselves burdened by the other mundane functions they had to undertake to have a successful business (for example, meeting with attorneys, CPAs, bankers, government officials, etc.).
The Family Private Equity Model has many benefits. Here are four (4):
Measure and Manage. Don’t Meddle.
While the Family Private Equity Model is a relatively simple concept, it is not necessarily the easiest succession plan to put in place. What is the number one reason it can be difficult? The owner.
Most owners do not know how to let go. After decades in the role themselves, they do not know how to manage—and when not to manage—an incoming company CEO. The instinct is to interfere and micromanage. We find that the greatest challenge is not whether the new CEO can do the job, but whether the owner allows the new CEO to do that job. We get it: the owner has spent decades building the company and making it successful. It is hard to let go, but for this model to work, the owner has to take a step (or three) back from the business.
Because letting go can be so difficult for owners, we require clients who want to move forward with the Family Private Equity Model to complete a training program on how to transition from company CEO to company Board chairperson. We have found a successful transfer of business responsibilities requires a structured process that encourages an owner to incrementally step back and transfer real authority to a successor. By establishing clear goals and expectations, the new CEO and the owner can be fair to each other in judging whether the new arrangement is a success.
We also require the establishment of a Board of Directors — a group whose responsibilities include helping the owner learn to govern without managing. The Board of Directors, typically made up of five (5) to seven (7) people, includes the owner, the CEO, and outside Board members. If stock in the company has been gifted or shared with family members or key employees, some Boards also include top employees or next generation family members.
A good Board of Directors will act as advisors who can help the owner determine when to give the new CEO room and when to hold them back. The Family Private Equity Model is simple on paper, but it is a creative solution that takes a lot of work, thought and cooperation. We have seen that work pay off dozens of times when the model achieves the owner’s goals of being a good family investment as well as an important part of the community the owner cares about.
What Happens Post‑Owner?
Obviously, the owner’s time comes to an end at some point. The early stages of the Family Private Equity Model provide a great opportunity to bring in the family members that “follow their dreams” and allow them to learn about the company. Family members who have not been actively involved in the company need to be engaged with the company on a gradual basis. The family members and the Board need to consider a process that involves working with the owner and their descendants to identify which descendants will be considered “Board eligible.”
“Board eligible” includes those descendants who choose to work through the process of engaging with the current Board of Directors, key management employees, and key business advisors for the company to form the family governance team for the Family Private Equity Model.
Our next article, “The Family Private Equity Model: Preparation & Planning” (Part 2), will explore in more detail the mechanics of conditioning the business owner, hiring the CEO, and preparing the appropriate corporate governance model, which includes continued family investment in the company and development of family governance and family Board eligibility issues.