During my professional career as a wealth manager I had a privilege to work with the first and second generation of wealth creators. We discussed quite many angles of their wealth starting from the sources of accumulation to expected or targeted investment performance, however, one theme was extremely rare. It is succession planning.
Succession planning is a process. It's not like flipping on a light switch, or even changing a light bulb one time and then ignoring it. Succession planning is, you might say, a full contact sport, because it requires the current leadership of an enterprise to really roll up their sleeves and dig into the details of the business. The purpose of the effort is to thoughtfully identify and develop a comprehensive strategy for the transition of management, ownership, and control of a family enterprise, but unfortunately many families don't focus on succession planning proactively. They treat it reactively once a triggering event has already occurred, such as the death of the family patriarch or the retirement of a family business CEO. It's worth for families to think of succession planning as beginning much, much further out than that triggering event, because the trigger isn't when you plan, it's when the plan you have gets implemented, and its effectiveness is tested. The plan is what you develop before during calmer times.
For business owners that haven't yet started succession planning, what is the first question they need to consider when thinking about eventual succession?
The first question is always the same, and that is, what is your goal for undertaking the succession planning in the first place? In other words, what direction are you headed in? Fundamentally, family owned businesses can be transitioned in really only a handful of ways. First, you can pass on a business to the younger generations in the family, thereby creating or continuing a multigeneration family business. Second, you can sell the business either through a private sale or listing it on a public exchange, so basically realizing liquidity while transferring ownership and control outside the family. Finally, there are some hybrid options, which sometimes might include something like transferring ownership to key employees or the like, but basically, those are most fundamentally the end results here. So, next, though, it's important to assemble a team because succession planning is multidisciplinary, and you're going to need multidisciplinary expertise, and then thinking about your team, you might draw upon key employees or existing family or business advisors, members of the family or external advisors who specially work with families on transition and governance, but consider though that eventually you'll need your plan to include a variety of important elements including business, estate planning and wealth or liquidity management issues. So, entering these questions alone and what direction you're heading in, and who do you want to serve on your team can often take quite a bit of time, and families need to think about their goals and flesh these questions out more fully long before they knock into their attorney's office to draft a new operating agreement or trust structure. Those goals are the driver or the foundation of everything else, and it's worth taking time to get that part right.
From what size on and type of business is it worth it or needed to do a succession plan?
If the goal of succession planning is to ensure a smooth transition from one generation to the next, then any business, regardless of the size of the type that has that goal in mind, should engage in succession planning. Really, the size of the business, the value of the business, and even the industry that the business operates in is largely irrelevant for this purpose. It has everything to do with the family.
How transparency and communication comes into the process? Is everyone involved?
Communication is absolutely fundamental to this process. In study after study, the key characteristics of families who have successfully maintained family wealth for three generations or more, it boils down to three things, and those are communication, organization, and a shared set of beliefs or values, and interestingly, demonstrating those three traits is even more predictive for maintaining family wealth successfully than it is employing strategies for tax minimization or maximizing investment returns. This is not to say that you must be fully transparent about your questions or concerns for future succession from day one - pitting children against one another is not an effective plan for identifying a CEO. Instead, by failing to communicate with interested parties, or choosing perhaps to involve only those who are employed by the family business in family meetings, is a recipe for discontentment and discord among those who are excluded, and eventually, that dynamic paves the way for potential litigation among family members in the future.
What about family philanthropy? How does it play a role in the succession planning process?
Family philanthropy is one of the best ways to engage younger generations. Those who work in philanthropy like to say that philanthropy are your values and actions. So, what better way to teach your children or grandchildren what you believe in than by actually acting on those values together through shared philanthropy? Even if they're too young to hold a decision-making power, why not allow them to listen into the meetings where grant-making decisions are made. As an example, a family may allow the youngest generation to actually recommend nominal sized grants at one of their meetings. Family may challenge the children, as young as 10 years old, to come up with a cause that each of them cared about. The ideas might go to wanting them to give to their local school, supporting animals, which is of course very popular among young kids, and actually then helping to improve a local park. The kids then gain a deep sense of satisfaction from this process and feel more closely connected to the family’s philanthropy, and the parents end up learning something about their children and about how they perceive the world, so it’s truly a win-win.