What To Do If There’s No Heir In Sight?
While a clear majority of family business owners want to pass along the reins to the next generation, what happens when no heir is in sight? The situation arises more frequently these days as two-in-five owners – an estimated 60% of whom are over 55 – expect to retire, and less than half of those expecting to retire in five years have selected a successor.
The options include transitioning the business to outside leadership – perhaps while a family heir is being groomed – or to its employees through an employee stock ownership plan, or ESOP; selling the business; or simply closing it.
Often, the reflexive response is to sell, and why not? Given today’s pace of disruptive change, no one will fault you since the market for private companies continues strong. Plus, financial advisors and attorneys assisting owners in such succession matters are typically incented to advise selling the business (if they generate revenue only when a transaction occurs, as is often the case).
Reflecting the many factors that encourage it, in my experience family owners move too quickly to a sale. Instead, they should consider all the alternatives and benefits that can derive from keeping the business operating as a family concern.
The first step is to take a dispassionate reality check and determine if the business truly possesses the requisite capital, products, infrastructure, leadership, committed employees and innovation to continue to thrive. If it doesn’t, a sale may maximize value. But if the business possesses these critical strengths, then the family can create more wealth by continuing to operate it.
In determining what to do, an owner should ask these questions: How important is the business to the family and its legacy? Are you sensitive to the disruption a sale will have on employees? On your community? Have you considered an ESOP? Who within the family could be groomed to take charge? And can an outsider as CEO keep a strong family business thriving?
If your answers incline you against selling, two approaches exist for bringing forward the next CEO for a family business when one is not immediately present:
No. 1: Coach a family member. I’m continually amazed that family businesses don’t take advantage of the wealth of training and coaching opportunities that exist. Remember, the second generation needn’t be a carbon copy of the successful founder, because those skills aren’t necessarily what’s needed in the next generation(s). What’s generally required is engagement, pride and commitment.
Indeed, mapping skills needed for the business against those of possible future family leaders or employees should be ongoing. Coaching can bring forward the skills necessary.
No. 2: Hire an outside CEO. Sure, this route takes time. Typically, it requires six months to find the person and another six months to know if the executive is a good fit. If it is, the outsider can be hired for the long-term or act as the regent until the likely family heir develops the necessary leadership skills. Compensation should be structured to reward performance and, if the executive will be handing over the reins, to encourage turning the business over in good shape.
Be mindful that it may take more than once to bring the right outsider onboard. That was the experience of one of my clients, a nationally known family owned company, whose second outside president, who had worked with the company at one time, was the right person to lead the company. Now president and chief operating officer, he will become CEO in 2020 when the chairman and CEO, the daughter of the founder, retires. Since he joined as No. 2, the business has continued to thrive.
Some owners will ponder if economic conditions aren’t good whether it would be better to sell. I argue , that unless it’s a workout situation, a family business can usually ride out the rough patch with its intense focus on the business and its resources. It doesn’t have the financial pressures of a public company or a private equity firm. And if an owner is inclined to exit but still be involved in the business or to partially diversify ownership, it’s worth considering an ESOP. Two family owned businesses that employed those options – popular brands Clif Bar & Company and Dansko Shoes – are thriving and their founders are still active as well.
The message here: Don’t despair and rush to sell your business if an heir isn’t apparent. With the investment of some energy and time, alternatives that can keep the business in the family and retain its distinct culture and values are at hand.