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by Dale Gillmore
We talk a lot about succession planning and with good reason: Most business owners are woefully unprepared for it. Part of that unpreparedness comes from focusing only on the mechanics of the deal -- the valuations, the tax loopholes, etc. -- and not enough time on the preparedness of the succession team to lead the company into the future.
I recently discussed eventual transition plans with a client who owns a small but highly profitable manufacturing business. He started the company on his own, ran it for 40 years, and plans to retire in the next ten years. Several years ago, his son entered the business and has since flourished in the company. He’s moving up the ranks quickly.
My client wanted to brainstorm on topics like appropriate payout, valuation, timing, and tax implications -- all critical considerations but insufficient when planning a successful transition. I suggested with think first about something else.
More important than valuation and taxes, at least initially, is to focus on making sure the transition is successful in the long term. This involves making sure that whoever you are handing over the reins to will be in a position to take over and effectively run the company. It seems obvious, but I routinely see more time and energy spent on the mechanics of the transition than making sure the people who are going to run the company have the skills and confidence to actually do it well.
We need not look further than the current attraction to ESOPs to illustrate this point. ESOPs are great for short-term tax solutions, but they too often fail in the long-term because the employees who overtake the organization aren’t properly prepared to do so.
In a dream world, you’d sell a business and receive 100% of the profits. This is rare and is especially so in an ESOP or when selling to family or employees. Most often the ESOP will pay a smaller percentage in cash at closing and then will pay a seller note or earnout over time based on the success of the company. In that case, or in the case of transitioning to a younger family member, there may be very little cash received at the time of the sale. When this occurs, the majority of the purchase price is paid for over a period of time from the company’s profits. And this, of course, is why the long-term success of the company is so important. You can hire the best legal and tax team available to work on the mechanics of the transition, but if you don’t educate and empower the new owners, the company will flounder and all the expected transition proceeds will never materialize.
In other words, the biggest risk in transition planning via employees, ESOPs, or family succession isn’t improper valuations or missed tax loopholes. It is the future success of the company since all or most of the buyout occurs after the sale is completed. This is why it is critical to spend time, energy, money, and resources doing whatever it takes to ensure your succession team is confident, skilled, and ready to take over and grow the company after you depart.
If you own a business and are starting (or wishing to improve) the process of transition planning, think about all the areas that are critical for the success of your business over the long term. Spend your time and resources here rather than the mechanics of the transition. Once your team is ready to take over, then you can shift your focus to the deal itself.