Belfast Telegraph

Business Succession for the Brave

Alan Gourley
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Historically, family businesses have been the backbone of our economy. Time and again they have proved their resilience and emerged through societal turmoil and economic hardship.

Yet it is estimated that less than half of family businesses are successfully passed to the next generation. It would appear that they can face down huge external challenges but are guilty of avoiding the difficult family conversations needed to secure the sustainability and success of the business for future generations.

Succession planning should be viewed as an ongoing process rather than a one-off project. Usually the earlier planning starts the greater the number of options available. Where succession planning is a process the business owner has time to assess the future successors and hone their management skills, or have the agility to change direction. Planning undertaken on the cusp of retirement often has limited options.

Often business owners are so focused on building the business that they never take the time to step back and take stock. But a successful business can’t be reliant on one key person and the founder needs to take the time and space to look at the business strategically to understand where the next generation of leaders is going to come from. They should also have a detailed financial plan to assess likely future cash requirements and be clear about how these are going to be funded.

The assistance of a team of impartial external, multi-disciplinary professionals who can act as a competent and impartial sounding-board can be invaluable. Help can be provided to clarify vision and strategy for the business. Mediation skills are on hand to assist with family conflict, where advice can be provided regarding the most suitable business structure and the tax cost of creating and operating it. The impact of inheritance tax on passing wealth on can also be assessed

The family dynamic can be a major obstacle to progress. However, if external impartial advice is sought, a safe environment can be provided for discussion. Individual family members can be empowered to be vocal about their individual expectations and can express their opinions and concerns without causing family conflict. A well-chosen advisor will have the mediation skills to help the family arrive at bespoke solutions, even where different personalities and expectations are causing difficulty. 

Clear and unambiguous communication is key to successful succession planning. Issues should be openly discussed with all parties and consensus sought. The plan should be committed to paper. The business governance structure should be known by all parties so that there is clarity and decisions can be made without conflict to serve the stated mission and values of the business.

Are you brave enough to grasp the nettle of succession planning?