How to Start a Distillery in Ontario

Here’s an article that’s been a long time coming. On top of my law practice, I’m also a founder of Last Straw Distillery, an award-winning micro-distillery near Toronto, Ontario. I started out as the company’s lawyer, and as with any small business, that role has slowly expanded to a litany of other tasks…. But the lawyer role remains central. I’ve also helped several other alcohol producers through the business startup and licensing process, so the contents of this article are hard-won knowledge. It’s a long read, but it’s a no bullshit assessment of the challenges you’ll face in getting your distillery off the ground.

The first thing you need to know about distilling is that it’s heavily regulated. The laws on spirits are even more dense and difficult to navigate than the regulations on beer or wine. This is, of course, because in the inestimable wisdom of successive governments since the end of prohibition, spirits are evil. For some strange reason (probably at the behest of the beer lobby), some Scottish Presbyterian politician in Ontario decided that the ethyl alcohol in hard liquor should be treated differently than the ethyl alcohol in wine and beer.

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Much like we’re seeing right now with the legalization of marijuana in Ontario, the laws are written by and for established, well-connected, well-funded big businesses. The time, expense, and expensive advice involved in navigating the system are designed to limit competition. For spirits, the government at the end of prohibition wrote the rules in a way that would make it difficult and expensive to start and run a distillery, and impossible to start on a small scale. As a result, Ontario had only a handful of big distilleries for nearly 80 years. It’s only recently that a few dedicated masochists set out to buck the trend. Through their dedicated efforts, some of the barriers to entry were lowered (slightly), and the Ontario distilling renaissance began.

I’m writing this article as an overview of the major steps involved in starting a distillery in Ontario, Canada. I imagine that most of the steps are mirrored in many other jurisdictions, but the nuances of the regulations will differ. As with any business, you certainly don’t need a lawyer to help you get it started, but a good lawyer will reduce the time from startup to sale, and deal with a lot of the headaches that can come from dealing with five or six different government departments at once.

Let’s get started.

Division of Powers

Booze has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the few market sectors that is regulated by Federal, Provincial, and municipal governments. Technically, municipal governments are a subset of the Province, but practically speaking, it’s another layer you’ll have to deal with.

The Federal government’s primary concern with alcohol regulation is tax. As a luxury item, spirits are subject to Federal tax under the Excise Act. This tax accrues from the moment a drop of alcohol is manufactured, but only becomes payable when the alcohol is sold. More on this later. The Federal government also regulates the production, and labeling of spirits through the Food and Drugs Act and its Regulations, Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act, Consumer Packaging and Labelling Regulations, and the Spirit Drinks Trade Act. Oh, and if you’re thinking about selling your products internationally, the Federal government also regulates and licenses cross-border trade, where a different set of taxes and fees apply, on top of those imposed by the jurisdiction you’re exporting to.

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If that bundle of joy isn’t enough for you, the control of liquor is the responsibility of the Province. The Ontario government has created the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) to control the production and sale of spirits in Ontario. The AGCO then created the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO), which has an absolute monopoly on spirits sales in Ontario. The AGCO implements government policy on spirits through the Alcohol and Gaming Regulation and Public Protection Act, the Liquor Control Act, and the Liquor License Act. As a manufacturing business, you’re also subject to the rules of the Electrical Safety Authority under the Electricity Act, as well as Ontario’s Building Code and Fire Code.

Lastly, as with any business, spirits producers are subject to the planning and zoning regulations of the municipality you’re in. In some municipalities, there’s a double layer of government – at the regional and town level.

Perhaps the worst part of working through the byzantine maze of regulations are the odd ways in which they interact. As I mentioned, the system was not developed with ease of navigation in mind, and there’s no clear, direct path through them. It’s common for applications to be caught in a Catch-22 of two levels of government refusing to process your application any further without the approval of the other coming first. In my experience, different offices of the same government branch interpret the exact same rules differently (and sometimes incorrectly), and impose different requirements. It takes time and patience to work through these things. Budget at least six months, or more realistically one year to work your way through this stuff. When I say budget, I mean both time and money – as you’ll be spending money on rent for a space you’re not allowed to use while your applications are in progress.

Now that you’re scared, let’s walk you through what it takes to get from idea to open for business.

Form of business

Distilleries can be any form of business, but if you don’t incorporate it, you’re a dumbass. When setting up your corporate structure, two factors will be relevant to the government:

  • Who controls the corporation; and
  • Who are directors, officers, or holders of at least 10% of any class of shares

Control comes into play in two ways. First, the government wants to know if the applicant is controlled by a company that is already licensed to produce spirits. Each distillery with a Provincial license is allowed one bottle shop at its distillery. An existing manufacturer can invest in starting another distillery, but special permission is required to open a bottle shop at the second distillery. Once you have that special permission, you can sell some products from the first distillery at the second one, but not the other way around. Weird, right?

Secondly, and most importantly, the government wants to know who are directors and officers of the business, and who owns 10% or more of any class of shares of the corporation. Because spirits are evil, the government wants to make sure that the people who own and operate distilleries are at least 19 years old, financially responsible, and of good character. If you own your shares through a holding company, you have to disclose the ownership and management of that holding company, and so on.

In my experience, simplicity in the way you structure the business helps a great deal. The folks reviewing your applications at the CRA and AGCO are not lawyers, and don’t understand the finer points of business ownership. If they see something they don’t understand, they’ll flag it, and get legal advice before proceeding. This, of course, takes time. The more complicated your ownership structure, the longer your application will take.

Zoning & Planning

This is probably the biggest, and most unexpected pain in the ass of the whole process, and where your lawyer will earn their keep. It is absolutely essential that you choose a location that will allow your business model to operate. Because distilleries are still relatively rare when compared to breweries and wineries, most municipalities don’t know how to deal with you. When in doubt, town planners and town councils will err on the side of what will get the municipality the most revenue in development fees. If you ask the municipality whether or not a distillery is allowed, you’ll probably end up paying to play. The only thing you actually need the municipality to do is to sign off on your bottle shop. Some municipalities may require a business license before you can set up shop, but most don’t.

Once you know where you want to start your distillery, and before you start searching for properties, get your lawyer to review that municipality’s planning and zoning bylaws, and provide an opinion. The lawyer’s opinion should tell you what zoning in that municipality allows a distillery to operate. The lawyer will also tell you if a variance or zoning change is required in order to operate. Also, believe it or not, some municipalities still have “dry” (no alcohol allowed) or “damp” (retail sales allowed, but not by the glass) neighbourhoods. The status of the neighbourhood may not prevent you from manufacturing, but it can prevent you from selling through a bottle shop, or an on-site bar. Both the CRA and AGCO will consider whether you’re contravening municipal bylaws, and whether your premises comply with the CRA and AGCO’s regulations. The lawyer’s opinion is super valuable in demonstrating that you’ve ticked all of the boxes.

Lastly, before you sign your lease or buy the property, take a good long look at what’s in the area. If any schools, churches, parks or playgrounds, community centres, or libraries are within a one kilometre radius, you may not be allowed to open a bottle shop or on-site bar.

Building/Fire Code

Once you have a location, you have to build it out. Obviously, all of your construction work must be done in accordance with the Ontario Building Code. Make sure that whoever is doing the work knows and complies with that code. Generally, Building and Fire Codes are dictated by the Province, but enforced by the municipality. Fire inspectors can enter anywhere, at any time, and can shut you down on the spot if you’re not in compliance, so don’t cut corners here.

Distilleries in Ontario are considered “High Hazard Industrial Occupancy” under the Fire Code. That means the building can’t also be used for public assemblies, residences, care facilities like hospitals or clinics, or for detention. If the occupancy load of the building is to be more than 25 people, the building requires emergency planning under the Fire Code. The Fire Code rating (F1) triggers specific requirements in the Building Code for fire-resistant barriers and insulation, emergency exits, and the like. It also triggers requirements in the Electrical Act, requiring the sign-off of an Electrical Safety Authority (ESA) inspector.

ESA sign-off is another odd bird. For all the distilleries I’ve helped through the process, I’ve never seen the same standard applied twice. Each inspector seems to interpret the requirements differently. The inspector’s requirements will play into your build-out – ventilation, type of wiring and electrical fixtures, signs, fire suppression systems, and even separating equipment in different fire-resistant rooms, for example. Find an inspector, and get their direction before you start building. Pass that direction on to the person doing the build out work, and make sure they build to that standard.

Lastly, if you’re looking to open an on-site bar, you’ll need the sign off of the Fire Department. Exits, fire suppression, and signage are all things they’ll look at.

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Federal Licensing

Once you’ve got an appropriate space locked down, you can then apply for your Federal licenses. The licenses are tied to the location. You have to occupy/possess the premises before your application will be processed. This means you’re paying rent on a space you can’t use while your applications are being processed – as long as 18 months in some cases.

The Canada Revenue Agency administers the licensing of distilleries under the Excise Tax Act. The licenses are issued for a two year period, and must be renewed. At the time of writing, there are no fees for the federal licenses. There are three key licenses – all of which can be applied for on the same form – which will cover off most things distilleries want to do.

Spirits License

The spirits license is the main one. It’s what permits you to produce or package spirits (beverage alcohol that isn’t wine, and is over 11.9% alcohol – otherwise it’s beer) in Canada, and to possess a still. If you’ve applied for a spirits license, you can possess a still, but can’t operate it. Home distilling is illegal. Without this one, you’re a bootlegger, not a distiller – and you won’t be able to secure any Provincial licenses either.

Excise Warehouse License

If you’re going to be storing spirits – whether in bulk, aging in barrels, or sitting in bottles waiting to be sold – you’ll also need an Excise Warehouse License. This delays the payment of Excise Tax on the spirits until they’re removed from the warehouse.

You will need to post security for the Excise Tax. The amount of security depends primarily on how many litres of absolute alcohol you plan to store in your warehouse. The CRA wants to make sure that even if you go bankrupt, you can still pay your Excise Tax. The minimum is said to be $5,000.00, however the lowest requirement I’ve seen is $10,000.00, and that’s for small distilleries dealing in white spirits – meaning they’re not aging large quantities. If you’re making whisky, rum, brandy, and other aged spirits, plan on posting way more. Security is typically posted by bond (insurance), though you can post negotiable instruments (cash, Canada Savings Bonds, etc) as security as well.

User’s License

The user’s license allows you to transfer bulk alcohol between booze producers of a different type. If you’re planning on buying in bulk alcohol to distill, age, modify, or repackage, you’ll probably need this. I say probably, because different CRA personnel apply the policy differently. You definitely need a user’s license to transfer bulk beer or wine from licensees. You might need a user’s license to buy bulk spirits – such as a neutral grain, or aged whisky for blending. Regardless of what your CRA agent says, some producers won’t transfer bulk spirits to you without seeing your user’s license, so it’s usually a good idea to get this license just in case.

Application

The application process takes anywhere from 3-18 months, depending on your agent, how prepared you are, if there are any issues with the application or the people involved in your business, and how busy the agents are. There are a few parts to the application:

  • L63E license application form
    • This includes details on directors and officers of the business, and will result in a background check on both criminal and financial sides
  • Business plan including:
    • Business industry overview;
    • Operating plan;
    • Human resources plan;
    • Financial plan or sources of funds;
    • Sale and marketing plan;

Your business plan must include 3 year projections of the litres of absolute alcohol you expect to produce, and the amount of what you produce that will be stored in bulk for aging, compared to what you expect to sell. This is what the CRA will use to calculate your security requirements.

You’ll also need to figure out how you’ll post security for the excise. Most distilleries will buy a bond, rather than posting the cash themselves. It’s a monthly expense, but your capital will be more useful elsewhere. The CRA will require the sealed original bond.

Once you’ve submitted the application, the CRA will get in touch with you pretty quickly to start the process. They’ll schedule a site visit, so they can inspect your facility to ensure it’s suitable (they’re primarily concerned with physical security – if someone steals your spirits, they’re stealing tax dollars too!). You don’t have to be fully built out by this point, but you must at least have the premises and a floor plan.

They’ll also confirm that you’ve ordered your still and instruments for measuring alcohol content. Your instruments must be inspected/calibrated by the CRA to ensure they’re accurate, which involves a fee. They may conduct a second site inspection before granting the license.

Once the license is approved, you’re finally able to produce spirits! Crank that still up, and get to work!

Provincial Licensing

Bet you thought the hard part was over. Well, it’s not. While the CRA licenses will allow you to produce and store alcohol, if you want to sell it in Ontario, you’ll need another set of licenses and authorizations from the Provincial government, which are administered by the AGCO.

The Provincial Manufacturer’s License is what allows you to sell spirits in Ontario. It takes about 1-3 months to process, if all goes smoothly, and costs $2,540.00 for 2 years, or $5,040 for 4 years at the time of writing. The application requires:

  • Completed application form
  • Business plan – generally the same one that you used for your CRA license will do, plus:
    • Floor plans for your facility
    • Details on planned sales channels
    • If you’ll be buying in mash, low wines, or bulk spirits from other producers
  • Municipal authorization form
  • Copy of CRA Spirits License
  • Lab test results on at least one product
  • Copy of business name registration
  • Application fee (non-refundable)

The AGCO will schedule a site inspection of your facility. As with the CRA, different agents will focus on different things, and sometimes the agent will waive the site inspection altogether.

Bottle Shop

If you want to operate a retail store on site, then you’ll need a retail store authorization from the AGCO. The AGCO delegates the administration of this to the LCBO. There’s no fee for the application, but you must include:

  • Municipal Information for a Retail Store Authorization form
  • Site plan detailing the production site and the proposed retail store location
  • Floor plan of the proposed retail store including square footage
  • If ownership and control of the production site is shared with any other licensed manufacturer – supplementary documentation demonstrating substantial ownership and control of the production site
  • A copy of each notification letter (if applicable) sent to any place of religious assembly, schools, public parks and playgrounds, community centers or libraries within 1 km of your proposed store location and copies of any responses/objections

If your bottle shop is approved, then you’ll need to sign a non-negotiable contract with the LCBO about how the bottle shop will be operated, and how you’ll pay the Spirits Tax. One of the most time-consuming parts of this contract is waiting for the LCBO to sign it – as only the President of the LCBO signs them, and does so about once a month. Schedule your grand opening accordingly!

Direct Delivery

If you want to deliver directly to bars & restaurants or to duty free shops, you’ll need separate direct delivery authorizations for each. The process is much the same as for a bottle shop, and results in another contract.

There are also separate licenses to sell spirits by the glass, and to operate an on-site bar or restaurant of your own, but we’ll save those for a future article.

Summary

As you can tell, it’s an awfully long and tedious process to get a distillery from the idea stage into operations. The typical timeline is 6-18 months, based largely on factors outside of your control. In my experience, each agent of a regulator that gets its hands on your application views the requirements differently, so there’s often a fair bit of back and forth involved.

TL;DR? Here’s Mikes’ 9 “Simple” Steps to Starting a Distillery in Ontario

  1. Incorporate
  2. Lawyer’s opinion on zoning/planning
  3. Sign lease
  4. Submit CRA license application
  5. Hire ESA inspector, get requirements for buildout
  6. Build
  7. Get CRA licenses, get municipal authorization
  8. Apply for AGCO licenses & authorizations
  9. Profit

Of course, having someone to turn to who’s been through the process before can help to grease the wheels. I’ve helped several distilleries through the startup process, and I’d be happy to help yours too. Drop me an email, and let’s talk!

 

Mike Hook
Intrepid Lawyer
http://intrepidlaw.ca

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What’s a holding company?

Quoth the late, great Notorious B.I.G., “I don’t know what, they want from me / It’s like the more money we come across / The more problems we see.” As an entrepreneur with a thriving business, Biggie waxed poetic on the ever-increasing difficulty of managing one’s affairs as the size and scope of one’s operation increases.

The DIY entrepreneurial spirit and flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pantsness of running a small business will only get you so far. Nobody ever really explains to you that the mo’ better you do at running your business, the mo’ difficult it gets to figure it out on your own. If you’re lucky (and good), the problems you never knew you had won’t come back to bite you… or if they do, hopefully not too hard. Obviously it’s impossible to negate all of the risk of your business, but what you can control is how much damage it will do.

One of the most important tools in your damage control toolbox comes from the shockingly unsexy world of corporate restructuring. It sounds fancy, but it’s really just another example of lawyer and accountant dweebs trying to make what we do sound impressive. Corporate restructuring means assembling a series of business entities and contracts to limit how much of your businesses’ money and assets are exposed to creditors.

Creditors are anyone your business owes money to. They can be anyone from an unpaid supplier, to a jilted landlord, to a former employee, to someone who wins a lawsuit against your business. The potential liabilities – or the amount of money you could owe creditors if things go bad – can be hefty. Say you’re opening a second location for your business. Your corporation signs a 5 year lease with a landlord for $3,000.00 per month. That’s $36,000.00 per year in rent. If the second location goes out of business after 1 year, you could still be on the hook for $144,000.00 in unpaid rent. The landlord can go after your surviving location to pay the debts from the failed one. That would suck.

A well planned and implemented corporate restructuring can protect the assets of one part of your business from the risks of another. At the heart of this lawyerly magic is something called a “holding company” – or a HoldCo.

What is a Holding Company?

A HoldCo is a corporation that doesn’t do anything other than own shares of other corporations. It’s a corporate shareholder, and nothing else. It’s called a holding company because it “holds” the shares, and it also holds on to & invests the profits that come along with those shares.

A corporation that actually does business (making/selling goods, providing services, etc) is known as an “operating company” – or an OpCo – when it’s owned by a HoldCo. A HoldCo can own all or part of one, or many OpCos, or even other HoldCos.

Profits are paid from the OpCo to the HoldCo by a dividend, which is a payout of the after-tax profits of a corporation to its owners. In Canada, dividends paid by an OpCo to a HoldCo that owns its shares are generally not taxed. This means that instead of holding a bunch of cash in your OpCo, you can hold it in the HoldCo instead, without paying more tax on it.

Why would I do that???

It may seem goofy to move the cash out of your business – after all, you may need it again. The problem is that any cash in the business is an asset that can be used to pay your creditors. Once cash is moved to the HoldCo, it no longer belongs to the OpCo. Obviously you can’t use this to hide money from creditors you already have or know about – that would be fraud, and also a dick move – but if you do it in the ordinary course of business, it’s allowed. It’s called “creditor proofing”. The OpCo only hangs on to the money it needs to run the company, and the rest is paid by dividend to your HoldCo.

Secondly, if you’ve got multiple businesses, or multiple locations of the same business, the HoldCo makes it really easy to move money between the two without paying more taxes. Since corporate tax rates are generally lower than personal tax rates, using dividends from one OpCo to fund another OpCo, rather than investing your personal after-tax income means you have more to invest.

You can also keep money in the HoldCo indefinitely, or pay yourself slowly over time to keep your personal taxes to a minimum.

Ooh, clever! How do I do it?

Every business is different, and should be set up in a way that’s designed just for it. There is no silver bullet answer. There are two approaches that I see the most often in small businesses which I’ll use as examples:

HoldCo Graphic 1

Advantages:

Simple, compared to Option 2. This means that it’s cheaper to set up and run.

It separates the assets and liabilities of each separate business, or each location or division of your business. If OpCo2 gets sued by its landlord for $144,000.00, the landlord can’t go after OpCo1 or the HoldCo for payment, because they’re separate businesses.

As we know, the excess profits of each OpCo can be paid to the HoldCo as a tax-free dividend. So, if one OpCo is doing well, and the other isn’t, the HoldCo can lend the money to the struggling company, which can be paid back later tax-free. If you didn’t have the HoldCo, you’d pay tax on the dividends you get from the OpCo, and have only what’s left to loan to the struggling OpCo.

Disadvantages:

Money. For a small business, the legal and accounting work to set it up can range from thousands to tens of thousands of dollars. It costs more to run it too – each corporation needs its own bank account, tax numbers, bookkeeping, tax return, legal work, and insurance policies, to name a few.

Also, the assets of each OpCo stay in the business, and within reach of its creditors. For businesses with lots of equipment or inventory, that could be a whole lot of value left exposed.

Typical Uses

This structure is most common in businesses where there aren’t a lot of hard assets – like services businesses – or in real estate investing, where the property is the business, and can’t be effectively separated.

HoldCo Graphic 2

Advantages

Here, OpCo1 and OpCo2 are the true operating businesses. They take on all of the business liabilities – like hiring the employees, making the products, taking customer orders, signing contracts, and so forth – but don’t actually own the valuable assets. OpCo3 owns all of the valuable assets – equipment, machinery, and sometimes inventory – and rents them to OpCo1 and OpCo2 to use.

Since OpCo3 doesn’t deal with anyone other than 1 & 2, and OpCo1 & 2 are the only ones dealing with the outside world, the valuable assets are generally out of reach of the creditors of the business. Creditors can go after the profits of 1 & 2, but they have no legal relationship with OpCo3, so have no claim against its assets.

Otherwise, it works pretty much the same way as Option 1.

Disadvantages

Again, the expense is a factor. More companies means more startup and ongoing costs.

Also, you run the risk that the money being paid from OpCo 1 & 2 to OpCo 3 for the use of the assets could be called passive income by the CRA – and taxed at a much higher rate than ordinary corporate income. This is where a good accountant earns their keep.

In some highly regulated businesses, the terms of licenses, permits, or government authorizations may prevent you from using this structure at all.

Typical Uses

This is most common where there is a lot of expensive equipment, or a great deal of inventory in the business – like resource extraction, manufacturing, transportation, or construction. A similar model can also be used by a business with multiple locations, but centralized management.

Common Failures

If you’re going to do this stuff, you’d better not half-ass it. The process of setting it all up and running it, though it may seem like overly technical, tedious legal mumbo-jumbo, is absolutely critical. This is the type of stuff that the CRA will look at in detail if you’re ever audited. Even worse than that is the possibility that you may think your assets are protected when they’re not.

There are huge benefits – tax, asset protection, and your peace of mind as a business owner foremost among them – to using these structures. If you’re going to have access to those benefits, the CRA and courts of law will require you to have done everything correctly.

A few critical factors are:

  • The paperwork must be done. Without the right legal documents and tax reporting as evidence of the intent, timing, and effect of the restructuring. You can’t pretend that you’re operating separate businesses and hope they’ll go along with it.
  • OpCos Actually Op as Separate Cos. Again, you can’t fake it. Each corporation needs its own accounts, employees, contracts… everything. If anything – employees, equipment, intellectual property, invoicing, etc – is shared between the businesses, you’ve got to have contracts in place as evidence of the separation. Any overlap between the corporations could be enough to allow a judge to ignore the structure you’ve put in place, and rule that they’re actually all just one related business.
  • HoldCo Must Not Do Business. Your HoldCo must do nothing other than own shares and be owed debt by the OpCo. If it does any active business, all of its assets – meaning all of the companies it owns – will be available to its creditors. This includes participating in the management of an OpCo through a unanimous shareholders’ agreement.
  • Solvency. If your business doesn’t have enough money to pay its expenses as they come due, then it’s illegal to restructure it unless it’s part of insolvency proceedings.
  • Current Creditors. Similarly, none of this can be used to escape creditors that you already know about – or ones you ought to know about. That’s fraud.

While it’s not rocket surgery, it’s certainly not something I recommend as a DIY project. If you’ve got a business with multiple locations, different divisions doing different things, or own pieces of a few different businesses, there’s no time like the present to square this away. If you need help along the way, I happen to know a guy…

 

Mike Hook
Intrepid Lawyer
mike@intrepidlaw.ca
@MikeHookLaw

Record-Keeping 101

In a recent blog, I mentioned how important it is to keep detailed and accurate business records. We lawyers will harp on the importance of having records of certain things as evidence in case someone sues your ass. For myself, a compulsive organizer, I figured I’m pretty much on top of keeping what I need to keep… until I met Lisa Ricciuti. Lisa is a fellow entrepreneur who helps businesses to develop effective information management systems. She sports a couple of Masters degrees in Library & Information Studies, and Archival Studies, plays bassoon like a champ, and has a penchant for craft beer. What follows is a guest blog, penned by her, which will help you to understand why good record-keeping is important, and some tips on how to get yourself started.

Over to you, Lisa!

Record-keeping 101: A Few Basics

With so many things going on as a small business owner it’s easy to let the paperwork pile up.  “I’ll get to it later,” we say, shoving papers into a folder marked “Misc.” or saving documents into a desktop folder named “Important Sh*t.”  Most of the time this “filing system” remains undisturbed until disaster strikes in the form of a lawsuit, deadline, computer crash, virus, or security breach.  Suddenly it’s really important to know what you have, where it’s stored, and how you can access it.

There are laws and regulations setting out minimum recordkeeping requirements – what must be kept, how it must be maintained (e.g. where the data is stored), and for how long. For example, accounting, corporate, and employee records all have different rules. Laws apply to businesses that collect & use personal information of customers, suppliers, and contractors. Limitation periods for lawsuits apply to your business, which will also influence what you keep and for how long you keep it.

A number of options exist, almost all of which can be customized to meet the needs of your business.  For many small business owners, the cost and effort involved to set up a sophisticated recordkeeping system isn’t warranted, but that doesn’t mean that your choices are limited to “save everything” or “do nothing.” Although “doing nothing” may seem tempting at times, it leaves your business open to unnecessary information risks, most of which could be easily avoided by documenting (and implementing) processes & procedures related to your routine business.

The “let’s save everything, just in case!” policy

This type of policy has the potential to be damaging and costly.  On the surface it may seem like an easy and quick way to do what the law requires and your business needs;  however, it is no substitute for managing business records based on sound policies and defined procedures.

First of all, the “Save Everything” policy can never be enforced unless you plan on disabling the delete key.  Unless you’re prepared to do that, you won’t be able to comply with your own policy, let alone enforce it with your staff.

Secondly, saving everything comes with a number of hidden costs that are often not considered, including the price of digital storage.  While the price of digital storage has dropped significantly in the last decade making it seem like an attractive option, there are costs that go along with maintaining and managing it.  The more you keep, the more time and money you’ll spend to back up, restore, and manage the volume you’ve accumulated.  It also makes searching for data more difficult, costing you valuable time.  Additionally, some records must be kept where the business operates, which may limit or prevent off-site or cloud storage.

Thirdly, saving everything makes it really easy to lose track of what’s there.  Just imagine what you would care about in the following scenarios:

  • Hacking or security breach
  • Virus
  • Disaster (physical or digital)
  • Lost/Stolen/Damaged hardware (thumbdrive, laptop, smartphone, tablet, etc.)

If you save everything, how could you know what was compromised?  If you had to do a restore, would you want to restore everything, or just the things that have value for you or your business?

Tips

If you are starting a new business, it may take some time to figure out which types of documents you are creating and how they need to be managed.  Even for established businesses, the influence of mobile work options and new technologies requires many organizations to re-think the best ways to manage documents and information.  Following the tips below will give you a starting point for thinking about your recordkeeping. Even if you decide to call in an information professional, implementing some of these best practices will make it easier (and cheaper) for them to help you.

  • Identify which business records must be made and kept because you need them to operate or they are required by law.  
  • Determine how long each category of business records must be kept in addition to any other recordkeeping requirements such as those related to handling personal information or maintaining data where the business is operated. This is often based on a combination of business need and legal requirements
  • Save strategically. Set rules about when and how you will dispose of records that are no longer useful, even those that only exist electronically.
  • Understand where/how your business is creating records. This includes, but is not limited to: email, social media channels (e.g. Tweets, Facebook/LinkedIn posts, YouTube channels, blogs, etc.) and all paper/electronic documents.
  • Identify core business records, organize them, and know where they are stored. For example documents related to incorporating or registering, contracts, agreements, financial statements & other financial records, professional opinions (e.g. legal/financial), meeting minutes and infrastructure.
  • Develop policies related to records & information management. Enforce them.
  • Standardize naming conventions for documents, folders, and tags (labels). This means everybody names everything the same way.  Communicate this to your staff, or if you work alone, write it down for reference.  Even having everybody record the date the same way can make a big difference.  For example: Vendor – Document Type – Date (MMM/YY) = OfficeMax – Receipt – Mar15. 
  • Define & document core processes & procedures. Records are often created to record a transaction point in a given process.  When processes are streamlined and defined, it makes it easier to identify when a record must be captured to validate/verify the work performed.
  • Devise rules for handling drafts and versioning. Some questions to consider: Will you keep all the drafts and the final version, or just the final version?  How will you track versions as it moves to completion or in collaborative projects?
  • Designate time to deal with the paperwork, even if it’s in an electronic format. This can be a great Friday afternoon project.

Additional resources:

ARMA (Association of Records Managers and Administrators) International

AIIM (Association for Information and Image Management)

Or try searching in your area for an Information Management Professional!

Lisa Ricciuti
Smart Info Management Services
The Deletist Blog
@thedeletistblog
lisa@smartinfomanagement.com

Legal Aspects of Business Succession Planning

At long last, I’m celebrating the new year by finishing off this series of succession planning articles. I’ve already talked about the big picture, and how to make sure your business can continue to run if something happens to you. Now it’s time to talk about how you can retire. This isn’t something that should be done in a hurry – it’s wise to give yourself a few months to make the plan and expect it to take years to live out the plan.

There are four main ways that business owners hand over control and operation of small businesses to a successor:

  • Passing the business to a family member,
  • Selling the business to management or employees over time,
  • Selling the business in one fell swoop, or
  • Passing the business in your will (if you want to stick it out ‘til the bitter end…)

Despite the different terms I’m using, all of above except the last are selling the business as far as the tax man sees it. Each of these routes allows you to cash out – or extract the value you’ve built up in the business. Even though the end result of each is similar, the legal path you’ll need to walk to get there is different in each case, with some common elements between them. I’ll talk about each option below. What will work for you depends on what you want, the tax costs, and what is realistic for your business, successor, family, and employees.

Before I dig into the guts of succession, I’ll touch on a few issues that will pop up no matter which way you opt to go – both of them have to do with the almighty dollar.

Valuation

No matter what route you choose, valuing the business will be a pain in the behind. Valuing a business for sale, transfer, or estate purposes can be tricky. As you likely know already, “tricky” is usually lawyer-speak for “expensive,” so brace yourself.

There’s no single formula to value a business. The bigger and more diverse the company, the trickier it is to value. “Tangible assets” – like machinery, inventory, and accounts receivable – are pretty easy to put a price on, while “Intangible assets,” – like client lists, intellectual property, social media influence, or a recognized brand – are more difficult. Equally tough is when you, the owner, are a big part of the business’ worth.

Businesses can be valued by a number of different ways, but the two most common are:

  • Agreement between the buyer and seller
  • Valuation by an accountant, auditor, or certified business valuator

Agreement on price is the cheapest, but the price that you agree to with the buyer might not be the amount that tax is assessed on. You report the sale price, but the CRA will deem the sale to have been made at fair market value. Funnily enough, the CRA rarely finds that the sale happened at a lower value than what was reported. You may end up on the hook for more taxes than you calculated, which cuts into your retirement nest egg.

The CRA and tax courts tend to stick to valuations made by certified business valuators (very expensive), and sometimes accountants (moderately expensive) for tax purposes. Hiring one of those dudes to value your business could cost more than you’re willing to spend… but sometimes the up-front cost of paying a valuator is lower than the potential long-term cost of an extra tax bill. It’s worthwhile to at least have the conversation with your accountant.

Tax Efficiency

Speaking of the CRA, most transfers or sales of businesses can be made cheaper by getting sound accounting advice on how to minimize the tax on the transfer. The more the business is worth, the more likely it is that the transfer will be tax-driven. “Tax-driven” means that your accountant is telling your lawyer how to arrange the purchase and sale so that you (and possibly the buyer) pay the minimum tax possible.

A note of caution on accountants – not all of them know tax. Many small business accountants are good at preparing annual income tax returns, and helping to manage cash flow, but aren’t experts on the tax implications of selling a business. Even if you’ve been with your accountant for years, don’t be afraid to shop around. Moral of the story? Get accounting advice early in the succession planning process.

With that out of the way, here’s the rub:

Four Ways to Transfer Your Business to a Successor

Passing to Family

Selling or passing all or part of the business on to a family member can be a sale, gift, or some combination of the two. There are a number of ways to work this, but what’s best for most small businesses is a gradual transfer of operational control and profit share.

On the operations side, a gradual transfer of responsibility gives your successor a chance to get up to speed on how the business works, build relationships with key customers, advisors, and suppliers, and allows you to pass on the lessons and values you’ve picked up along the way.

As far as profit sharing, if the business’ cash flow can stand it, you may want to continue to draw some sort of income from the company. If not, an incremental buy-out by the next generation or the business itself – usually 5-10% of the value of the business per year – might give you 10-20 years of “income” out of the value you built in the business. That incremental buy-out is usually good for the successor as well, as they don’t have to come up with all the money to buy the company right away. It could also be done as an incremental buy-in, where some of the successor’s pay is in shares, which dilutes your ownership of the company over time.

So long as you own shares in the company, you should consider life insurance. The more your stake is worth, the more this makes sense. Insurance policies pay out directly to the beneficiary – your successor or the company itself – to buy back the shares, and keep those shares out of your estate.

The typical legal documents involved in a family succession include:

  • Unanimous Shareholders’ Agreement – which can set out the terms of any buy-out or buy-in, valuation, insurance, and your continued role in the company, if any. Each shareholder signing it should have independent legal advice.
  • Share Freeze – is a fairly complex transaction where the value of the company “freezes” at a certain date, and you’re issued shares that reflect that frozen value. The successor gets new shares which will capture any further growth in value. The company then buys back the freeze shares over time and cancels them. Your freeze shares could have dividend and voting rights that allow you to continue to share in the profits and management of the company.
  • Trusts – where your shares are managed by someone else on behalf of your successor. These are useful when one or more of your successors doesn’t yet have the age or experience to run the company completely. Trusts are also useful if you’re separating ownership and operations of the business between two or more people.
  • Will – if you pass away before the transfer is complete, you can set out how your shares are to be dealt with. Ensure that the terms of your will match with the terms of any shareholders’ agreement, trust documents, and so forth.
  • Powers of Attorney – if you’re incapacitated before the transfer is complete, who will oversee the management of the company, and manage your shares? Any requirements or restrictions on how the attorney is to act should be set out. This must jive with all the other documents.

On the tax side of things, transfers of property to family members are not at “arm’s length”, and are taxed differently than sales to non-family members.

Selling to Management or Employees

Long-term managers and employees can often feel like family, and a transfer to them can be done much in the same way as to a family member. It can also be done in concert with transfer to a family member – perhaps 51% control of the business will stay in the family, while 49% will go to the employees who will continue to run it. If the employees or managers have the funds available to buy right away, it can be a one-and-done sale, or a phased buy-out or buy-in. These transfers are typically done over 3-5 years, and are “arms-length”, meaning that different tax rules apply than to transfers to family.

Assuming that you’re being bought out, rather than simply giving the shares to the employees, this process will be more formal and legalistic. You should insist that the buyer get independent legal and tax advice so they can’t come back later and say that they didn’t get what they bargained for.

Before writing anything up, you should hash out with the buyer the broad strokes of how the transfer will be structured, and how the buyer will finance the purchase. It can be any combination of:

  • Employee stock option plans – where employees are paid shares as part of their pay, and your ownership and control of the company is diluted over time.
  • Purchase and sale agreement – a contract between the buyer and the seller that sets out all of the key terms of sale. It can include employee stock options, or it can be a straight up purchase of the assets or shares of the company.
  • Shareholders’ agreement – as above.
  • Service agreement – especially if it’s a one-and-done purchase, the buyer may want your services and advice as an employee or independent contractor. They may want you to continue to sit on the board, or to serve as an officer of the company.
  • Indemnity and releases – where the company agrees to protect you for the consequences of legitimate actions you took while a shareholder, officer, or director of the company, and release you from any liability for actions taken after you transferred ownership or control. These are often included in the purchase and sale agreement.

The buyer should conduct due diligence before buying, particularly if you’ve been the one to handle the back-end workings of the business such as dealing with lawyers and accountants. It’s important that the buyer knows what they’re buying, the financial history and projections of the company, and that the books and records are in good order.

Lastly, you’ll want to make sure that your will, trust documents, powers of attorney, and domestic contracts jive with the deal you’ve made.

Selling to Third Parties

If you can’t find anyone in your family or business who’s willing or able to take over from you, it may be time to prepare your business for sale. I won’t go in to too much detail, as I’ll cover sale of business in a separate article, but it will require some legal work to prepare for due diligence.

Due diligence is when the buyer digs through the corporate records to make sure that they know what they’re buying. You should be proactive to make sure that the minute book, employee agreements, accounting records, lists of assets and liabilities, leases, real estate ownership and mortgages, intellectual property, debts, shareholder relations, taxes, and licenses are in good order.

Passing the Business in your Will

Many business owners approach is “I’ll just pass everything in my will.” This is a mixed-bag approach that chooses to duck the costs of preparing and implementing a succession plan, while sacrificing certainty and control.

The upside to this approach is that there’s minimal headache and expense for you in the here and now. It can work very well when your successor is clear – perhaps an only child who’s been working in the company for years, and knows what you know.

The downside is that you may handicap the next generation’s ability to run the company. If the business is asset-rich, but cash-poor, the tax bill on the estate might cripple the company. You will have no control over what happens after you’re gone. Your beneficiary will be stuck with making the tough decisions you’ve abdicated from. It also risks infighting between beneficiaries, or with the company controlled by people who don’t know or care about the business.

I’m not saying leaving the company in your will is a bad decision – just know what risks and benefits you’ll be passing on to your successor before you make the choice.

Phew, that was a long one… I promise I’ll write something more entertaining soon…

Mike Hook
Intrepid Lawyer
http://intrepidlaw.ca
@MikeHookLaw

Legal Aspects of Business Continuation Planning

This article is the second in my series on what’s involved in planning for the worst. In the last one I gave an overview on who and what is involved in the process. This time I’ll lay out some of the legal work that may need to be done in order to put your plan into effect. The goal here is for your business to continue relatively smoothly if you die or are incapacitated. The most obvious benefit is that you or your beneficiaries will have a chance to receive the value of the business – which could be lost if you’re not there to run the business.

There are a bunch of great resources out there, largely from insurance companies and banks, about business continuation planning. Though it may seem like a lot to wrap your head around, the legal side is fairly simple. The first step is to identify what the essential parts of your business are. What’s the bare minimum that must be done in order to keep the doors open? Who’s capable of doing those things? What’s to become of your control of the business, and your share of the profits? Once you’ve figured that out, your business advisers can help you to get the paperwork done. That paperwork typically includes:

Continuation Plan

While not necessarily a legal document itself, it becomes enforceable when the directors or officers of the corporation resolve to adopt it. The continuation plan should include who is to assume what responsibilities, who is to oversee the transition, what is to happen with loans that are personally guaranteed, key contacts at customers, suppliers, service providers, advisers, and creditors, insurance policy information, where business records are kept, and any other information that someone taking over your role will need to know about the business.

The continuation plan should be kept in the company’s minute book.

Shareholders’ Agreement

A shareholders’ agreement is a contract between the owners of a company as to how they’ll run the corporation. It can also force those who become shareholders in the future – perhaps resulting from your death or incapacity – to do certain things in running the business. I’ve talked about why you should have one for your business in an earlier article. I’ll write another one soon about what should go in to one… but the continuation plan for the death or incapacity of key people should be part of the shareholders’ agreement. If you have one in place already, work with your lawyer to make sure it jives with the continuation plan. If you don’t have one in place, it’s a good idea to make one.

Insurance

Though it’s not a purely legal issue, insurance is an enabler for most continuation plans. It’s common for the company or your co-owners to take out insurance on you, and the other main players in the business. There are a number of different types of insurance, each with strengths and limitations. The goal is to ensure that there’s cash available to tide the business over and find someone to fill in for the person that’s been lost. Each business will be different, and a good insurance agent can give you the full slate of options, and help you to choose one that works for your company.

It’s important that your insurance agent and lawyer get in touch to discuss the policy you’ve selected so that the legal documents mesh with the policy. Your lawyer can also help you to understand what’s covered, and what’s not under the policy. Once you understand where the gaps are, you can come up with ways to minimize the risks that remain.

Corporate Documents

Picking someone to step into your shoes is one thing. Giving them the lawful authority to make decisions in your place can be another one altogether. You should consider appointing the chosen one as an officer of the corporation, and giving them conditional authority to speak and sign to bind the company in legal documents. They should know where the corporate records are kept, and be put in touch with key advisers including the corporation’s lawyer, accountant, and insurance agent.

When the continuation plan is made, you should ensure that your business books and records are up to date and complete, including the minute book, government filings, and accounting records. Your successor will have enough to deal with already, without having to deal with figuring out what state the company is in first. The corporate minute book should also include a resolution approving the contingency plan, which will prove useful in dealing with outside institutions – banks in particular.

Wills & Domestic Contracts

Not only should you have a will in place that deals with your interest in the company, but it should be in harmony with the continuation plan. If the corporation has decided that your control of the business should pass to one person, but your will passes all of your property to your spouse, there’s a huge potential for conflict. Many people use separate wills for their personal and business assets. Domestic contracts – while painful to negotiate – can be used to protect control of the corporation as something that’s not included in the marital assets in the event of separation or divorce.

Powers of Attorney

A Power of Attorney for property is a legal document that authorizes someone to act for you in making decisions in the event that you’re incapacitated. Banks and other creditors will want to see this, possibly along with the resolutions authorizing the contingency plan and granting signing authority before they’ll deal with someone they don’t know. These are usually made or updated at the same time as your will.

Employment Contracts

Many owner-operators work without a written contract of employment in place with their company. It’s generally understood that as an owner-operator, your responsibilities and risks are almost indefinite. It is a good idea to put an employment contract in place with yourself – a description of duties, salary, and benefits at a minimum. This will help to set expectations for what’s expected of and given to your replacement.

A current employee who steps up into your role will be taking on a great deal more responsibility, and assuming more personal risk in the form of director or officer liability than they had before. This type of change to the employer-employee relationship is something that should be down on paper to protect both of you. Salary, responsibilities, and expectations may all change in the new contract. It’s also good practice to give some form of protection, called indemnity, to those who run the company.

If there’s nobody in your company who could step up to run it, a manager may need to be hired from the outside. If you want to have any say over their role, and any limits on their authority, you’ll have to set those out in advance. Again, the starting point could be your employment contract.

Again, insurance can be used to cover some or all of the expense of hiring, training, and paying a new employee.

Practicalities

Training your possible successor is the most important piece of the puzzle. They may show the potential to run the business by having the right skill set, but will probably need time to be brought up to speed on how the business works. It’s never too early to start. The up-sides of having someone who’s capable of running the business are many – you may even be able to take a holiday for once!

It’s also important to be mindful of avoiding trying to run the business from beyond the grave. A properly trained and equipped successor will still have their own ideas, and should have the flexibility to see them to fruition.

Conclusion

When a thorough continuation plan is made, it’s a major step towards peace of mind for you and your dependents. If you’re laid up with an injury or illness and the business founders without you, you may not be able to pay for your own care. If you pass away, and the business you’ve worked so hard to build follows closely behind, your dependents may be left high and dry. If the business goes under, your employees and others who rely on it for their livelihood, could be in dire straits. While it’s an uncomfortable thing to talk about and plan for, it’s the responsible thing to do.

I’m happy to help you start the process, and I’ve got a good team of specialists who can guide you through the finer points of tax, employees, insurance, and financial planning should you want the help. The next article, on how to plan for your retirement, will be on its way soon!

Now, to counter all those gloomy thoughts I’ve put in your head, here are some very cute animals trying to look tough.

See you soon…

 

 

Mike Hook
Intrepid Lawyer
http://intrepidlaw.ca
@MikeHookLaw

Contingency Planning for Small Business

Owning your own business is kind of like giving birth to a needy child. It will fill your days with all manner of excitement, some good, some bad. There also comes a time when you need to start considering what happens to the child if and when you’re not around to take care of it anymore. What happens if you get sick? What if you kick the bucket? What if personal or family problems prevent you from running the business day to day? How the hell are you ever going to retire? None of those things, save perhaps retirement, are pleasant brunch conversation, but they must be had. They’re the first step in making contingency plans. Without such plans, the well-being of your family, employees, and company may be left in limbo – legally, financially, and business-wise. Contingency plans are certainly not decisions that should be made hastily, nor should they be made alone.

This is the first in a series of three articles I’ll be writing on the topic of contingency planning for your small business. This first one will be a general overview of who and what steps are involved in the process. The next two will touch on:

  1. Business continuation planning – if you become sick or incapacitated unexpectedly, and
  2. Business succession planning – how to retire and get the value you grew in the business out of the business.

Goals

Each business owner will have a different view of what they want out of “retired” life, but there are a few overarching goals that should be built into any succession plan:

  1. to make a smooth transition to a successor;
  2. to see the business in good hands going forward; and
  3. to have financial security in retirement or during illness or incapacity.

Timeline

When I say not to make the decision hastily, I mean it. There are a bunch of hard decisions that you’ll need to make. Your decisions will affect the people you care about the most – friends, family, employees, collaborators, customers/clients, suppliers, and so on.

For business continuation planning, give yourself a couple of months to put the plan together. This will give you time to have those tough discussions, get meaningful feedback and advice, gather the appropriate information, and get all the paperwork done. You want to ensure that the plan you’ve made is feasible, and will work even if the worst case scenario happens. You may also have to start training your staff to do what you do, which can take considerable time as well.

For business succession, allow several months to make the plan, and at least 3-5 years to ease the plan into effect. All of the same steps for business continuation planning apply here, but with a different end-game. So, if you’re a baby boomer who’s looking to make a slow, graceful exit from the business, the time to start planning is now…

Who’s involved?

It’s one thing to decide who you want to carry the flag for you, and another thing altogether for them to want to pick it up and run with it. There are two rounds of consultation to do – one with those affected by the plan, the other with the advisers that will help you piece it together.

In the first round of talks, you’re trying to figure out who’s willing and able to take over the business. At the end of the day, it’s up to you and your co-owners to choose, but I pity the fool who tries to pass their affairs on to someone who doesn’t care to take over, or doesn’t have the ability to run the business effectively. The folks you should talk to include:

  • Family members – particularly your spouse, children, and others who could be beneficiaries in your will
  • Business partners/co-owners/other shareholders
  • Friends with an interest in the business
  • Managers and senior employees
  • Major creditors

After those talks, you should have a pretty good idea of who’s willing to take over, what knowledge gaps need to be filled to get them ready to do your job should you not be able to. Then it’s up to you and your co-owners to choose who will take over, and when.

Once you’ve got a plan, it’s time to figure out how to put it into action. This is where your advisers earn their keep. You should talk to your:

  • Tax planning accountant**
  • Lawyer
  • Insurance agent
  • Banker, and
  • Major creditors

I put two of these bad boys – ** – next to the tax planning accountant for a reason. Many small businesses have an accountant who does their books and prepares tax returns each year. This accountant may be great, but they’re not necessarily a tax planning expert. A CA who focuses on tax planning can help you to get your money out of the business with minimal taxes. Your accountant will take the lead in planning how it’s to be done, your lawyer will do the grunt work to set up all of the structures, and your insurance agent will help you figure out how it’ll all get paid for.

The People Factor

As you well know by now, a successful business is only as good as the people who run it. If your business is doing well enough to prompt you to make contingency plans, then it’s also doing well enough for you to start grooming your employees to take more responsibility in it. When the employees are running a bigger piece of the company, you’re able to phase out gradually. This means training them to do what you do, allowing them to make mistakes and correct them, and developing their leadership skills. This learning curve may take years, so start doing it right away.

There’s a saying in the army that “no plan survives first contact with the enemy”, meaning that every plan looks great on paper, but things rarely ever go according to plan. It’s wise to build contingencies into your contingencies. Pick more than one worthy successor, or have more than one option. That way if your #1 choice jumps at a different opportunity, falls ill, or turns out not to have the leadership skills needed to take the business forward, you’re not up a fecal watercourse with no means of mechanical locomotion.

Conclusion

This was a very brief overview of the contingency planning process. In the next article, which you can find here, I’ll dive a little deeper into business continuation planning, and some of the legal stuff that’s involved in it.

If you’re looking for a more in-depth discussion of contingency planning, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business has an excellent guide up for free. The Government of Canada has published a quick online guide, and most banks and insurance companies have similar publications.

See you again soon!

Mike Hook
Intrepid Lawyer
http://intrepidlaw.ca
@MikeHookLaw

Incorporating an Existing Business

I’ve talked about the pros and cons of different business structures in an earlier article, but what happens when you start out as a sole proprietor or in a partnership, and later want to incorporate? The transition needs to be seamless, so that the corporation can step right in to your shoes and carry on business.

This is something I deal with regularly, and unfortunately it’s not a simple process. It’s difficult for a layman to do without some professional advice from your lawyer, and accountant or tax nerd. The details count here – to the point that writing this blog post took about 8 hours of work. Doing it the wrong way could lead to paying unexpected taxes, interest and penalties, muddy the water about who owns business assets, and stick you with personal liability for things that you thought were pushed over to the corporation. Fear not, intrepid entrepreneur – there’s a way through the maze

OK, what’s so friggin’ complicated?

There are three steps to incorporating an existing business:

  1. Incorporation and organization of a new company;
  2. Sale of the business or partnership to the corporation; and
  3. Joint election to defer the paying of capital gains tax.

Each step has its quirks, which I’ll explain below. There are a bunch of other business steps that you should take to make the transition seamless – this handy dandy checklist should help. Every case will be different – but at least you can get an idea of the key tasks. The rest of the article deals with the process on the legal side. Let’s git ‘r done:

1. Incorporation

Take the usual steps to incorporate your company –name search, and filing of the articles of incorporation with the fee payable to the Ministry. If you’ve registered your existing business’ name, and want to use a similar name for the new corporation, you’ll have to file a signed letter, or completed consent form with the articles of incorporation. You may want to include a share price adjustment clause in the articles of incorporation, in case the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) puts a different value on the sale than you did.

The value of the shares that you’ll own will depend on the sale price. It’s important that the numbers add up, and are consistent between the sale agreement, the documents in the corporation’s minute book, and the election to defer the capital gains tax that you file.

2. Selling the Business:  Tax Rollover

Once your corporation is all set up, it is a “person” (and a taxpayer) in the eyes of the law. It can own property, enter into contracts, and do all that other fun stuff that you do for work. The problem is that the corporation doesn’t actually own anything yet, or have a right to take over your business. You own the corporation, and you also own the assets of the existing business, but they’re different people entirely. In order to merge the two, you’ve got to sell your sole proprietorship to your corporation.

The CRA will want you to pay capital gains tax on the sale. When you started your business, it was worthless. Through your hard work, it has grown in value – accumulating cash, equipment, inventory, contracts, real estate, etc. – which is a capital gain. When you sell the business, the capital gain is realized, and 50% of that amount will be added to your personal income as capital gains tax.

As pleasant as that sounds, you’re allowed to put off payment of the capital gains tax. Since you’re actually only selling the business back to yourself – you’re still are the beneficial owner of the business through your shares of the corporation – you’re not actually realizing the capital gain. You still have to pay it when you actually sell the business to someone else – but you can avoid it for now. This is known as a “tax rollover”. Lawyers, accountants, and various other nerds call this “deferring the realization of a capital gain”. Bottom line is you’ll have more money left to keep your business afloat.

To defer the capital gain, you must sell the business to the corporation at fair market value, in exchange for shares of the corporation. This is done with a “Section 85(1) Rollover Agreement”, which is a contract of sale between you and the corporation. You keep a copy, and a copy goes in the corporation’s minute book. Having a clear agreement on file is very important – the CRA likes to scrutinize these types of sales closely in order to head off tax evasion.

There are two main parts to the rollover agreement – the sale contract, and the financial terms – mostly the value of the assets, and the shares they’re being exchanged for. The sale contract should cover the following points:

  • Agreement to buy and sell
  • Shares and other compensation issued in return
  • Agreement to make a joint election to defer the capital gain under Section 85 of the Income Tax Act
  • Price adjustment clause – in case the CRA decides that the value of the assets is different than you say it is
  • Representations and warranties – that you and the corporation have the legal capacity to buy and sell the assets
  • General provisions – about how the contract is to be interpreted, and so forth

You can find examples on the interweb – Appendix A or B of this article here is a good starting point – though I don’t recommend trying to do this without legal and tax advice. The consequences of screwing it up could cripple your business if you don’t have the cash to pay the tax bill.

The financial terms – usually laid out in a table as an attachment to the contract – can get tricky. The CRA deems the assets of the business to be sold at fair market value. Some assets – especially goodwill – are hard to value. Others have depreciated or grown in value since you got them. Other assets might have a constant value, or cost nothing to acquire, but still generate income. The same goes for liabilities – though typically you don’t transfer many, if any, liabilities in these sales. You should get your accountant to value the assets, and determine the sale price of each class – or the “Elected Amount”. In the contract, you can set a price for each “class of assets” as a group, rather than breaking it down for each item. Still, your accountant should keep the working papers used to determine the amounts declared, in case the CRA asks for justification.

Typically, the following classes of assets will be sold:

  • Non-Depreciable Capital property
    • Some securities or investments
    • Some real estate
    • Trademarks
    • Some patents
  • Depreciable property – property with a definite useful life
    • Furniture, equipment, electronics, tools, spare parts
    • Vehicles and accessories
    • Buildings and the systems in them (HVAC, plumbing, electrical, etc)
    • Fixtures
  • Eligible capital property
    • Goodwill – reputation, customer lists, business name
    • Some securities or investments
    • Incorporation costs
    • Some patents
    • Non-real estate inventory

 3. Joint Election

No, I don’t mean the big issue in the next Federal campaign. It’s actually just more paperwork. Once the rollover agreement is all done and signed, the final step to deferring the capital gain is to file an “Election on Disposition of Property by a Taxpayer to a Taxable Canadian Corporation.”

This riveting document is the CRA’s Form T2057. It uses much of the same information from the rollover agreement. It’s best to get your accountant to help you fill it out. The CRA will scrutinize the rollover closely. If you screw it up, you can amend the election form, but you can’t revoke an election once it’s filed.

Conclusion

That’s a lot of stuff to deal with for what seems like it should be a simple process. I strongly recommend that you don’t try this at home. It’s a tax-driven transaction – which means that your accountant should be calling the shots on the financial terms, and your lawyer should be papering the details. It’s usually a modest legal and accounting bill, which can protect you from an ugly capital gains tax bill, and the interest and penalties that come with it. Lawyer up!

Good luck out there!

 

Mike Hook
Intrepid Lawyer
http://intrepidlaw.ca
@MikeHookLaw

Unanimous Shareholder Agreements

This can be a confusing topic. There’s a whole lot of stuff written about it, utilizing an abundance of excessively Brobdingnagian verbiage, but it’s usually a lot of talk about what a unanimous shareholder agreement (or “USA”) is, rather than why you might want one for your corporation. Here I’ll give you the basics of what it is, why you might want one, and what’s in it.

What is it?

A USA is a contract between all the shareholders of a corporation that limits the power of the directors to supervise or manage the business of the company. It could even take all management powers away from the directors. Without one in place, the directors can exercise all of the powers they’re given by the corporate laws, at the director’s discretion. Back in the day, if directors started running the company in a way that the shareholders didn’t like, there wasn’t much that the shareholders could do about it until it was time to vote for the directors again. Nowadays, the USA gives shareholders an out.

The rights, powers, and responsibilities that are taken away from the directors are then assumed by the shareholders. The shareholders will also take on the liabilities that go along with the powers – such as liability for unpaid employee wages, tax remissions, pension, environmental protection, etc. Some liabilities can’t be opted out of, such as the ones in the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Make sure you know the risks before signing on the dotted line!

A USA is a “constating document” of the corporation – like its articles and by-laws – that deals with the inner workings of the company. It is important to make sure that it doesn’t conflict with the articles or by-laws.

Once a USA is in effect, any new shareholders are deemed to be a party to it, and they should be given notice that it’s in place.

Why would I want one?

USA’s are most common in companies with a few shareholders, who own roughly even percentages of the company. They’re typically used to modify or supplement the rules in the Business Corporations Act:

  • Set out a Succession Plan: I’ll blog about succession plans soon, but a USA can be used to hand off the ownership and management of your corporation so that the business can continue after you retire, or if something bad happens to you.
  • Change Default Corporate Law Rules: such as the % of directors required to vote in favour of certain material decisions, such as paying dividends, buying or disposing of major assets, entering into joint ventures, non-arms-length transactions, mortgaging or liening property, or changing the business of the Corporation.
  • Protect Investor Interests:  venture capitalists, angel investors, or banks may want a USA in place to ensure that they can control things that directly affect their investment – such as amending the articles or by-laws, mergers, issuing new shares, or the sale of substantial company assets.

USA’s can also be used to do a few tricky things, which aren’t guaranteed to work out the way the shareholders intended.

  • Foreign-owned Corporations: the law requires at least 25% of directors to be resident Canadians. A USA can take all the powers away from the directors, and let the foreign shareholders do the decision-making. This may work for some purposes, but courts will ignore this sleight of hand in certain situations, particularly to do with tax liabilities.
  • Protecting Directors: where the shareholders own their shares through a holding company. Those holding companies assume the directors’ liabilities, and in theory, the people who own those holding companies are protected. It’s likely that a court would look right through this technicality though, if there wasn’t enough to pay out the creditors.

What’s in it?

Like any contract, the contents are up to the people making it. Typically, a USA may cover many of the following topics:

  • Decision making process
  • Quorum for meetings
  • Restrictions on share transfers, and how to deal with involuntary share transfers on death, bankruptcy, or court order
  • Special rights of minority shareholders, or special restrictions on majority shareholders
  • Process to amend the USA
  • Funding considerations – from existing or new shareholders, or
  • If the directors aren’t stripped of all of their powers – representation on the board, or a right to appoint someone to observe board meetings
  • Dispute resolution
  • Right to dissolve the corporation

There are plenty of templates out there that can get you started, including this useful one from the Law Society – but as I said above, it’s incredibly important to understand the risks before fiddling with the way your corporation is run…. like using a game of Operation to prepare for open-heart surgery.

If you need a lawyer, I happen to know a guy

Mike Hook
Intrepid Lawyer
Email: mike@intrepidlaw.ca
Twitter: @MikeHookLaw

Why does my corporation need a minute book?

In the hustle and bustle of running your business, record keeping often falls by the wayside. Most small business owners put corporate record keeping somewhere below “eating gravel” on their to-do list. The corporation’s minute book is often never even created in the first place, let alone kept up to date, even though the consequences of failing maintain one can be severe, and incredibly expensive.

Why do I have to?

Incorporating brings a lot of benefits – limited liability and tax being the biggest – but also comes with increased responsibility. The government has said, through the laws it has passed, that if you want the good stuff you’ve got to deal with the additional administration that comes with it. Whether you incorporated federally, or in Ontario, you must prepare and maintain corporate records. Trust me, it’s worth a little hassle and expense now to avoid greater hassle and expense later.

So what if I don’t?

Worst case scenario, your corporation could be found guilty of an offence under corporate law, and liable for a fine of up to $25,000.

Aside from the official penalty, there’s a great deal of business risk involved if your books are non-existent or out of date. I’ve often found myself playing CSI: Minute Book, going back several years to piece together the company’s history. It can take a fair bit of time and money to get it all figured out – neither of which small businesses have in spades.

There are a few common situations where your minute book will be in demand:

  • If you’re selling part or all of your company, the buyer will want to see the books as part of their due diligence – so they know exactly what they’re buying. Poor record keeping can drive the purchase price down, and the delay to get your books in order could put the whole sale at risk.
  • Most banks and other lenders will want to see your minute book before lending money to your business. They want to know that its affairs are in order, and the people they’re dealing with are authorized to act for the corporation.
  • Your accountant may want to see the minute book in preparing its tax returns. Without it, she’ll be forced to make assumptions on how to characterize the income, and may end up mis-reporting.
  • The Customs and Revenue Agency is entitled to inspect your books, and may do so as part of an audit of your personal taxes or the corporation’s taxes. This is more common if you’re paying yourself by dividends, or you’ve lent money to the company. The CRA could characterize money coming to you as personal income, tax the hell out of it AND deny the corporation the right to deduct it as an expense. Talk about lose-lose…
  • Shareholders, as owners of the company, have a legal right to inspect the minute book to know what decisions are being made.

OK then, what is it?

A minute book is really just a binder that holds the important documents of your corporation.

If a lawyer incorporated your business, they probably provided you with a minute book to start. If not, then you’ll have to prepare one yourself, including:

  • Certificate of Incorporation;
  • Articles of Incorporation;
  • By-Laws;
  • Consents to Act as Directors;
  • Director and shareholder resolutions
  • Minutes of director and shareholder seetings;
  • Registers of  the officers and directors;
  • Register showing the number of shares issued of each class of shares;
  • Record of the debt obligations of the corporation;
  • Stated Capital – the number of issued and outstanding shares;
  • Documents filed with government departments;
  • Share certificates, if used; and
  • The corporate seal, if used.

Then you’ve got to maintain the minute book, by keeping it up to date as the corporation does its business, including:

  • Resolutions from the annual meetings of shareholders and directors;
    • Electing directors each year;
    • Appointing accountants or auditors for each year;
    • Approving financial statements;
  • Records of loans to or from shareholders
  • Declared dividends;
  • Management bonuses paid;
  • Issuance or transfer of shares;
  • Changes in directors or officers;
  • Changes to how the corporation is run;

Can’t you just do it for me?

What’s tedious and boring to you is an adrenaline-fuelled rollercoaster ride of awesomeness for me. OK, maybe that’s a little extreme, but I’m happy to take the tedium off of your hands.  I can’t emphasize enough that it’s far far far far cheaper, easier, and less stressful to stay on top of this stuff than it is to go back and piece it together in an emergency – like when an investor or potential buyer wants to inspect your books.

Some clients like me to hang on to the record book and keep it updated when things change.  Others want to keep it themselves, and have me send them the updates when they make changes. Either way, this is one of those things that you shouldn’t waste your time doing…

Hey, you just read this blog,
and this is crazy,
but here’s my website,
so call me, maybe.

Mike Hook
Intrepid Lawyer
http://intrepidlaw.ca
@MikeHookLaw

Termination Pay – Firing Without Cause

Firing employees is among the least comfortable tasks that face business owners. Whether it’s a result of poor quality of work, conduct in the workplace, budget cuts, or restructuring, dismissing an employee is rarely a decision that’s made easily.

Employees can be let go for a reason – poor work quality, dishonesty, fraud, disciplinary issues – known as dismissal “for cause.” I’ll cover dismissal for cause in another article.

In Ontario, the Employment Standards Act, 2000, or ESA, sets the minimum standard for employee rights. It protects workers from unfair actions by employers. It is a “one size fits all” law, meaning that it imposes the same rules on small businesses as it does on Fortune 500 companies. On top of the complexities in the written law, the courts have fleshed out certain “common law” rules. Breaking those rules can mean paying big financial penalties for bad faith conduct, and a whole lot of time and heartache spent fighting lawsuits.  You should always consult with a lawyer before letting an employee go, just to make sure you’re not exposed to extra risk. You may pay more to the employee and your lawyer up front, but you can avoid a costly court case.

Dismissal Without Cause

If an employee is being let go without cause – due to the sale or merger of the business, budget cuts, or in a restructuring for example – the ESA requires employers to give a reasonable notice period. The employer may:

  • give written notice of dismissal and require the employee to work through the notice period while allowing them to search for new employment, or
  • terminate them immediately and pay their salary and benefits for the length of the notice period

Fixed Notice

Some employment contracts, particularly for management, will dictate a specific amount of notice that is required, such as:

The employer shall be entitled to end the employment relationship at any time, without cause, and at the employer’s discretion. Should the employer dismiss the employee without cause, the employee shall be entitled to payment of four months’ notice or pay in lieu of notice, including benefits.

If the employee is let go without cause, the employer must pay this amount without conditions such as requiring a release. A failure to pay, or an attempt to reduce the amount payable could be seen as bad faith, and could result in a big damages award against the employer.

Even if the employee mitigates their damages by finding another job right away, they’re still entitled to receive the full amount of damages.

ESA Minimum Notice

Many employment contracts state simply that:

The employer shall be entitled to end the employment relationship at any time, without cause, and at the employer’s discretion. Should the employer dismiss the employee without cause, the employee shall be entitled to the minimum notice or pay in lieu of notice, including benefits, required by the Employment Standards Act, 2000.

The general rule of thumb is one week of notice for every year of service is the starting point. Bear in mind, however, that this is only a minimum. Courts can award additional notice based on age, long-service, or their duties (managers or supervisors are often entitled to more notice) based on the common law, below. This is where your lawyer earns his keep – looking at the circumstances, and helping you to determine a reasonable notice period.

Bonuses and other discretionary benefits are tricky, and must be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

Common Law Notice

If there is no notice provision in the contract, or a court finds that the ESA minimum would be unfair in the circumstances, the common law will apply. What a “reasonable” notice period is depends on the circumstances. Courts will decide the appropriate notice period based on a number of factors, including the employee’s age, length of service, and their role and responsibilities at the company. Again, this is where your lawyer earns his keep in helping you to determine what a reasonable amount of notice would be.

The above is a big picture view of what the law requires employers to consider when letting an employee go without cause. As usual, it’s for your information only, and no substitute for a discussion with a lawyer. I happen to know a guy…

Mike Hook
Intrepid Lawyer
@MikeHookLaw