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:
- Business continuation planning – if you become sick or incapacitated unexpectedly, and
- Business succession planning – how to retire and get the value you grew in the business out of the business.
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:
- to make a smooth transition to a successor;
- to see the business in good hands going forward; and
- to have financial security in retirement or during illness or incapacity.
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…
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**
- 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.
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!