What’s a cooperative?

There are a lot of different models available to people to set up their businesses, but one of the most underused is the cooperative model. Frankly, I find it odd that so few startups consider using a co-op, given the shift towards people-centric companies, corporate social responsibility, social enterprise, crowdfunding, and the sharing economy. In many ways, co-ops are ideal for these types of ventures, since the primary aim of a cooperative is to benefit its members. It’s up to the members to decide what “benefit” means, so co-ops are often about more than just maximizing profits.

Perhaps unfamiliarity breeds avoidance. The co-operative corporation is an odd beast, and far less common than corporations, partnerships, and proprietorships. A lot of folks don’t even know the co-op exists as an option. Hell, a lot of business lawyers I know have never touched the things, and just gloss it over in the “other” category when talking about business structures. Its weirdness makes it difficult to understand. Co-ops are a mash-up of business and not-for-profit corporations, with partnership-esque decision-making, which are sort of public companies, and report to a separate branch of government than every other business in Ontario.

the-people-dont-know-their-true-power-tc-cartoon-sad-hill-newsIt’s high time we blew the dust off the ol’ girl, and maybe you won’t think co-ops are so weird and scary after all. You might even start to think that your business would do well as a co-op, in which case, we should talk.

There are a LOT of possible variations in co-ops, so I’ll stick to the basics in this article. The goal is to give you an idea of the broad strokes, and I’ll leave the details for later articles. I’m going to talk about:

  • What a co-op is
  • Advantages and disadvantages
  • Types of ownership
  • Types of co-op
  • The basics of financing a co-op, and
  • The basics of decision making

So what is a Co-op Anyway?

Co-operatives are democratically-run businesses governed by those who use their services – their members. Co-ops generally rely on member participation to make the wheels turn. Members pool their money, goods, or services, have a say in decision making, and share in the profits or losses of the co-op’s business. Members can be human people, corporations, and not-for-profits.

cooperative-movementAs we’ll see below, a co-op can be set up with shares, like a business corporation; or without, like a not-for-profit. Co-ops with shares can sell them to members and the general public to raise capital. Co-ops without shares may operate as not-for-profits, and apply for charitable status.

Decision making is one-member, one-vote, so each member has an equal say. Members can be broken down to stakeholder groups, where each group’s votes may be weighted differently, kind of like in a partnership.

Once they reach 35 shareholders or lenders, co-ops become somewhat like a public company, and have to distribute information about the business and its finances to potential investors. The annual financial statements of a co-op must be audited, to ensure that the co-ops accountants are preparing the statements by accounting norms. Ontario co-ops are regulated by the Financial Services Commission of Ontario, rather than the Companies Branch

Advantages

  • Egalitarian – while corporations can allow their stakeholders to participate in ownership through stock option plans and the like, such plans are often carefully controlled to prevent those stakeholders from controlling the company.
  • Democratic – each member has an equal say.
  • Cheaper to set up and run than stock option plans or large partnerships – though the rules governing co-ops can be a bit tedious, many of the rights and responsibilities are written in the law, rather than being custom creations
  • Shared resources – members can get access to more and better equipment or facilities, increased negotiating power when buying/selling, shared marketing costs, etc.
  • Networking and education – members have access to people who face similar challenges, and make contacts up and down the supply chain.
  • Limited liability – a co-op is a “person” in the eyes of the law, which takes on its own liability. Members and shareholders personal assets are protected, and they only stand to lose what they invested.
  • Flexibility – co-ops have a huge array of options on goals, structure, financing, decision-making, and services.
  • Double or triple bottom line – benefits to the members aren’t limited to a share of the profits.

Disadvantages

  • Startup costs – are typically higher than for simple incorporations or partnerships. It takes more legal and accounting work to get ’em off the ground.
  • Offering statements are required to raise money – which takes time and money to prepare, and there are ongoing disclosure requirements.
  • Annual financial statements must be audited – which adds an extra annual operating expense.
  • Decision making can be slow and difficult – especially when there are a lot of members, or stakeholder groups with different interests. Think of how much of a pain in the ass the membership meetings of a condominium can be…
  • Unfamiliarity – because there are relatively few co-ops, compared to other business forms, government and foreign entities may have a hard time wrapping their heads around how to deal with you.

Membership Shares, or Members?

You have two options when incorporating a co-op – ownership through shares, similar to a regular ol’ corporation – or control by members, similar to a not-for-profit corporation. Choosing between the two usually comes down to two things:

  • Whether the co-op’s purpose is to operate like a business and turn a profit, or to provide a service on a break-even or non-profit basis; and
  • How much capital is needed to get started and run the co-op. The greater the need for capital, the more likely it is you’ll lean towards shares.

Consult with your lawyer and accountant before choosing which way you’ll go.

Shares

Shares are just a bunch of rights in the co-op. Most of these rights centre on control (voting), profits (dividends), and ownership (right to a share of the net profit if the business is sold or wound up). Every co-op with share capital must issue at least one type of “membership shares”. Each membership shareholder gets one vote at members’ meetings to do things like electing the directors, setting the rules (bylaws) of the co-op, choosing an auditor, approving annual financial statements, and major business decisions like selling or dissolving the co-op. Different types or membership shares may have slightly different rights.

You also have the option of creating and selling different types of “preference shares” to raise money. Like a regular business corporation, you can get pretty creative with the rights that the preference shareholders have, like priority on dividends, to be bought out or redeemed, to be paid part of the proceeds of liquidation, to receive information, and to receive a portion of the net profits of the co-op each year as a patronage return.

Members

For co-ops without share capital, there are only members, who fill much the same role as membership shareholders, above. The biggest consequence of this type of co-op is that its only financing options are membership fees, loans from members to the co-op, and loans or other debt from outside sources.

Multi-Stakeholder Co-ops

In these bad boys, members are organized into stakeholder groups, depending on what they contribute to the co-op. Each stakeholder group has certain rights as a group, such as appointing directors to the board, or to receive a lower or higher share of the co-op’s profits.

Types

There are four basic types of co-op in Ontario

  • Worker-owned

    Exactly what it sounds like. Only workers can be members of the co-op, and at least 75% of employees of the co-op must be members. An example would be Toronto’s Co-op Cabs, where each taxi license holder is a member of the co-op, and gets a share of the net profits of the company rather than revenues from their specific cab.

  • Consumer

    Businesses, often in retail, which are owned by their customers for their mutual benefit. Resources are pooled to buy in bulk, then the savings are passed on to the members. The most common are credit unions, green energy, insurance, and grocery stores. I’ll lump housing co-ops in here too.

  • Producer

    Producers of a certain product, or a certain category of goods band together to share common expenses like warehousing, equipment, shipping, and marketing. Most people have seen farmers’ co-ops, which often have warehousing and large equipment, as well as buying farm supplies in bulk. Producer co-ops could work for any business from lumber, to crafts, to booze.

  • Multi-stakeholder

    Here, many different groups of interests recognize that they’re all in the same boat, and band together for common gain. These groups could include workers, producers, service providers, consumers, and supporters of a certain cause. Health care and social services are common areas for this form. There’s a big push towards sustainable food co-ops right now, bringing together farmers, land owners, seed banks, grocers, and restauranteurs.

Dolla Dolla Bills Y’all

A co-op model can allow a business to take a fundamentally different path than a regular corporation. The directors of corporations are voted in by shareholders to maximize the value of the shares. Co-ops exist for the benefit of their members, which can far broader than simple monetary gain. That’s not to say that a co-op can’t turn a profit. It’s just up to the members as to how far up the priority list profit falls. The rules on how money comes into and flows out of a co-op are different than regular corporations too.

Money In

Besides profits from the sale of goods, the most common fundraising method is membership fees – an annual fee that members must pay to stay members. In most cases, this isn’t a large sum. Co-ops can also charge fees for use to members or the public – like an hourly rate for use of equipment and facilities, or for sales leads they generate for their members.

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Debt Financing

As with any business, a co-op can borrow money, known as debt financing, from a variety of sources. Co-ops can, and often do, require their members to loan money to the co-op, which is common in agricultural co-ops where production is cyclical. They need the cash up front to float the year’s operations, and the loans are paid back when the harvest comes in. They can force members to re-invest profits earned from the previous year as member loans as well.

Co-ops can borrow from banks, government, and other private lenders, same as any other business. They can also apply for government grant funding.

Equity Financing

Co-ops with share capital can raise money by selling preference shares. The magic number is 35, meaning that if there will be 35 or more people who own securities (shares and debt) when the sale is done, the co-op has to file an “offering statement” with the Financial Services Commission. This is similar to, but less demanding than, what a corporation must do before “going public”. The goal of the offering statement is to ensure that the investors know what they’re investing in. The exact requirements vary depending on the co-op, but the result must be a full, true, and plain disclosure which answers any reasonable question an investor may have. There are a few exceptions which mean you don’t have to file one for small numbers of investors, and small amounts raised.

Money Out

Aside from paying operating costs, wages, tax, and debt, there are rules about how the profits of the co-op are paid out. What’s left after operating expenses are paid, but before tax, is called the “surplus”.

A co-op can set aside some or all of its surplus to create a “reserve fund” of retained earnings for its future expenses, and it can pay out the surplus through dividends and patronage returns.

Dividends

Dividends are paid out of a co-op’s after tax income. The member or shareholder is taxed on the dividend (not as regular income), meaning some tax credits are available to them.

The maximum dividend allowed on membership shares is the prime lending rate +2% per year. There’s no cap on dividends to preference shareholders, so the rate of dividend is what’s set out in the Articles of the co-op.

Dividends may be paid in more shares of the co-op as well, which allows the business to reinvest the profits, and increase the equity holdings of the shareholders.

Patronage Return

This posh sounding term is the profit share a member is entitled to based on how much business they’ve done with the co-op. This is the main way in which members receive their profits. Patronage returns are paid out of the pre-tax income of the co-op, and are taxed as income for the member.

Different rules apply to different types of co-op, but the way patronage returns are calculated is set out in the bylaws. Worker co-ops, for example, pay patronage returns based on hours worked, or total compensation paid each year. Producer co-ops may account for the relative profits earned from different products contributed to the co-op (a ton of strawberries may turn a higher profit margin than a ton of potatoes. No offence to potatoes.)

Non-members may also be paid a patronage return, so long as the return for non-members is the same or less than what’s paid to members.

Decision Making

As with a corporation, co-ops have three levels of decision-making – members, directors, and officers.

Members

Each member, or membership shareholder, has one vote at meetings of the members. Members have to attend a meeting in order to vote – they can’t send a proxy to vote in their place.

Most votes are decided by a simple majority of votes, after a resolution has been discussed. The key decision members are called upon to make is to elect the board of directors, or removing them if need be. They also approve audited financial statements, and vote on resolutions proposed by members.

Members have a say in other major decisions, which require a 2/3 majority to pass. These include changing the articles of the co-op, adopting new bylaws, and approving the sale or merger of the co-op.

5% of members can call a meeting, or propose member resolutions. 10% of members can force a directors’ meeting to pass a new bylaw or resolution.

Directors

Elected by the members, the directors have a fiduciary duty to run the co-op in the best interests of the members. All directors must be members of the co-op, and there must be at least three directors on the board. The board is responsible to set the strategic direction of the co-op, and appoint the officers to manage its day-to-day affairs. They vote on things like approving new members, budgets, major contracts, and expansion plans.

Officers

Appointed by the directors, officers oversee operations, and supervise the lower-levels of leadership. Officers are employees of the co-op, and except for the President and chair of the board, they don’t have to be members. The duties of the different offices are listed in the Cooperative Corporations Act. Most co-ops will delegate a certain amount of decision-making power to officers, such as the ability to sign contracts up to a certain amount, to hire and fire employees, and to do the co-op’s banking.

Conclusion

So, there you have it, co-ops in a nutshell. This is by no means a complete guide to co-ops in Ontario, but I hope it proves to be a useful starting point. If you’re looking at starting a business or non-profit, take a good, give co-ops due consideration.

There are a ton of good resources out there for information gathering, including a whole series of guides from the FSCO, and the Ontario Co-operative Association that can help you to get started.

As always, I’m happy to help you birth your cooperative business baby. Reach out.

 

Mike Hook
Intrepid Lawyer
mike@intrepidlaw.ca
@MikeHookLaw

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Lawyer Stuff 101 – What Does a Business Lawyer Do?

This is the second in my series of articles on how you, a business owner, can use your lawyer most effectively. The most frequent conversation I have when meeting with new clients is to explain the role of the lawyer in advising a business. Many have never worked with a lawyer before, or worked with one in a different area. Why are we useful, and what the hell do we actually do that adds value to your business? Once you know what we do, it’s much easier to use us effectively – saving you time, money, and heartache as your company evolves.

A lawyer’s job is to help businesses to understand and manage risk. Full stop.

On Risk

Most entrepreneurs are going into business because they have a great idea – a product or service that they believe they can sell. The act of going into business is risky in and of itself. You’re putting your time, money, reputation, and relationships on the line. The business world is a scary place, especially when you’re the small fish in the pond. Your competitors are constantly working to out-manoeuvre you. Your employees, contractors, investors, customers and suppliers have expectations and problems of their own. The tax man knocks on your loudly and frequently. There’s a maze of regulations to navigate.

Many of those risks are sight unseen for entrepreneurs. Some manage to bob and weave through them by chance, blissfully unaware of close calls. Often in a first meeting I have the unpleasant task of lifting the veil, and giving them a peek at the troubled waters they’re sailing in. Sometimes the business owner walks away with more worries on their mind than they came with. It’s not a fun realization for them, and it’s my least favourite part of the job. It is, however, reality.

The risks exist whether you realize they do or not. Would you rather not know, and be blindsided when something happens, or understand where the risks lie, what the potential consequences are, and be able to make plans to avoid them and minimize their effect on your business?

Keep your head in the sand if you like, but Stats Canada has found that 20% of startup businesses fail within the first year, and 50% don’t survive three years. The businesses that succeed tend to have sound legal and accounting advice from an early stage. If you have sound advice, and the business still fails, you’ll likely end up on more stable ground afterwards – with your personal assets, reputation, and relationships relatively intact.

Lawyers help businesses to manage risk in three main ways:

  • Advising on sound business practices
  • Advising on appropriate legal structures and relationships, and
  • Advising when insurance is wise

Each of these risk management techniques ties in with the others. I’ll talk about each in turn.

Sound Business Practices

The most common, cheapest, and often most effective is to cover your own ass by doing business the right way. Most of these don’t need a lawyer to dream up or implement.

The most common business disputes are about differences between what was promised and what was delivered, billing and payment disputes, employer-employee relationships, and on-premises injuries. Businesses frequently deal with Consumer Protection Act, employee safety, and harassment and Human Rights Code complaints. Complying with government regulation – such as licensing, zoning, Building Code, Fire Code, access for disabled persons, anti-spam, import/export rules, and tax are also sources of friction and risk. It can be a lot to deal with, but there are a few habits that’ll make life easier for you:

  • Do your reading. There is a ton of information out there from government websites, regulatory bodies, accountant and lawyer’s blogs, insurance companies, incubators, entrepreneur groups, and industry publications. Read it all. A responsible business owner knows what laws and regulations govern their industry, and what they need to do to colour between the lines.
  • Put it in writing. If there’s a dispute, what actually happened doesn’t matter – only what can be proved. Written records are more convincing than memory. If you do business over the phone or face to face, keep notes and send a follow up email summarizing what was said and agreed upon. Put employee job descriptions in writing.
  • Keep everything. Having things in writing is useless if you delete it too soon. The limitation period (meaning, the amount of time someone has to bring a lawsuit) in Ontario is two years after the problem is discovered. Do the math, and figure out how long to keep the records after dealing with someone. An IT nerd can burn years and years of data to DVD for you if storage space is an issue.
  • Don’t over-promise. Sometimes the pressure to make a sale can be immense, especially in the cash-poor early days of a business. It’s hard enough to keep people happy even when you do what you say. If you over-promise and under-deliver, or take on work you’re not equipped to do, it’ll come back to bite you in the end. The rear end…
  • Have policies in place. Especially if you have people working for you. There are tons of free resources from the Ministry of Labour, and HR professionals that can get you started. It’s wise to bounce these off your lawyer to make sure they’re current.

As your company grows, your lawyer and other advisors can help to flesh out the practices and policies in a way that suits your business.

Legal Structures

Here’s where I come in. While business practices are a good start, there’s no substitute for on-point legal advice to help minimize business risk. Legal advice costs money, and if you’re in the habit of seeking it before acting, you may wonder what the actual value added to your business is. Legal advice is a bit like bear repellent – the only way you know it’s working is that there are fewer bears around… but if a bear shows up on your doorstep with a lawsuit, the value becomes much more clear. Maybe I went too far with this analogy… I digress…

Sadly, much of what I do is work to clean up my clients’ self-inflicted messes. They try to save money on legal fees by trying to be their own lawyer. Sometimes the damage is irreparable. I’ve watched businesses go down in flames because of vague, improperly drafted contracts. I’ve seen clients held hostage by independent contractors because they didn’t put anything in writing before work started. I’ve seen people’s businesses stolen out from under them because they didn’t think independent legal advice was worthwhile. Even when the business is salvageable, they often end up spending two or three times as much to fix the problem than they would have on legal advice in the first place.

The business lawyer’s role usually falls in one of three categories:

  • Internal relationships. Clearly setting out the roles, responsibilities, and expectations between the founders of the business is essential. Sooner is better – ideally before the business starts to make (or lose) money. No matter what the form of business is, and no matter how good the intentions are at the start, as soon as money is involved, people’s recollection of the deal and expectations can change in a hurry. A house divided against itself cannot stand.
  • The back end of the business. Not only should your business structure make sense from a tax perspective, it should protect the founders, and facilitate long-term growth as much as possible. There are several forms of business available, each with their benefits and obligations. Choosing the right one, and keeping it in good standing with the government and other regulators is critical. Lawyers know what records need to be kept, and what approvals must be secured before taking certain actions. Investors and potential buyers will want to see that the proper decision-making processes were followed in running the company.
  • External relationships. Customers, suppliers, employees, investors, creditors, partners, joint-venturers, government, regulators, landlords, tenants, neighbours, industry associations, and advisors will all be looking out primarily for their own interests, as you should be for yours. Contracts are useful to set out what’s expected of each party, which I covered in detail in an earlier blog. Call your lawyer before trying to enter, break, or change a contract. You may also need help understanding what regulations apply to your business, and help you to colour between those lines.

Insurance

I’m no expert in insurance – my knowledge is limited to knowing when to recommend when it might be appropriate, and how it fits into your overall risk-management plan. I typically recommend insurance options to cover the gaps between your business practices and legal structures, and the risks you can’t hedge against that way.  A few of the common types are:

  • Commercial general liability. This coverage can cover slip & fall and other bodily injury, defamation, emotional pain and suffering, false advertising, medical expenses, and tenant/occupant liability.
  • Disability & key person. As discussed in my articles on contingency planning, these policies can help keep the business afloat if the owner/operator or a key employee is killed or injured and unable to work.
  • Directors & officers. A company can agree to protect its directors and officers in the event that they’re sued for things they did in the course of their duties.
  • Business interruption. Protecting against loss of income in the event of fire, flood, equipment breakdown, and other events beyond the business owner’s control.

Written opinions of lawyers, accountants, and other professionals which recommend a specific course of action as being legal or viable can also be a form of insurance. Your business should be able to rely on those opinions to make its decisions. If an opinion is wrong, and the business suffers losses as a consequence, it’s up to the professional (or their insurer) to make it right.

Bear in mind that insurance is a contract as well – so read it. Know what you want to be covered for, and make sure it’s included in the policy. Have an idea of what amounts of coverage you need for each type of insurance. Ensure it covers liability occurring in the places where your products or services will be delivered. Do some research into the reputation and claim denial rate of the insurance company you’re thinking of dealing with. Call your insurance agent when starting a new aspect of your business. Insurance is supposed to provide peace of mind – which ain’t much use if you don’t actually know what you’re covered for.

You probably already know that there’s a lot more to entrepreneurship than meets the eye, if you’re doing it well. Getting legal advice can be a delicate balancing act as far as cost vs. benefit – especially when cash is tight in the early stages. Sometimes you need more work than you think, other times you need less. Each business’ needs will be different, and the only way to know for sure is to ask questions. Know what you don’t know, and get an expert when you need one. I happen to know a guy…. 😉

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

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

Outlook for Canadian Small Business

The Bank of Canada released the results its 2014 “Small Business Outlook” survey on Monday. I’ve plowed through that report and some other market research on the small business climate in Ontario, and found a couple common themes that may affect your business:

Export market strong, domestic market weak

A weaker Canadian dollar ups the profit margin for exports. This is a big help for manufacturing businesses in particular. Manufacturing, agricultural, and construction businesses are having trouble meeting production demands as it is. Savvy manufacturers are eyeing the increased profits as an opportunity to buy more machinery and equipment to increase production. It’s a particularly well-timed strategy, as most major banks and investors have eased their lending criteria. Overall, this means there’s more cheap money available to finance expansion.

The weaker dollar can hurt businesses that rely on domestic sales to drive them. This is amplified for companies that import a lot of goods – it costs more and more to buy the same ingredients or components. Hospitality and professional services businesses are often the canary in the coalmine for economic slowdowns – with less cash flow, businesses spend less on services. Small business owners are feeling the crunch, and worry that any more price increases will hurt their business. Many are considering absorbing the loss, rather than passing the added expense on to consumers. This is particularly so in Ontario, where a crowded marketplace is putting more pressure on businesses to keep prices down.

Business is good enough to hire

A majority of businesses are hoping to hire new employees in the coming year – many on a full-time basis. While most small businesses report no shortage of workers, many are finding it tough to find suitable new hires, particularly in niche businesses. This may be due in part to the continuing trend of baby boomers retiring, and not enough young workers to replace them. Therefore, employers are competing for talent. A more competitive hiring market can drive up wage and benefits demands – leaving many small businesses unable to compete. Good for talented young workers, not so good for business owners.

On the up-side, small businesses have a great deal more flexibility in tailoring employment to suit the employee – flexible working hours, work from home, opportunity for growth, employee stock options, etc. Well worth it, if you land the right employee!

Here’s the link to the full Bank of Canada report.

Hopefully this article gives you a little perspective on the environment you’re running your business in!

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

Non-Competition Agreements in the sale of a business

So, there I was, the dapper lawyer at the cocktail party, entertaining everyone with tales of legal derring-do. All were enthralled by my war story about finding a type-o on page 64 of a contract. “Tell us another!” shouted one. “Yes! Yes! Tell us a tale about something exotic! Something like… non-competition agreements!” demanded another, excitedly. I couldn’t help but to oblige.

Lucky for them, I’d just read the recent decision of the Ontario Court of Appeal where they’d just clarified the law about what makes a non-competition agreement enforceable after a business has been sold. (If you’re a nerd like me, you can read the whole decision here: Martin v. ConCreate USL Limited Partnership, 2013 ONCA 72).

This decision laid out the law on what makes for an enforceable non-compete agreement very clearly. Here are the basics:

  • We start with the presumption that a non-competition agreement is not enforceable, because it’s designed to restrict someone’s freedom to practice their trade.
  • Whoever is trying to enforce a non-compete has to show that it’s a reasonable agreement between the parties.
  • Non-competes in the sale of a business will be less scrutinized than those between employers and employees, as there’s usually equal bargaining power in a sale of a business.
  • Agreements that are signed by people who had legal advice on the agreement before signing it are more likely to be enforceable.
  • Just because it’s a sale of a business and both parties had legal advice doesn’t mean that an unreasonable agreements will be enforceable
  • A reasonable non-competition agreement will be clear, and unambiguous in three major areas:
    • The geographic scope, or area in which the non-compete applies, must be defined clearly
    • The time period that the agreement covers must be reasonable, and have a clear start and end point – and not be tied to a future event that is outside the power of the parties to control (or may never happen…)
    • The activities that are prohibited must be clear and reasonable – only what’s necessary to protect the business interests of the purchaser

A non-compete is a valuable tool to protect a new purchaser from having to fight for business against someone who has insider information on how the purchased business is run. Theoretically, if the vendor is allowed to start a new business in the same area that’s a little leaner, they could undercut the purchaser and put them out of business. The non-compete is designed to prevent this – but is only to the minimum extent necessary.

Of course, I explained to the spellbound crowd, what’s “reasonable” in any case really depends on the circumstances. Non-competition agreements or clauses are the type of thing you should get legal advice on before sticking them in any agreement – especially the sale of a business!

I’m available for legal advice or children’s parties, should ever you need me.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Mike Hook
Intrepid Lawyer
mike@intrepidlaw.ca
@MikeHookLaw

How do I structure my business?

One of the most common questions I get from entrepreneurs at networking events is how to structure their business. Actually, the conversation usually starts with a question about whether or not I “do incorporations” (the answer is yes, btw). It seems most people have an idea that there are advantages to incorporating, even if they don’t understand what the advantages may be.

The short answer is yes, there are some advantages to incorporating, but there are many ways to skin the business structure cat. Before you make up your mind that the corporate form is right for you, you should know what your other options are, and what some of the advantages and disadvantages are.

So, without further ado, here are three of the most common business structures in Ontario:

The Corporation

When you incorporate, you’re birthing a separate “legal person” that has many of the same rights and responsibilities as an actual person. It can enter into contracts, borrow money, sue and be sued, pay taxes, and even has some rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It is owned by its shareholders, and run by its directors and officers.

The biggest advantage of incorporation is “limited liability” – meaning that if someone has a legal dispute with a corporation that you own, your personal exposure isn’t more than the assets you’ve invested in the company. (This isn’t true 100% of the time – see this article on director & officer liability). Another advantage is that the corporate tax rate is much lower than the individual tax rate. A good accountant can work with your lawyer to set the business up in a way that minimizes your business and personal tax costs.

Other advantages:

  • It continues to exist even if the shareholders, officers or directors move on or pass away.
  • Ownership can be sold or transferred in whole or in part.
  • Easy to raise money (capital) by selling shares or options for shares.
  • There are clear rules on the roles of the people who control and operate the company.
  • Corporations can be shareholders (owners) of other corporations, which can further protect the people who ultimately own the companies from liability.

Disadvantages:

  • Extensive record keeping and annual reporting requirements to the government.
  • More involved process to take money out of the corporation to pay yourself.
  • Possible disputes between shareholders and management.
  • Higher startup costs than other business structures.

Well Suited For:

Industries with more risk of being sued, that are more likely to need outside money to grow, and where hiring employees or contractors to run parts of the business is likely, such as:

  • Manufacturing
  • Retail, bars & restaurants
  • Construction & landscaping
  • Resources
  • Transportation, tourism & adventure
  • Tech services and support

A corporation is a very flexible business structure that, if set up correctly in the first place, can grow and change with your business as it evolves. If you’re considering setting up shop as a corporation, give me a call, and we can make sure we get it done right.

The Sole Proprietor

This isn’t much more than you registering a business name, and starting to do business. You and the business are the same person for legal and tax purposes, so anyone who is owed a debt by the business could claim against your house, car, or personal savings to get it paid back.

Advantages:

  • Simplicity
  • Very little startup cost
  • Little government regulation
  • You have direct control of decision making
  • Business losses can be deducted from your personal income

Disadvantages:

  • Your personal assets may be at risk.
  • Higher tax rate on business income means there’s less to reinvest in the business.
  • Banks and other lenders may be less willing to make loans.

Well suited for:

Low-risk industries, remote/virtual workers, consultants, and services for individuals rather than businesses, such as:

  • Social media
  • Personal training
  • Bookkeeping
  • Professional services and other consultants
  • RMTs
  • Web design

A sole proprietorship is a cheap and easy way to get your business off the ground. It’s not particularly flexible, or well suited for long-term growth, but it’s not difficult to incorporate a business later once you’re ready to grow, hire, rent space, and enter into contracts with suppliers and customers.

The Partnerships

A partnership is an agreement, typically in writing, between two or more people (or corporations) to carry on business together for mutual gain. You pool your resources, and share in the profits or losses according to your agreement. No separate legal person is created – so creditors can still look to the partners’ personal assets to satisfy debts owed by the partnership. Partnership income is paid out to the partners, and you’re each taxed at your individual rate.

Limited Liability Partnerships are ones in which the other partners aren’t liable for the debts or claims against one of the partners. Law firms and accounting practices commonly use this form.

Limited Partnerships ones where all partners own the assets of the business, but certain partners limit their liability to the value of their contribution to the partnership. At least one of the partners must be a general partner, with no limited liability.

Advantages

  • Simple to start up.
  • Very flexible, and can allow each partner to keep control of their portion of the business
  • Few ongoing formalities such as annual meetings
  • Business losses can be deducted from your personal income.
  • Costs and profits are shared between the partners

Disadvantages

  • Your personal assets may be at risk
  • You are legally and financially responsible for business decisions made by your partner – such as entering in to bad contracts, or breaking them
  • Income is taxed at your personal rate
  • Possibility of conflict between partners
  • Higher start-up cost, as all partners should have independent legal advice in negotiating and drafting the partnership agreement.

Well Suited For:

Diverse groups of professionals working towards a common goal (pooling resources), people cooperating on short-term projects, and projects in exploratory or preliminary phases in:

  • Professional services – accounting, architecture, real estate, medicine, incubators/accelerators
  • Industrial or real estate development
  • Mining projects
  • Arts, theatrical and film ventures
  • Medical, scientific and technology research

Since a partnership is a private agreement between the partners, it can be adapted to suit just about any relationship. If you’re considering entering in to a partnership, you should have legal advice to make sure that you know what you’re agreeing to, and that your interests are protected. More information on partnership agreements is coming soon.

Hopefully this article helps you to understand what your options are, and gives you an idea of how to get your business off the ground. I’m happy to discuss these options with you, and help you get your business set up for long-term success.

 

Mike Hook
Intrepid Lawyer
mike@intrepidlaw.ca
@MikeHookLaw