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

Advertisements

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