Succession-planning tips for your family business

Your business

The challenges of passing a business from one generation to the next are as much psychological and emotional as they are structural. But not addressing those challenges can be crippling.


Family businesses in the UK say their long term goal is to protect the business as the most important family asset, according to the 2018 Family Business Survey.

Yet, just 18 percent of family businesses surveyed say they have a robust, documented and communicated plan in place.

It’s a daunting prospect – to compress the history of something so complex, something so riddled with working parts, into a transferrable blueprint that can be used by future generations. And some owners don’t want to do it, aren’t certain they even know how to transition or formulate a succession plan.

“When you’ve built your business from scratch and made every decision from how many paper clips you need to order to massive commercial multi-million pound questions, it’s a huge deal to get your head around the idea of letting go and handing that control on to the next generation,” says Matthew Hunter, director, Relationship Management at RBC Wealth Management in London.

To Hunter, there’s no singular approach to succession planning. Instead, it’s a spectrum of solutions ranging from building a simple will to crafting a plan years in advance of stepping down. Unfortunately, an overwhelming majority of family businesses in the UK veer towards the bare-minimum approach.

Here are some tips to help family business owners plot out that transition from one generation to the next.

Start succession planning early

Knowing when to start succession planning is one of the biggest challenges. While elements like ailing health or offers to buy the business often trigger an exit strategy, there’re arguments for starting to lay the groundwork now so the plan can be enacted the second the business owner starts thinking about moving on.

“Succession needs to be planned and executed carefully, paying as much attention to the letting go of the seniors, to the holding on of the juniors,” says Nigel Nicholson, co-author of Family Wars: The Real Stories behind the Most Famous Family Business Feuds and professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School. “Professionalisation and good governance practices can help enormously.”

The long lead-in allows for a step-by-step approach with the incumbent owner working alongside current executives to really examine and grasp the finer details of running the company.

“They can start to learn to handle the money, learn the management skills, or appoint external managers if you need (them) to make this business work beyond the lifetime of the founder,” adds Hunter.

For big business families with complex affairs, a family constitution is also a helpful tool.

“They tend to be a mix of legally-binding and non-legally binding elements like mission statements or family objectives,” explains Hunter. “For example a long-term goal could be to ensure this business stays in the family as long as possible to benefit (future) generations,” he adds.

Don’t overlook the emotional side of business succession

Nicholson cautions family business owners against focusing too much on implementing the structural elements that they ignore the psychological or personal effects of the transition.

“The chief need is to deal with emotions alongside a rational planning process and not let them get intertwined – the fears of incoming and outgoing generations need to be addressed sympathetically, while the rational planning process unfolds at a pace people can handle, with good handholds along the way as people feel their way into their new roles,” says the family business expert.

“It must be forward looking; celebrate the past so as to let go of it, and move with positivity and confidence towards the future.”

One way outgoing owners can manage the handing over control, says Hunter, may be to set up a trust. A trust is a legal relationship created when the ownership of certain assets are transferred to another person or company (the trustee). The trustee then manages and administers those assets in the best interests of those involved.

“The control point comes up immediately because when you create the trust, if you’re using those sorts of structures to take assets out of your own name as part of a succession planning exercise, then you’ve got to be comfortable with the idea you’re giving up personal control of them,” he adds.

The founder can offer guidance through a letter of wishes but will have no legal ownership of the assets.

Build your team for the future

Using a trust and choosing a trustee may be just one part of the succession planning process.

“You may well need asset and wealth managers, you’ll most certainly need good accountants and lawyers too,” says Hunter.

A solid advisory team can help develop and assess different strategies, weigh scenarios for selling and allocating assets, if this is the direction a family business owner is going, and support the former head of the business through the emotional elements.

In the case of many family businesses, the succession planning team will include relatives.

“You can only bring the best advice if you’re properly sitting down to make a plan for how the succession is going to work,” adds Hunter.

A team of advisors can also assist in valuing the company in terms of how the timing of a transfer could affect the company’s worth and how it can be broken into pieces in the event the next generation doesn’t want to move forward.

“Not every business is going to neatly enable itself to transition itself to every generation,” adds Hunter. “Sometimes there are no mechanisms and the best thing to do is to achieve a good sale at the right time.”

Keep the succession plan evolving

Perhaps the most critical element to keep in mind when setting up a succession plan is to see it as an evolving blueprint, one that should be documented at every stage.

“You can’t do this exercise once and leave it,” says Hunter. “If you’ve got a big, complex business family you should, at least every five years, come back and make sure it’s still meeting your goals.”

Nicholson agrees, adding that revisiting the succession plan with an eye towards the future and the flexibility promised by a changing leadership can offer fresh new ways to look at the company’s future.

“This should not be rushed,” he says. “But it is important the next generation have a proper sense of ownership – either to maintain a winning status quo, or to find fresh ways of reinvigorating the firm.”

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