A Family Wired For Perpetual Dependence
When the sale of a family business is all about a founder becoming wealthy and their children losing their jobs, you can see why so few ever put themselves in play and sell.
The CEO – the Chief Emotional Officer (Mom, and increasingly Dad) – just can’t stand to see the family pull itself apart. Killing the business with love has always felt like a better plan.
With a wave of aging business owners trying to figure out how they’ll fund their retirement, you can understand the temptation to simply throttle back on their day-to-day involvement and draw a salary while Junior runs the business until the final curtain falls.
Of course, as I’ve discussed in previous articles, with owners living longer, it’s improbable that Junior is going to hang around the business into his or her 70s, when Mom and Dad finally reach their 90s and hand over the reins of control – not operating control, I mean real control, control of the voting stock transferred when
the last parent dies.
How About an Exit Where Everyone Makes Money?
But what if an advisor could frame the exit of the controlling shareholder as the day when all family members become wealthy? Far too often, death is the triggering event for the transfer of stock. Few children are offered an opportunity to risk their capital to buy the stock of their parents’ business at an early age. I recommend that when a child is 14, the parents and advisors begin the process of implanting the idea
that the family business will be bought, not gifted, and that employment is different from ownership.
For a variety of reasons, the majority of parents signal that there’s no real or pressing need to recycle dollars in the family: “Hang around long enough, Junior, and all this will be yours – for free.”
Of course we know that nothing is ever really free and that while the ownership question is left hanging, there are as many underpaid children working in family businesses, as there are overpaid children. My experience on the speaking circuit is that few overpaid children ever risk their capital to buy out their parents. Why
derail the gravy train? Parents who use their business to purchase and control family harmony do more harm than good and always pay the greatest price of all – a family wired for perpetual dependence.
Family Business Math
The dysfunction around the issue of compensation percolates and festers because the stakes have always been high. When Junior complains about low wages, some parents simply say, “If you don’t like what you’re paid, leave.” Emotionally and financially, it’s never been easy for a child to quit a parent’s business.
Child Quitting Over Compensation + Aging Business Owner = Less Inheritance For Junior.
You can see how family business math becomes really interesting when only one child working in the business quits and one or more siblings stay and toe the family line. Trimming the family tree, hacking off a limb, call it what you want, the family business too often becomes the fault line in relationships and turns financially
advantaged families into emotionally bankrupt ones.
The equation for this scenario looks like this:
The Value of the Family Business When Child Leaves Over Compensation = More Money for Remaining Children
The Link Between Compensation and Wealth Protection Is Profound
What if the mathematics of a great exit has always been rudimentary? What if advisors could convince clients that all family members, both inside and outside the business, can build a great exit plan collaboratively? What if the key to this plan is asking children to risk capital and perpetuate the business for the right reason –
because they think they can grow it and make money? Now there’s a novel idea.
For this to be successful, family members working in a business need to be paid for the value they add. There are significant risks to an owner’s successful exit when compensation for family members is too low or too high. Getting compensation right is one of the pre-conditions for leading a business to be sold to someone, either inside or outside the family – but sold nevertheless.
Dynastic Families Understand This Equation
Business Owner Paid Appropriately + Children in Business Paid Appropriately + All Other Relatives Outside the Business Not Paid at All by the Business = Business Sold, Wealth Protected, Happy Family
It’s simple addition – so simple it’s often overlooked. Treat your family business like a drive-thru ATM and pay family members not involved in the business for work not done, and your exit will be a tad complicated and painful. Keep treating your children as indentured laborers and you’ll get to the same place. If you’re a business owner, all of this can seem difficult. It is, but it’s not impossible and it’s definitely worth getting compensation right.
If you are an advisor, are you really prepared to leave your spreadsheets in your briefcase and talk to clients about important issues like compensating family members appropriately? Can you see the link between compensation and protecting your client’s wealth is an emotional issue? Can you see that the hard emotional
issues are where advisors earn client trust?