Newport Board Group, an Advisory Firm Serving Middle Market Companies, Issuance Guidance on Closing the Great Family Business Succession Gap

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An indirect and gentler way to help business owners get unstuck

In what has become no less than an a family business endemic, some 50% of small to midsized business owners in North America report having no current plan for succession. This promises to perpetuate the unfortunate incidence of catastrophic value losses for many family businesses.

In what has become no less than an a family business endemic, some 50% of small to midsized business owners in North America report having no current plan for succession. This promises to perpetuate the unfortunate incidence of catastrophic value losses for many family businesses.

And since family businesses have been responsible for 85% of all US jobs created from 2000 onward, unless treated it could also be devastating for the entire US economy.

Business founders are implored to just let it go, to relinquish their clutch on the reins of power. They are also urged to professionalize and prepare the management ranks for the handoff. And they are warned of the risks and burdens that spouses may come to bear should calamity befall them.

Yet, statistics show that these exhortations don’t seem to ‘move the needle’ when it comes to prompting founders into right action.

How ironic that notwithstanding their tenacious grip, some 88% of business owners say they foresee their families carrying on the businesses five years and more downstream, as reported by the Family Business Institute. In the chasm between these high expectations and the absence of a plan we trip and fall into the ‘reality gap’ – the underlying cause for the prevailing ‘succession gap’.

But the gaps don’t stop here. The ‘reality gap’ is a byproduct of the ‘I’m-not-sure-what-to-do’ gap. Aren’t we all too familiar with that one -- it’s the gap that suspends action. The one that leaves us stuck.

And because matters of succession entangle the personal and emotional sides of family life with the operational and financial sides of the family business, yet another gap widens from deep within, at the core of all “stuckness” in the world. It is the “I-don’t-want-to-talk-about-it” gap.

If a business founder is anxious about what life would be like for her after a transfer of power, or has doubts about the readiness (or appreciation) of the next generation, or is just plain vexed about the business in general but has somehow always managed to see it through by herself, the compound chain of ‘gaps’ will ultimately do its disabling damnedest. And national statistics will continue to foreshadow the tale of those unable or unwilling to act.

So when seasoned owners are urged to take immediate action, to name that successor, to put down the phone and back away from the big desk chair, and put a transition plan in motion, these demands appear before them like a mountain of emotional toil and risk. Suspended by the mountain, they become the 50%ers noted above – with business continuity threatened, and with family wealth exposed to a single stroke of bad luck.

Are these business leaders to blame for their immobilization? After all, aren’t these the kind of people who start businesses, cope with uncertainty and overcome obstacles? Or might we be wiser to put the onus on the same old solutions imposed upon them, and apply a different tack?

Considering a less resistant path, we might ask: What are business owners able to talk about with emotional ease? The business. And: What do business owners know how to do, in order to move the business forward? Take planned, incremental, action. And lastly: What do business owners readily seek when they need to take action? Information.

Bill Carroll is a partner in the New England practice of the Newport Board Group.

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