small business

Your Business Needs a Succession Plan: Here Are the Basics

Succession planning may be the single-most neglected aspect of business ownership. Don’t make the same mistake that so many others do. Instead, get started with your plans today.

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series on selling your business, we’ve examined the questions facing owners who entered 2020 ready to make their move, breaking down how the COVID-19 pandemic changes the situation and how to increase a business’s value if you decide to delay bringing it to market. There’s another way forward, though — standing pat and not selling.

If you were a business owner who was considering putting your company on the market but decided not to sell (or at least not anytime soon), what steps should be you taking now? The goals are to ensure preservation of the current business, as well as provide for an orderly and stable future transition when the proper time to sell arrives. Accordingly, the first and most critical step is setting a goal to implement both a business continuity plan and a business succession plan. The sooner, the better.

We have all learned a valuable lesson from the COVID-19 pandemic: A significant business disruption can happen with very little advance notice, and not being prepared can be disastrous.

Developing a Business Continuity Plan

Armed now with the knowledge of how the pandemic impacted your own business operations, you can now plan. Did the travel restrictions impair your sales efforts? Did the substantial increase in employees working remotely overburden your IT infrastructure? Did your vendors and suppliers make requests that you couldn’t respond to effectively?

The goal of a business continuity plan is to identify that which is essential and that which is not and to place the business in a position where it can continue to operate during a disruption. Ideally, the business continuity plan would include:

  • A comprehensive strategy for keeping the business operating day-to-day.
  • An assessment of essential and non-essential operations and processes.
  • An analysis of key employees/positions and how each would be impacted by a disruption and, specifically, the potential loss or unavailability of key employees.
  • A review of facilities and analysis of how the business operates if one or more location becomes unavailable.
  • A plan to protect, secure, back up and replicate, if necessary, critical data systems, infrastructure and applications.

These are only a few of the many issues for consideration when developing a business continuity plan. Many of the details are industry-specific, and you need to work with your key employees and advisers to address the challenges likely to face your particular industry. Consider meeting and discussing with your vendors, customers and suppliers the challenges that were presented by the COVID-19 restrictions. Get their views on how things could have been handled more effectively. Information is key to developing a plan that will actually work.

Once you develop a plan, revisit it regularly and adjust and update it so that it is always ready to go when you need it. If, for example, your CFO retires, you will need to consider how the loss of that person and their particular knowledge will affect the plan. Will their successor have the wealth of historical knowledge necessary to obtain and transfer information in a timely manner? If not, consider how you address the gap. Every organization seems to have those “go-to” people who have been there forever and without whom things run much less smoothly. Consider how the plan is impacted if those individuals are unavailable. The key takeaway is that the plan needs to grow and change with the business in order to work effectively when the disruption happens.

Developing a Business Succession Plan

No matter what your plans are for the future of the business, eventually, you will transition it to someone. Perhaps that someone is a purchaser, or perhaps you will transition to your family, key employees or some combination of the two groups. The point is that transition will eventually be unavoidable. Ideally, you get to control and be part of the process. That, however, is not always the case. Unexpected death of an owner, key executive or employee can cripple a business if no successor has been identified and there is no plan for transitioning management.

Every business succession plan looks different. Not every business owner wants to transition their business in the same way or at the same time. Some owners want to exit completely at a certain date. Others want to stay involved to a lesser degree over time but never exit entirely. These issues, as well as many others, must be considered. The plan should be designed to:

  • Address anticipated timing.
  • Identify one or more successor.
  • Address the value of the business.
  • Provide for implementation of the plan.
  • Discuss communication with employees, customers and family.
  • Include tax planning.
  • Provide for contingencies.

In my long career as a business lawyer, I have observed that succession planning is the single-most neglected aspect of business ownership. Maybe it’s human nature to think that we’ll always have time to deal with it later. The truth is, if you don’t get around to it and the unexpected occurs, the impact on your family and employees could be devastating. Also, we see many executive job candidates asking about a company’s transition planning before they are ready to commit to working there. Lack of a transition plan can therefore have a negative impact on attracting and retaining talented employees and executives.

The best way to approach the process, in my experience, is by dedicating a year to the effort. Spend three or four months discussing the process with your family, executive employees, your bank and other key stakeholders. Get your lawyer and accountant or other tax adviser involved from the outset. Develop and refine the plan over the next few months, and implement it over the last three or four months. One year is what you need. Negotiate the fees with your professional advisers in advance and get a budget for each phase. When it’s done, you’ll thank yourself, and your business will be better off for having gone through the process.

Final thoughts

As touched on in this article and the other parts of this series, the COVID-19 pandemic was and remains a major disruption that couldn’t have been foreseen by most business owners at the start of 2020. The confusion of the early days, however, is beginning to clear. For owners who were planning for a transition, there is path forward — be it bringing the business to a changed market, delaying the decision or staying put for a time.

No matter the decision, proper preparation and organization will make it easier.

About the Author

Patricia E. Farrell, Attorney at Law

Partner, Meyer, Unkovic & Scott

Patricia Farrell is a corporate law attorney in Pittsburgh. With a primary practice in business services, she regularly represents privately held businesses in mergers, acquisitions, divestitures and other major transactions, both in the United States and in Europe, Asia and Australia. She also has a broad corporate practice where she assists with corporate governance as well as succession planning for business owners and a variety of other day-to-day business issues.

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