IT BEGINS WITH AN HONEST CONVERSATION
The owner of a fourth generation building materials company which turns over more than £100m asked me to help him start some difficult conversations with his three sons. He wasn’t able to get them all around a table to talk openly and honestly about some of the challenging issues which had led to difficult moments at work, and at home.
The business has been suffering from the worst economic downturn in the last 50 years. At the same time the parents had reached the age when they wanted to extricate themselves entirely from the business and also from the Family trust; however, they were anxious that the relationships between the brothers were strained as the result of the downturn in business performance and that this, in turn, was affecting harmony in the family.
Confidential one to one interviews were conducted with parents, brothers and their wives. This was paramount in helping me to understand the personalities, issues, agendas, and hopes for the future. The process was instrumental in building trust between me the advisor, and the family. I was also able to take on board insights, ideas, and recommendations which fostered good early communications between brothers.
All findings were reported together with recommendations. Not an easy task as emotions were running high between brothers. Questions were raised that needed to be tabled and we successfully arranged a series of meetings with all three siblings. This enabled the group to begin to tackle the issues that had been bubbling under the skin for years.
A positive outcome of the discussions left to an agreement that the brothers wanted to pursue working towards a governance strategy by way of creating a Family Constitution. And that they would stand shoulder to shoulder in active engagement for the sake of the family and the next generation.
HEALTH, WEALTH AND PURPOSE IN LIFE
This £50m turnover second generation business has grown from humble beginnings into a successful commercial building contractor. Only the owner and his wife are shareholders and the wife’s recent Dementia diagnosis means their children are fearful of what might happen in the future. Until now, succession planning has been the elephant in the room but this needed to change; for the sake of the family and the business.
As immigrants from Ireland times were tough for this family and building a business whilst bringing up a large family made working 24/7 the norm. But the work paid off and over 40 years later the firm has become incredibly successful and the owner, a local beacon of business in his own right.
He has wisely appointed professional non-family Managing Directors to head up each division of his organisation and encouraged his children to learn the trade in other construction businesses before coming on board. They currently work under the leadership of their respective MDs.
The owner’s wife, now sadly suffering from Dementia, has thrown a whole new light on family life. The children, in particular, can see the writing on the wall given that their father hasn’t broached the subject of succession planning or included the children in discussions around the transfer of assets. They want to know his wishes. There is currently no formal governance in place neither is there a ‘drop dead’ plan or risk analysis of the business should the markets shift.
I was approached by the daughter in the business who was concerned about her parents who she loved dearly. She wasn’t sure how to approach her father to open up and talk about the future. Caring for their mother was changing their priorities in life too. The family is a close, caring unit. Three of the children work in the business and one works in health services. With a strong work ethic instilled in all of them, the children were aware they had to create the time and space to get together with their father and discuss the future of the business; and to air their individual aspirations. To continue to work or not work in the family business but pursue other ambitions?
Making money to support his family has been the sole driver of the man, but now was the time to review the family’s wealth, assets, purpose in life, legacy, family and business succession. A time for sensitive but essential, honest conversations. And for the whole family to sit together and just talk openly and frankly. However, this would prove to be a daunting task as the founder is such a charismatic, determined, strong-willed personality.
My strategy included looking at where the family and business are now. By conducting confidential interviews with family members and the Group Board I would be able to ascertain the current situation. We would begin working primarily with the family and getting back to basics in understanding the principals of the three circle model of ownership, family and the enterprise. Part of my strategy was to create a support team of expert advisors in asset management, estate planning, and inheritance tax planning. It was obvious that experts were essential in working towards a plan with the family to ensure successful wealth and asset transfer for the benefit of all family members.
DELIVERING VALUE TO SHAREHOLDERS
This fourth generation business centred around a property which provides studio and workshop space to creative businesses, and has a reputation for being a friendly and flexible place from which to work and run a business.
The enterprise is owned by two siblings who live overseas and hold 50% of the shares. Parents and cousins on the other side of the family hold the other 50% of the shares between them, Across both families, there are 8 children under 30 years of age. The business only employs one member of the family with additional support from a small team of non-family employees.
The family identified that a combination of factors are impacting on the business and these needed to be addressed in order to move forward. On the one hand, there was the issue of stewardship – their emotional responsibility of keeping the property in the family for the next generation. On the other hand, it was felt there was a need to review the current market place and other options to make the property work harder and become more profitable. Either way, there was a desire for the property to deliver more value to the shareholders.
There were a number of challenges which included the family member employed by the business. She relied heavily on a salary to sustain a good lifestyle. However, the feeling amongst other family members was that she had a strong lack of the skills, forward thinking, business development and vision to keep the business healthy and sustainable.
They each have independent careers and vocations outside of the family business save that of the single family member employed by the business. There was a need to understand:
- The family business dynamics: people, systems and growing complexity
- The family’s relationship with the business: developing a strategic vision and building teamwork
- The role of a balanced Board of Directors
- The impact of family governance in the multi-generational family firm
- How to manage change and the leadership role in implementing a new way of thinking, systems, and culture.
- The purpose of the business
My strategy involved confidential interviews with all of the shareholders in the business via face to face meetings in the UK and telephone / Skype calls with the sisters living overseas to identify and understand everyone’s perspectives.
Also included was preparation of a full report to include a summary of my findings together with an all options report for the property i.e sale of part or all of the property; handing the property into non-family management; continue to run the business as it was, with family member in situ.
WHEN DISTANCE CREATES SUCCESSION WOES
This third generation family business has an enviable reputation in their industry and the local community. The current owner wanted to look to the future but had questions: How could the business be developed? Who will be leading the way for the business? Was a succession plan possible?
The complexities and virulent nature of the family relationships both in the UK and abroad meant that the situation needed to be handled with skill and care in order for the son and heir apparent to bring his family back to the UK and begin his journey in taking up his position in management and eventually to succeed his father.
Both parents were worried about the unity of the family brought about by pressures of the economy and a need for a clear succession plan.
By listening in turn to the points of view of the family members in confidence. And by including senior management in my fact-finding, I was able to ascertain the dynamics at work. In an appropriate setting off site we were able to assess:
- Current situation
- Connection to the business
- What was working
- Areas of concern
- Individual needs, goals, and aspirations
- Suggestions and ideas
- What the future could look like
- Succession and exit
- The family
Communication was difficult in the beginning, both inside as well as outside of the business. The in-law relationships were fragile and we needed to create an environment in which everyone could comment, openly, freely, safely and honestly. We agreed on the best channels of communication which in turn became the first steps to building teamwork and rebuilding trust.
Working together we were able to re-examine the vision for the family and business, values and purpose. And it was important to recognise that three next-generation siblings were waiting in the wings.
With the possibility of G4 coming into the family business it was deemed wise to have a system of governance and education in place sooner rather than later. It was important for the children to begin to appreciate the legacy they would stand to inherit.