By Richard M. Segal
Can you think of a time when your advisors were more important? Probably not! Certainly, no time has seen the kind of economic drama and trauma we have lately.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that if your company is still functional-even on life support-you have pretty good odds of making it. Regardless of what you call our economic woes, recession or depression, we are probably near the end of it. For sure, Michigan’s recovery will lag much of the nation and the world as the auto industry gets sorted out, but if you made it this far, then you have a good chance of being part of the rebound.
Never before has it been more important to call on the advice and collective wisdom of those you call your advisors. Your family business could well depend on these professionals who offer you counsel on a variety of issues. How you choose to use them could be the difference between being part of the rebound, or one of the sorry statistics of the downturn.
Have you ever thought of asking your professional advisors, “What can you do for me?” Or even better, have you brought them into your “inner circle” of running your business beyond their field of expertise?
Three of our area’s best known professionals-a CPA, a business planning attorney, and an employee benefits consultant-took some time to discuss how they see their client relationships. Each has a large family business component to their practice and they are very aware of the tension that exists between family and business- especially in this downturn.
What is the most important service you are providing during these times?
Attorney Julius Giarmarco of Giarmarco, Mullins & Horton, PC, (www.gmhlaw.com) says this is the time “-¦to insulate personal assets from business liabilities. This involves educating the client on what assets are protected under state and federal laws, and what techniques are available to shelter those assets that do not receive such protection.” Giarmarco is one of the area’s most sought after estate and business succession planning attorneys.
Tony Curtis, CPA and managing principal of the Farmington Hills office of Rehmann (www.rehmann.com), one of the largest accounting and consulting firms in the Midwest: “As CPAs, we can help bring focus to family business owners on the areas of their business that are strongest and can be exploited and on those areas where improvement or even abandonment is necessary.”
Joel Clark, president and founder of the JS Clark Agency (www.jsclarkagency.com), a full service employee benefit consultantcy: “Be open to the review of alternative strategies that, in times past, might not have seemed attractive.”
What is the one piece of advice you would offer your family business clients for today’s climate?
Curtis: “Know every aspect of their cash assets. Know how to raise it most proficiently and know how to conserve it most effectively.”
Clark: “Whether new and different products or alternative funding strategies, researching and understanding the innovative ways employers are managing their employee benefits is key.”
Giarmarco: “When profits are down, most business owners are prone to cut expenses across the board. I caution my clients not to cut their marketing expenses. Instead, they should be looking to increase their marketing, albeit as cost effectively as possible.”
How do you encourage collaboration between your client’s advisors?
Clark: “We are a full service agency, but in some cases the most efficient delivery of a specific service is through the selective use of outsourcing. This may include COBRA administration, Family Medical Leave Act administration, or Employee Assistance Program services.”
Giarmarco: “I like to have an annual meeting. I encourage my clients to have all of their advisors present at that meeting, including their accountant and financial planner.”
Curtis: “Communication is key. By asking collaborating questions of cross functional advisors such as accountants, bankers, attorneys and insurance consultants, the family business owner can better appreciate that the value of the whole team is greater than the value of any one advisor working alone.”
Besides your specific services, how do you act as an advisor to your clients?
Giarmarco: “I’m always available by phone or in person to answer any questions my clients may have, even though they may not be legal in nature. Just to have somebody to talk with that knows what other business owners are going through is often helpful to my clients. Sometimes I’m just acting as a sounding board.”
Curtis: “Over the years you accumulate experiences of seeing how other family businesses have encountered and handled a variety of situations. Bringing those experiences to bear, relating what has worked and what hasn’t, helps provide general business and even personal guidance in dealing with challenges.”
Clark: “Working with over 300 corporate clients, we develop and implement a variety of employee benefit strategies. But we also see innovative business management in other areas as we work with these clients. Sharing these insights can be extremely helpful to our family business clients.”
How would you suggest that your clients use you more effectively?
Curtis: “Talking early and often to deal proactively with issues is a lot more effective than looking back and discussing what you could have or should have done.”
Clark: “Employee benefits is a battle usually fought 12 months at a time, from renewal to renewal. However, when our clients clearly communicate their longer-term plans and objectives, it can have a clear impact on the strategies used in the near term.”
Giarmarco: “To be proactive, not reactive. Many problems that business owners incur could have been avoided by planning in advance.”
Sometimes family firms need to replace professional advisors. How do you approach referrals?
Clark: “It is important to understand not only the client’s practical needs, but also the personalities of the individuals involved when referring capable professionals.”
Giarmarco: “I never try to replace a client’s other advisors, unless the advisor is not providing satisfactory services to the client. When I do make a referral, I try to match the client with a competent advisor of comparable age and personality to that of the client.”
Curtis: “The most effective referral is one that puts capable and compatible professionals together. By learning what other advisors do and how they do it, I can determine whose skill set and personality might fit best with my client. I can facilitate a better match that should produce a better result.”
Take to heart the suggestions of these advisors and use your advisors wisely.
Richard Segal is the chair of the Family Business Council, a membership organization of family owned businesses. He can be reached at [email protected]