Writing the Final Act

You have lived a successful career in the family business either as the founder or as the matriarch/patriarch CEO gatekeeper. You are in the final third of your life and still healthy, vibrant and energetic. Yet the writing is on the wall and something has to change. You can feel that the next generation is getting restless for their “turn,” After all, they aren’t kids anymore and they run the day-to-day operation quite well thank you. You notice that your kid’s kids aren’t kids anymore and will be looking for career choices soon. You may not have noticed, but you are spending more and more time away from the business -“ fewer hours when you are in town and more time out of town. Your spouse is encouraging you to slow down and “smell the roses.” What’s next?

The pen is in your hand. How the final act plays out will be a direct function of how you write the script-¦only this won’t be on stage, it will be real life. Unlike a play, you won’t get much of a chance at rewrites, you don’t get dress rehearsals, and you don’t get the long run on Broadway where you can change things including the actors. What you will get are the critic’s reviews -“ even if you choose not to read them. While you might not think highly of critics, realize who these critics will be. They will be your loved ones and heirs.

Many writers have a story they want to tell and then use a process to develop their script. It’s a model that would work well in your situation. What is the “story?” What is the end game for you and the family business under your watch?

If you recall your high school English class -“ the climax in literature is when the main character makes their “big” decision, or has a major turning point. Allow this to be your climax. Make your turning point to the next third of life and decide how you will do that.

There is absolutely no right or wrong! But, understand that succession is not an event, but a process. It is most successful when the entire cast of characters works and plans together. Anointing your successor may not be the best plan if you expect future harmony. Transferring your holdings at death through your estate plan feels much like “controlling from the grave” for those you leave behind. And worst of all, having no plan will probably result in some form of chaos where the strong survive. If those are the endings you see for your story, then forge ahead. But, if not then try this process to write your final act-¦

  1. Establish a time line (beginning today) for ownership and/or management transition to occur. End your time line with total management empowerment and majority ownership transferred. It is very easy to allow day-to-day operations overshadow long term planning until it’s too late.
  2. Create a team from within the family and business of stakeholders to plan the succession. This might be the “exec committee or Family Council for the larger group. Begin discussions on how and when succession will occur.
  3. Find and use competent advisers. Your current advisers may, or may not, be knowledgeable and skillful at this type of complicated transaction. This goes beyond the buying and selling of assets and into family dynamics including legacy issues.
  4. Develop with your “exec committee” and your advisory team a strategic long-term succession plan starting with an Entry Policy and ending with an Exit Strategy.
  5. Locate your coach/quarterback -“ someone who can help you (the owner) develop the playbook, draft the right personnel, and run the plays on the field when necessary. That could be a current adviser, or you may feel the need to hire a specialist.
  6. Remember to develop a flexible plan, and to be flexible within it. Life can throw some mean curveballs and derail plans that aren’t flexible enough.

Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer Prize winning “Death of a Salesman” is a sad tale of Willy Loman recounting his life with little left to give and ending in a poorly attended funeral. It is a lesson for all of us!

With your pen in hand forge ahead and write your play. You may not win a Pulitzer, but leave room for your critics to glow.

Rick Segal is the principal at Segal Consulting. He holds a Certificate in Family Business Advising with a Fellows status from the Family Firm Institute. He is the founder of the Family Business Council and its affiliated Study Group. He can be reached at [email protected] or by visiting www.segalconsulting.biz.

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Richard Blanchard
Rick is the Managing Editor of Corp! magazine. He has worked in reporting and editing roles at the Port Huron Times Herald, Lansing State Journal and The Detroit News, where he was most recently assistant business editor. A native of Michigan, Richard also worked in Washington state as a reporter, photographer and editor at the Anacortes American. He received a bachelor of arts from the University of Michigan and a master’s in accountancy from the University of Phoenix.