A family-owned business may be defined as any business in which two or more family members are involved and the majority of ownership or control lies within a family. Family-owned businesses may be the oldest form of business organization. Farms were an early form of family business in which what we think of today as the private life and work life were intertwined. In urban settings it was once normal for a shopkeeper or doctor to live in the same building in which he or she worked and family members often helped with the business as needed.
Since the early 1980s the academic study of family business as a distinct and important category of commerce has developed. Today family owned businesses are recognized as important and dynamic participants in the world economy. According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, about 90 percent of American businesses are family-owned or controlled. Ranging in size from two-person partnerships to Fortune 500 firms, these businesses account for half of the nation's employment and half of her Gross National Product. Family businesses may have some advantages over other business entities in their focus on the long term, their commitment to quality (which is often associated with the family name), and their care and concern for employees. But family businesses also face a unique set of management challenges stemming from the overlap of family and business issues.
A family business can be described as an interaction between two separate but connected systems—the business and the family—with uncertain boundaries and different rules. Graphically, this concept can be presented as two intersecting circles. Family businesses may include numerous combinations of family members in various business roles, including husbands and wives, parents and children, extended families, and multiple generations playing the roles of stockholders, board members, working partners, advisors, and employees. Conflicts often arise due to the overlap of these roles. The ways in which individuals typically communicate within a family, for example, may be inappropriate in business situations. Likewise, personal concerns or rivalries may carry over into the work place to the detriment of the firm. In order to succeed, a family business must keep lines of communication open, make use of strategic planning tools, and engage the assistance of outside advisors as needed.
Family versus Non-family Employees
There are a number of common issues that most family businesses face at one time or another. Attracting and retaining non-family employees can be problematic because such employees may find it difficult to deal with family conflicts on the job, limited opportunities for advancement, and the special treatment sometimes accorded family members. In addition, some family members may resent outsiders being brought into the firm and purposely make things unpleasant for non-family employees. But outsiders can provide a stabilizing force in a family business by offering a fair and impartial perspective on business issues. Family business leaders can conduct exit interviews with departing non-family employees to determine the cause of turnover and develop a course of action to prevent it.
Many family businesses also have trouble determining guidelines and qualifications for family members hoping to participate in the business. Some companies try to limit the participation of people with certain relationships to the family, such as in-laws, in order to minimize the potential for conflicts. Family businesses often face pressure to hire relatives or close friends who may lack the talent or skill to make a useful contribution to the business. Once hired, such people can be difficult to fire, even if they cost the company money or reduce the motivation of other employees by exhibiting a poor attitude. A strict policy of only hiring people with legitimate qualifications to fill existing openings can help a company avoid such problems, but only if the policy is applied without exception. If a company is forced to hire a less-than-desirable employee, analysts suggest providing special training to develop a useful talent, enlisting the help of a non-family employee in training and supervising, and assigning special projects that minimize negative contact with other employees.
Another challenge frequently encountered by family businesses involves paying salaries to and dividing the profits among the family members who participate in the firm. In order to grow, a small business must be able to use a relatively large percentage of profits for expansion. But some family members, especially those who are owners but not employees of the company, may not see the value of expenditures that reduce the amount of current dividends they receive. This is a source of conflict for many family firms and an added level of difficulty in making the necessary investments into the business for continued success. To ensure that salaries are distributed fairly among family and non-family employees, business leaders should match them to industry guidelines for each job description. When additional compensation is needed to reward certain employees for their contributions to the company, fringe benefits or equity distributions can be used.
Another important issue relating to family businesses is succession—determining who will take over leadership and/or ownership of the company when the current generation retires or dies. The key to avoiding conflicts about who will take over a business is having a well-defined plan in place. A family retreat, or a meeting on neutral ground without distractions or interruptions, can be an ideal setting to open discussions on family goals and future plans, the timing of expected transitions, and the preparation of the current generation for stepping down and the future generation for taking over. When succession is postponed, older relatives who remain involved in the family firm may develop a preference for maintaining the status quo. These people may resist change and refuse to take risks, even though such an attitude can inhibit business growth. The business leaders should take steps to gradually remove these relatives from the daily operations of the firm, including encouraging them to become involved in outside activities, arranging for them to sell some of their stock or convert it to preferred shares, or possibly restructuring the company to dilute their influence.
Family business leaders can take a number of steps in order to avoid becoming caught up in these common pitfalls. Having a clear statement of goals, an organized plan to accomplish the goals, a defined hierarchy for decision-making, an established plan for succession, and strong lines of communication will help to prevent many possible problems from arising. All family members involved in the business must understand that their rights and responsibilities are different at home and at work. While family relationships and goals take precedence at home, the success of the business comes first at work.
When emotion intrudes upon work relationships, something that happens in all businesses from time to time, and the inevitable conflicts between family members arise, the manager must intervene and make the objective decisions necessary to protect the interests of the firm. Rather than taking sides in a dispute, the manager must make it clear to all employees that personal disagreements will not be allowed to interfere with work. This approach should discourage employees from jockeying for position or playing politics. The business leader may also find it useful to have regular meetings with family members and to put all business agreements and policy guidelines in writing.
Strategic planning—centering around both business and family goals—is vital to successful family businesses. In fact, planning may be more crucial to family businesses than to other types of business entities, because in many cases families have a majority of their assets tied up in the business. Since much conflict arises due to a disparity between family and business goals, planning is required to align these goals and formulate a strategy for reaching them. The ideal plan will allow the company to balance family and business needs to everyone's advantage.
In family planning, all interested members of the family get together to develop a mission statement that describes why they are committed to the business. In allowing family members to share their goals, needs, priorities, strengths, weaknesses, and ability to contribute, family planning helps create a unified vision of the company that will guide future dealings.
A special meeting called a family retreat or family council can guide the communication process and encourage involvement by providing family members with a venue to voice their opinions and plan for the future in a structured way. By participating in the family retreat, children can gain a better understanding of the opportunities in the business, learn about managing resources, and inherit values and traditions. It also provides an opportunity for conflicts to be discussed and settled. Topics brought to family councils can include: rules for joining the business, treatment of family members working and not working in the business, role of in-laws, evaluations and pay scales, stock ownership, ways to provide financial security for the senior generation, training and development of the junior generation, the company's image in the community, philanthropy, opportunities for new businesses, and diverse interests among family members. Leadership of the family council can be on a rotating basis, or an outside family business consultant may be hired as a facilitator.
Business planning begins with the long-term goals and objectives the family holds for themselves and for the business. The business leaders then integrate these goals into the business strategy. In business planning, management analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of the company in relation to its environment, including its organizational structure, culture, and resources. The next stage involves identifying opportunities for the company to pursue, given its strengths, and threats for the company to manage, given its weaknesses. Finally, the planning process concludes with the creation of a mission statement, a set of objectives, and a set of general strategies and specific action steps to meet the objectives and support the mission. This process is often overseen by a board of directors, an advisory board, or professional advisors.
Succession planning involves deciding who will lead the company in the next generation. Unfortunately, less than one-third of family-owned businesses survive the transition from the first generation of ownership to the second, and only 13 percent of family businesses remain in the family over 60 years. Problems making the transition can occur for any number of reasons: 1) the business was no longer viable; 2) the next generation did not wish to continue the business, or 3) the new leadership was not prepared for the burden of full operational control. Lack of planning, however, is by far the most common underlying reason for a company to fail in the generational transition. At any given time, a full 40 percent of American firms are facing the succession issue, yet relatively few make succession plans. Business owners may be reluctant to face the issue because they do not want to relinquish control, feel their successor is not ready, have few interests outside the business, or wish to maintain the sense of identity they have for so long gotten from their work.
But it is vital that the succession process be carefully planned before it becomes necessary due to the owner's illness or death. Family businesses are advised to follow a five-stage process in planning for succession: initiation, selection, education, finance preparation, and transition.
Estate planning involves the financial and tax aspects of transferring ownership of the family business to the next generation. Families must plan to minimize their tax burden at the time of the owner's death so that the resources can stay within the company and the family. Unfortunately, tax laws today provide disincentives for families wishing to continue the business. Heirs are taxed upon the value of the business at a high rate when ownership is transferred. Due to its complexity, estate planning is normally handled by a team of professional advisors who include a lawyer, accountant, financial planner, insurance agent, and perhaps a family business consultant. An estate plan should be established as soon as the business becomes successful and then updated as business or family circumstances change.
One technique available to family business owners in planning their estate is known as "estate freeze." This technique enables the business owner to "freeze" the value of the business at a particular point in time by creating preferred stock, which does not appreciate in value, and then transferring the common stock to his or her heirs. Since the majority of shares in the firm are preferred and do not appreciate, estate taxes are reduced. The heirs are required to pay gift taxes, however, when the preferred stock is transferred to them.
A variety of tools are available that can help a business owner defer the transfer taxes associated with handing down a family business. A basic will outlines the owner's wishes regarding the distribution of property upon his or her death. A living trust creates a trustee to manage the owner's property not covered by the will, for example during a long illness. A marital deduction trust passes property along to a surviving spouse in the event of the owner's death, and no taxes are owed until the spouse dies. It is also possible to pay the estate taxes associated with the transfer of a family business on an installment basis, so that no taxes are owed for five years and the remainder are paid in annual installments over a ten-year period. Other techniques exist that allow business owners to exclude some or all of their assets from estate taxes, including a unified credit/exemption trust, a dynamic trust, and an annual exclusion gift. Since laws change frequently, retaining legal assistance is highly advisable.
A professional family business consultant can be a tremendous asset when confronting planning issues. The consultant is a neutral party who can stabilize the emotional forces within the family and bring the expertise of working with numerous families across many industries. Most families believe theirs is the only company facing these difficult issues, and a family business consultant brings a refreshing perspective. In addition, the family business consultant can establish a family council and advisory board and serve as a facilitator to those two groups.
Advisory boards can be established to advise the company's president or board of directors. These boards consist of five to nine non-family members who meet regularly to provide advice and direction to the company. They too can take the emotions out of the planning process and provide objective input. Advisory board members should have business experience and be capable of helping the business to get to the next level of growth. In most cases, the advisory board is compensated in some manner.
As the family business grows, the family business consultant may suggest different options for the family. Often professional non-family managers or an outside CEO are recruited to play a role in the future growth of the business. Some families simply retain ownership of the business and allow it to operate with few or no family members involved.
As Tracy Perman explains in her Business Week article entitled "Taking the Pulse of Family Business," two broad trends are visible in the realm of family business as we get comfortable in the 21st Century. First, the aging of the baby boom generation signals a coming ownership change for many family businesses within the next ten years. Second, more and more of these businesses will be taken over by women, continuing a trend that has been visible since the turn of the century. Perman goes on to highlight some statistics about women owned family businesses that makes this trend towards female ownership seem quite positive. Recent studies have shown, Perman explains, that "women-owned businesses were more likely to focus on succession planning, have a 40 percent lower rate of family-member attrition, tend to be more fiscally conservative, and carry less debt than male-owned businesses."
Some family-owned businesses are finding that it is no longer assumed that children will wish to take over a family business. If the founders of a firm wish to keep it in the family's hands, they should be sure to take proactive measures to attract future generations to the business.
The rewards of a family-owned business are many as are the challenges. Those family members who manage the family business should enjoy the business itself if they are to be successful and pass along a sense of enthusiasm for the business when the time comes for them to hand over the reins.
This article was published in Inc. Magazine, updated January 5, 2021, and brought to you by the Ronald J. Fichera Law Firm, where our mission is to provide trusted, professional legal services and strategic advice to assist our clients in their personal and business matters. Our firm is committed to delivering efficient and cost-effective legal services focusing on communication, responsiveness, and attention to detail. For more information about our services, contact us today!
This is not tax advice and should not be construed as such. Please seek professional tax services for more information and advice that will apply to your specific tax situation.
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