This article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Smart Business Philadelphia magazine.
"Planning for an exit can be a very emotional event in a business owner’s life. There are feelings of mortality — not only with one’s health, but also his or her role as the leader of a business. Businesses that achieve long-term success typically do a good job planning for succession," says Steven E. Staugaitis, a director in Audit & Accounting at Kreischer Miller.
"It makes sense that companies that effectively plan leadership transitions will do better because they can sustain positive momentum when a leader is properly groomed and allowed to rise within the organization," he says.
However, many business owners and executives don’t properly plan for an orderly exit. Less than 20 percent of organizations are well prepared for the departure of a key individual, according to the American Management Association.
"We see that particularly with first-generation business owners. One day they realize they’re 65 and ready to retire. They expect to be able to turn a key and exit the business. In those cases, it is rarely a successful exit," Staugaitis says.
Smart Business spoke with Staugaitis about planning for succession and what business owners should be considering to increase their chances for success.
What steps should owners consider?
The succession process involves evaluating several steps. These steps include, but are not exclusive to:
- Identifying potential candidates.
- Training those qualified candidates.
- Publicly affirming the decision.
These action items are necessary to set the right tone and expectations for the organization and those around them.
When should owners start thinking about exit planning?
Successful transitions occur where sufficient planning takes place — five to 10 years from a planned exit is best. This time frame allows for potential ‘false starts’ as circumstances change. These changes can be a shift in the operations of the business, the unplanned departure of candidates or candidates simply not demonstrating the necessary qualifications to take over. It is important to start the process early in order to keep your options open.
Who should be involved in the selection process?
Certainly the current owner or owners should be involved as well as any identifiable candidates. These candidates need to confirm their intention of really wanting to take over.
Also, having an outside, independent entity such as a board of directors or advisory board can be helpful. The board can help balance decisions by removing the emotion, since they don’t work as intimately with the candidates on a daily basis. Board members are able to provide outside perspective and new, innovative ways for evaluating candidates.
What about contingency plans?
It’s always a good idea to have what is sometimes referred to as a ‘disaster plan’ in place. These plans are a set of key instructions for a spouse or the management team of a business to act upon in the event something happens to the owner. Unfortunately, there are situations where a key owner of a business passes away suddenly. If there is no clear direction left to anyone either in the family or in the company, the company may go out of business as a result.
Are there any other things an owner should be thinking about?
A leader who is planning to leave the organization should think about what he or she is going to do once he or she actually leaves. The most successful transitions occur when the owners take up an active hobby or they participate on advisory boards of other companies. Showing up at the business every day can undermine the whole process and give the perception that a succession has never really occurred.
The succession process needs to be mapped out like you would any other aspect of the business. Even if you’re not planning on exiting the business in the near future, being prepared ahead of an actual event sends a positive message to employees and customers that you’ve built a strong company that is focused on long-term success. ●