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What Family Businesses Can Learn About Succession Planning from the New England Patriots

Steven E. Staugaitis, CPA, CVA Director, Audit & Accounting, Small Business Advisory Services Group Leader, Family-Owned Businesses Group Co-Leader

The New England Patriots recently moved on from their longtime head coach, Bill Belichick, and elevated an in-house candidate, former Patriots linebacker and current linebackers coach Jerod Mayo, to the position. That’s the headline news, but the full backstory offers a few important succession planning lessons for family-owned businesses.

Most people know Robert Kraft as the long-time owner of the New England Patriots. However, fewer are aware that he got his start – and earned the money to buy the NFL franchise – as a private company owner. Kraft began his career working for his father-in-law’s packaging company (which he subsequently bought) and several years later founded another company which trades physical paper commodities. The combined companies make up the largest privately held paper and packaging company in the U.S. As Kraft’s empire grew through acquisitions, he consolidated everything (including the Patriots) under the Kraft Group, for which he still serves as Chairman and CEO.

Over the years, Kraft has spoken openly about the lessons he’s learned as a private company business owner and how he’s applied those lessons to NFL ownership. Most recently, he has demonstrated the importance of succession planning.

NFL head coach searches typically start as an open casting call which considers current in-house talent as well as the talent available on the open market. The process can be frenetic, as multiple teams are often searching at the same time and going after many of the same candidates. Teams are forced to decide in a very short amount of time whether a coaching candidate will fit with their team’s culture, other coaches and front office personnel, the players, and the playbook. The stakes are high – just as they are in any business searching for a key executive – and the outcome is far from certain. This might explain why the average tenure for an NFL head coach is just 4.3 years.

In the case of the Patriots, Kraft was able to sidestep this process by quietly and uniquely putting a succession plan in place a year before he needed to hire a new head coach. Jerod Mayo joined the Patriots as a coach in 2019 and signed a contract extension in 2023. The extension, which the Patriots stated publicly was designed to keep Mayo with the team long-term, included language that named Mayo as Belichick’s eventual successor. The contract was then submitted to the league.

This approach killed two birds with one stone. First, it helped Mayo and the team prepare behind the scenes for Mayo to step into the lead role. Second, naming Mayo as the successor allowed the team to sidestep the typical head coach search process. The Patriots didn’t have to compete for the small pool of available head coaching candidates, and they didn’t have to be distracted by the process. Mayo could get right to work on preparing for next season.

So, what lessons can family businesses take away from this story?

Succession planning lesson #1: Prepare for a leadership change well before you think you’ll need one.

At the beginning of the 2023 NFL season, no one could have predicted that the Patriots would go 4-13 and finish at the bottom of their division. Yet the team was well prepared to move on from Belichick if needed. By naming Mayo as their successor, all the parties were on the same page and Mayo was able to focus his professional development on the skills he needed to develop in order to take over the team – whether that was in one year or five. When the time came (perhaps sooner than anyone expected), he was ready.

While succession planning is something that should be done well in advance, many family businesses haven’t begun the work. In fact, Kreischer Miller’s 2022 Family Business Survey found that only 39 percent of respondents have made formal investments to develop their next generation. The bottom line? There’s never a better time to start the process than now.

Succession planning lesson #2: Make sure everyone is aware of the plan.

While the specific details of Mayo’s contract weren’t made available to the general public until after the fact, key personnel within the Patriots organization would have been well aware since the day the contract was signed.

There is a strong emotional element involved in a leadership transition, particularly when the departing leader has been with the organization for a long time (24 years, in the case of Belichick). Transparency with all parties is a key element of success, particularly as it relates to the general timeframe for the transition and identifying the successor. Being candid can help ensure a smoother transition and reduce the emotional toll for the entire organization. It also removes any fear about what will happen next – for the company as well as its leaders.

Succession planning lesson #3: Identifying and training your successor increases the probability of their eventual success.

When you hire a successor from outside your organization, or even if you hire an internal candidate but wait until the position is open to start your search, you lose valuable time to train and orient your new leader to your business. By identifying your successor in advance, you provide them the time to learn various areas of your business and develop their skills, which increases your chances of having a well-rounded leader who is ready to step into the role when needed.

“When needed” may come sooner than you think. Again, no one knew with absolute certainty that the Patriots would struggle last season and Kraft would need to part ways with Belichick. Kraft may well have thought that Mayo had at least another year to prepare. Yet, because Mayo has been with the team for several years and had a year to mentally prepare to eventually assume the head coaching job, he was ready to step in when needed. Plus, at age 37, Mayo has plenty of runway ahead of him. The organization’s ability to pivot as the environment changed was made available in large part because of the planning and process that had been initiated in advance.

Succession planning lesson #4: Your family business legacy is important; think carefully about how to preserve it.

This is a slight departure from the conversation about the Patriots head coaching job, but still relevant to the discussion. For many family-owned businesses, the struggle to survive becomes harder with each successive generation. It’s no different in the NFL, where second and third-generation owners rarely live up to the legacy of their patriarchs.

Robert Kraft is keenly aware of the statistics and made a recent comment that would seem to indicate he is already planning for his own succession. Earlier this month he was asked if he has ever considered selling the team. His response was, “No. After my family, the New England Patriots is the most important thing in my life. It’s not a business; it’s a part of my family. I’m never selling. We’ve set it up so it stays in the family for many decades.”

Many family business owners view their business as a family member. They’ve poured a great deal of time, energy, and focus into building it up and making it successful. Their legacy is important to them, and the business is an essential part of that legacy. While we don’t know Robert Kraft’s precise plans, from his statement it’s clear that he’s put a lot of thought into what comes next for the franchise, particularly after he’s no longer around to be a part of it. That’s a great takeaway for any family business owner.

Uncover more insights about how your family business peers are managing their own succession planning processes by downloading the most recent version of our Family Business Survey.

Contact the Author

Steven E. Staugaitis, CPA, CVA

Steven E. Staugaitis, CPA, CVA

Director, Audit & Accounting, Small Business Advisory Services Group Leader, Family-Owned Businesses Group Co-Leader

Family-Owned Businesses Specialist, Small Business Advisory Specialist, Business Valuation Specialist, Transition/Exit Planning Specialist

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