A Succession Plan

By Hannah Wallace September 30, 2005

Building a business from the bottom up, saving and sweating, planning and growing, is the work of a lifetime. But it's what comes at the end-passing on the business to a successor-that might make the difference between a comfortable and happy retirement or one with little money and a fractured family.

"Succession planning is about good business planning," says Mel Srybnik, COO of the Financial Psychology Corporation and president of The Center for Family Finance, Inc. "If you are going to have a good business, the bigger it is, the more sound, the better managed, it's going to be easier to do."

Srybnik himself learned that the hard way. After his father died when he was 10, Srybnik's uncles took over the family business. Srybnik worked there during and after college, but there were so many acrimonious family issues that after 25 years, the family had to sell.

Today, Srybnik, along with his wife and business partner Kathleen Gurney, counts American Express Financial Advisors, Raymond James Financial Services, JP Morgan, the American Institute of CPA's and the National Endowment for Financial Education among his clients. His advice to clients large and small is to run a tight ship for years before the actual transition. Here's how to do it smoothly:

"Good fiscal control is key," he says. Often, the small business owner operates a business like his own personal checking account. Establish policies and financial procedures early on, and follow a solid business plan so there is a clear paper trail later.

Take good care of employees. Whoever is acquiring the business wants it to remain a success, which it won't continue to be if all the employees leave. Keep employees in the loop, ensure there is a training period and make sure they continue to be fairly compensated.

Plan for children's roles. About 35 to 40 percent of business owners pass their businesses along to their children, and that can be the thorniest scenario. Maintain clearly identifiable roles and separate business matters from family ones. If there is just one child in the business, ensure a seamless transition by making sure there is a long training period. If the business owner has two children, one in the business and one not, Srybnik stresses that it is not a good idea to give both equal interests in the business. Separate assets so both get something out of the business, but the child who is involved is the one in charge. For example, the business could be left to one child, and the other child could get the property on which the business operates. That way, the child who has always been part of the business can continue to call the shots while the other child can still earn an income by collecting rent on the property.

Open lines of communication. In his house, for example, Srybnik holds Monday Money nights, when he and his family discuss their bills, money coming in and how to allocate money going out. The older children get, the more important it is to train them in such ways, he says. "Early education about money management is a lifelong payback," he says.

Start a retirement plan. Since not all children are good managers, consider a retirement plan that takes care of everyone. Sell stock in the company to the child, so that when it is sold to someone else, you can ensure that both you and your children will make money from it.

Clearly identify the leader. "Typically when the parent wants to sell to the kids, emotional issues come up," says Srybnik. "Even though you can make succession decisions together, business has to be run like a business. In the end, dad's got to be making decisions till the day he leaves the business."

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