Expert Advice

By Hannah Wallace December 31, 2005

Q. As a business owner, I'm worried about whether, if I get into a car accident, the plaintiffs can get my business. Business law attorney Chris Caswell responds: When we discuss asset protection in a business context, we talk about inside liability and outside liability. Inside liability is the liability that comes from inside the business, through its operations; and outside liability is the liability that the owner might have for a car accident, for example. A successful plaintiff can try to recover its judgment damages in a variety of ways from a business owner. Generally, after the payment of any insurance proceeds, the business and its assets are a prime source of recovery. If the business is owned as a sole proprietorship, a plaintiff can grab the business assets and thus control the business.

If the business is owned as a corporation (including an S-corporation) or even as a general partnership, the shares of stock or partnership interest owned by the defendant can be attached, effectively transferring the business. If the business is owned as a limited liability company or limited partnership, then the exclusive remedy (according to court decisions) available to the plaintiff is a "charging order," which is basically the right to receive whatever distributions would have been made from the limited liability company (LLC) or limited partnership (LP) to the defendant. No ownership is transferred.

There are several negative issues for a plaintiff when they get a charging order, so many times they might not want to get that sort of remedy. For asset protection reasons for outside liability, the business owner should consider setting up the business as an LLC or LP.

Chris Caswell can be reached at (941) 366-7727 or [email protected]

Q. I'm hearing a lot about branding for small businesses. What are some steps I can take to enhance my brand? Michael A. Sisti, a marketing and branding consultant at Sisti & Others, answers: The process of branding starts with a few simple steps. First is a decision by management to determine what your company stands for and what promise your branding will make. Next is the commitment to examine and improve all contacts with your customers and prospects to assure a positive brand experience at each opportunity. Every employee, subcontractor and vendor participates in the delivery of this brand message.

The trickier part of the process lies within the subtleties of the messages delivered by your various communications vehicles. How you answer the phone, for instance, and what you say can either make callers feel important or annoyed. Do your logo and stationery enhance and reinforce your brand? Do the look, style and tone of your advertising reflect your image and make a desirable brand promise? Does your showroom or office make people feel comfortable, impress them and want to visit you?

The goal of building a successful brand is to make satisfied customers advocates of your brand and create the "word of mouth" buzz about your company. If you fail to deliver on the promise made by your branding, however, it will have the opposite effect and actually hurt your business. So get started right away and examine those touch-points. And call your office. You may be amazed at what you hear.

Mike Sisti can be reached at (941-926-1851) or [email protected]

If you have a workplace-related question you'd like to ask the experts, please e-mail Ilene Denton at [email protected]

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