Does Your Daughter Want to Be CEO? Six Mistakes CEOs Make When Choosing a Successor for a Family Business

Dr. Robert Doback: He quit college his junior year and said he wanted to join the family business.

Nancy Huff: But you’re a medical doctor…

Dr. Robert Doback: I told him that. He just said, ‘It’s all about who you know.”

— From the film “Step Brothers”


My dad thought I would take over the family business. But I told him several times I didn’t want it and his persistent misconception cost the family a lot of money and my dad a lot of grief, as I wrote in my last post.

If you’re the owner of a family business, chances are you have relatives working for you. You may have brought in your kids and placed them in positions of increasing responsibility, assuming that one day you’ll retire and fill your days perfecting your golf game or cruising around the world while the next generation takes over.

If you own a family business and plan on a son or daughtertaking over, ask him or her if they want to run the business. Don’t assume they do.

But have you ever asked your son or daughter if he or she wants to be the boss? You may be surprised by the response. Children crave their parents’ approval and don’t like to disappoint them. It’s possible they are in their current positions just to please you.

Your daughter may secretly be harboring aspirations to be an entertainment attorney or your son may be dreaming of a career in the medical field. Rather than focusing all their energies on the future of your business, they may be working towards their exit as soon as dear old mom or dad is out of the picture.

Not asking that crucial question is just one of the mistakes I see when family business owners deal with the question of succession.

Here are five others to watch out for:

1. Using guilt to get a family member to take over the company

Doesn’t the company you worked so hard to build and grow deserve someone at the top who is 100% devoted and whose skills match those necessary to be a successful CEO? Think about the last time you were guilted into something. Did you feel positive about it? If you ask your family member if he or she wants to take over and the answer is no or a halfhearted yes, consider other options.

2. Leaving the succession of a company up to a lawyer

I’ve heard this many times when I ask CEOs about their succession plan. “I don’t worry about that. My lawyer will handle it all.”

Lawyers are necessary for many aspects of your business. But they are often called in when the company is already in transition and will be focused on the legal issues. The key to an orderly succession is to have it planned out before you need it, and you need to consult all your business advisors when developing the plan.

3. Leaving the company in the hands of several family members

You can’t run a business by committee. “We’ll just get together over Sunday supper and decide on that then,” I’ve heard before. It’s fine to have family members talk over key decisions. But you have to have one person empowered to make all the final decisions.

4. Not picking a number 2

So you’ve gone through the process of picking a successor. Guess what? You also need a number 2. Let’s say your son takes over and he leaves the company in a few years to start his own business. Or your successor is your brother-in-law, who takes a liking to the diner waitress and sends you a “Having a great life” postcard from St. Croix. You need to have a back up.

5. Not educating everyone about the succession plan

Once you have a succession plan for the next CEO and the number 2 person, make sure all the family members know about it. There may be hard feelings over the selections, but it’s best to deal with them now and have everything settled before the transition.

It’s also important once the succession plan is made to communicate the plan to customers, vendors and bankers. Then, bring the successor into important meetings so there will be continuity when you retire or get hit by a bus.

So how do you pick the best people to run your company? Stay tuned for the next post on The Turnaround Authority.

Don’t Miss the Exit: Make a Succession Plan

I was at a breakfast with an older gentleman yesterday who started a family business almost 20 years ago and works with his wife and his son.

“Will your son take over the business when you retire?” I asked.

“I hope so,” he said. “But I’m not sure I’ll be retiring.”

That’s a pretty typical response and situation for owners of family businesses. They don’t really have a plan in place and aren’t really sure when and if they will retire. In fact, almost a third of family business owners have no plans to retire.

Furthermore, he wasn’t even sure if his son would be taking over if he did retire, or in the unfortunate event of his death.

Maybe I should have told him my story.

When my dad was 87 years old, I had to carry him out of the family business. I took over and liquidated the business, paying creditors 50 cents on the dollar and rewarding long-term employees with anything left over.

While that may sound harsh, he was in the early stages of dementia and had recently gotten swindled out of $300,000. There was very little left of the company. The worst part? I had been telling him for years to sell the company and even had an offer for $5 million ten years before. He turned it down. The family ended up with nothing.

All because he had no succession plan in place. Although I had no desire to take over the company, having worked there and turned it around once in the 1980s, he persisted in believing I would one day take it over.

If he had planned for and been working with someone else to take over the business, the business could have been saved and provided him with continuing income for his retirement.

Maybe if I had told this gentleman my story he might have taken a closer look at a succession plan.

I bet if I had asked him if he has life insurance or homeowners insurance or car insurance he would have looked surprised and answered that of course he did. What if something unexpected happened?

Then why hasn’t he taken steps to ensure the future of his company by instituting an emergency plan?

I use the analogy of driving on the highway. In Atlanta, where I live, we have I-285, an eight-lane perimeter that encircles the city. If I’m driving on 285 in the far left lane and need to get off at the next exit, I need to start planning my moves to the right so I can exit.

If I don’t? I miss the exit. I could end up circling the city as one of our Atlanta Braves players did in 1983. Pascual Perez, a pitcher from the Dominican Republic, got lost and drove the 64-mile perimeter three times before running out of gas. He missed the game.

While 88% of current family business owners believe their family will still control the business in five years, statistics show that only one in three makes it to the next generation.

Sometimes it’s because an owner died. In almost half of all family businesses that failed, the business collapsed because the founder died. In almost 30% of those cases the death was unexpected.

The key to making sure your business survives is to have a succession plan. Think of it as adding value to your company as well. Wall Street analysts are now tying market value to a company’s succession plan. IBM and GE have strong succession plans and Wall Street took notice.

I know it’s not a lot of fun to talk about what happens when you die. But it’s not fun to talk about what happens when your house burns down or if you wreck your car. But we protect ourselves in the event those unfortunate events occur, while hoping they never do.

However, we know for a fact no one gets out of this life alive. So even if a family business owner doesn’t ever retire, he will die one day. And the only way to make sure his business doesn’t go with him is to make a viable succession plan.

Next week: How to pick the right successor for your business

5 New Years Resolutions for Your Business in 2012, Part 2

When was the last time you looked at your business plan? You remember, that thing you made so many years ago to ensure that you knew what you were doing and that everything was thought through? Wait, you did make one didn’t you?

If so, great – pull it out. If not, I’m not going to ask you to spend your time on that now, but I am going to ask you to think about a contingency plan in case of an emergency.

That’s right, the New Year is a great time to review your contingency plan.

We’re in the middle of a horrible economy. If things are going well for you and your business, I commend you and say, Keep up the good work. But even if things couldn’t be better, you should always have a contingency plan in place that you update at least every two years. At the cusp of 2012, this is a great time to review and update yours since I’d be willing to bet that you haven’t since before 2009 (pardon my assumptions if you review yours bi-annually).

So what should one think about with a contingency plan?

The first and most obvious thing is money. Capital is, after all, the life-blood of any business. Without proper cash flow you won’t be able to buy inventory, make payroll or pay your bills. So, do you have a line of credit? If so, is it currently in use? Could you stand to ask for it to be expanded?

Do you have good relationships with multiple banks? There are hundreds of banks across the country that are failing but can’t even be taken over by the FDIC because they lack the resources to do so. That should make you nervous if you’re banking at any of them, and it should also make you ask whether or not you can find multiple banks with whom to do business.

What assets could you liquidate in case of an emergency? Is there anything non-essential that would fetch a fair value? I’m not suggesting you sell it. I’m only suggesting that you know what you would liquidate and how if you had to.

Do you own your business? Are you it’s president? Is there a board? All of this is to say, think about a succession plan. If something terrible happened to you (God forbid, but you never know), can your business survive without you for one month, three months, a year? Is there someone who will take the reins? These questions are especially important to answer if you are going to ask banks for money any time soon.

What about your other key positions? Who is indispensable to your operations? What would you do if something happened to him or her? How would you replace that person?

Think about your industry and the kinds of emergencies that usually face it. Is it a highly regulated industry? Is it a litigious industry? Are your products safety related? What could go horribly wrong in your industry and business? Think about these things and use your core team to brainstorm potential solutions in case any emergency hits.

You never want to be left wondering what you’re going to do in the event of an emergency. As a turnaround manager, I assure you that having a contingency plan in place is essential and a great way to proceed into 2012.

Resolve to create or update your contingency plan this month.

Consider answering any of the questions I asked above in the comments below and share some of your creative solutions to help others.