Situation: The CEO of a successful company is considering two options: sell the company or grow to the next level. She believes that the company could be sold for an amount that would satisfy her financial needs. Also, the prospect of a long vacation and more time for family is appealing. Do you sell the company or grow bigger?
Advice from the CEOs:
First Option: Pursue funding to take the company to the next level – through either private equity or venture capital. Present an optimistic, but credible, upside return for the investment; back this up with a realistic lower estimate to cover exposure.
Both funding sources only buy the home-run model. Two reasons:
They need potential and credible home runs to sell to their investors; nobody invests in solid base hits because the return is insufficient for the risk.
They assume that the funds recipient is overestimating what they can do.
Given the existence of new technology to expand the company’s presence, it has a legitimate home-run model.
Hire a pro to help obtain funding.
Second Option: Take a shot at buying the company’s principal competitor – this provides the opportunity for rapid growth at low risk in the existing market and will make the company more appealing at a higher price.
Third Option: Based on personal goals, if the company can be sold now at a good price – do it. This will enable you to fulfill your life goals.
Give the first two options 12 months. If there is no or limited progress in 12 months start taking two successive months off on vacation – allowing minimal time to monitor the company. If vacations are satisfying, sell the company.
Ask yourself a serious question – do you really want to be on extended vacation now or is this an objective for 3-5 years out? If the company already has strong momentum, why not see what can be built and then sell. There may be more adventure in this.
Fourth Option: Take some money off the table – enough to build your dream – but continue to own controlling interest in the company. This offers both choices.
Situation: The CEO of a family business faces his most difficult conversation. One brother, who makes more than anyone else, is not living up to his responsibilities. A long-term key employee currently handles most of this brother’s responsibilities at a modest salary. The CEO is intimidated by this task. How do you prepare for a difficult conversation?
Advice from the CEOs:
Call a meeting of the three brothers and the key employee. Propose putting all four into a pool. The key employee is treated like a brother. Ask: what is a fair way to split the pie and to build incentives so that each makes what their father, who built the company, made? Make it clear that all four members of the team want the same earning potential and that one team member is not more equal than the others.
Prepare and script this meeting ahead of time.
Don’t allow the under-performing brother to play the others off against each other.
Know what must be said if this brother says he will leave.
The CEO must stick with the message. If the underperformer doesn’t like the message, he is not indispensable. A replacement could be hired for far less than he is currently being paid.
What are the key points for the conversation?
Turn the question around – the brothers all joined a company model that no longer works – the three brothers, combined, make less than their father made.
Ask the underperformer – what are the proper incentives? What is fair? Is it fair that for years, he has made more than anyone else?
It’s time for each member of the team to work together to figure out how to make what their father made in this business.
The brothers have supported the underperforming brother for years. Any old debts that were owed have been paid.
Ask the underperforming brother for his voice in how to expand the company and make it more profitable.
This is a new game. If all members pull together everybody wins.
Situation: A family-owned company has built a sustainable and modestly profitable business. They have built high quality, referenceable collaborations. The CEO is ambitious and wants to become a world-class company. They now seek limited partners as investors to grow the company. Which is more important – cash flow or value creation?
from the CEOs:
Both cash flow and value creation are important. There are several sub-questions to the question:
First, what is the fundamental business model?
Second, the CEO is the company’s charismatic leader. How best to follow his energy?
Finally, and most fundamentally, does the current business model make sense? Can it be simplified it to improve its scalability?
Currently there are three divisions, each with a different objective.
Operations – to be sustainable.
Services – low profit and low percentage of company revenue but also low overhead.
Investment – to achieve an acceptable rate of return.
How does the company get the best valuation?
Currently, the company is organized as a conglomerate.
Conglomerates are too diffuse and difficult to optimize to attract investors. Pure plays do better. Consider refocusing the company around its key strengths.
The family business model is fine. The question for the family – how does the CEO keep and attract the key staff like that makes this business work? Salary alone doesn’t do it. What are the future rewards for key personnel? Consider deal participation to incentivize key employees.
The investment and operations divisions are different companies – this is fine. Optimize both.
To attract the best LPs, the business model should evolve from a family to corporate model. This will make more sense to investors and improve their ability to participate in future growth and profits.
Situation: The CEO of a family-owned company has struggled to align family members with the business plan. When difficult decisions must be made, established personality patterns and family history hinder consensus on what should be done. The CEO seeks advice on whether the addition of one or more outside Board Members can help to build consensus. Can outside Board members help a struggling company?
Advice from the CEOs:
The CEO of another closely-held company brought in an outside Board member two years ago. This has added considerable focus to the Board discussions. The addition of a fresh and respected perspective has helped to clarify decisions and reduce conflicts among the founders.
First, have a conversation with the team. Give them the opportunity to straighten out things themselves. Present the addition of an outside Board member as an option. Get their support. This will make the addition of an outside Board member a company decision, rather than the CEO’s.
The experience of other companies is that compensation can range from free – a retiree who wants to help – to expensive. Arrangements and expense will depend on what the company leadership wants to achieve.
Investigate SCORE – a well-established source for outside board members for small and family businesses.
Situation: The CEO of a family business seeks to create a succession plan. One family member has expressed an interest in taking the reins of the company but has failed to take the initiative to demonstrate that he is prepared to take on this role. Another family member is now demonstrating both interest and initiative. How do you plan for succession?
Advice from the CEOs:
How should this situation be approached?
Do not view this situation competitively, but rather from the standpoint of what is best for the whole family because many family members stand to benefit from the ongoing success of the business.
Whatever decision is made, the successor will need support and assistance understanding both the financial and business sides of the company. This individual must also be aware of conflicts and challenges that face the business.
What else should be done to prepare for succession?
Given that there are two individuals interested in becoming CEO sit down with each individual and negotiate a clear boundary statement on what you, as CEO, can and can’t do, as well as what can and cannot be expected of you, as CEO, as the succession decision is made. This understanding should be documented in writing and signed, signifying understanding by both the CEO and the candidate. Each candidate should have their own signed agreement with the CEO.
In a family business, the CEO, as guarantor of the company, may be faced with a different level of financial risk than other family members. Both candidates for the CEO position must understand that if they accept this position, they also accept this risk.
Situation: The CEO of a family business is anticipating retirement in the next two years. Currently, there is no succession plan. Other family members do not seem interested in running the company. What steps should the CEO be taking? How do you plan for retirement?
Advice from the CEOs:
To set the stage for your successor, make sure that you are being paid adequately for your job. If you are being paid less than some of your key employees, nobody else will want your job. Raise your salary to a point where it is appropriate for a CEO, and so it is attractive enough to entice a qualified successor. This will also help attract a buyer should you decide to sell or merge the business. Raising your salary will also help your bottom line if your company is an S Corporation.
Once you identify a potential successor, bring this individual into the business as soon as possible so they have an opportunity to understand the business fully and can receive on-the-job training from you.
Understand the numbers and red flags that give you the information and authority to run the company and the respect of your employees. Teach these to your successor so that this person has the same overview of the company that you command.
Look at what skills your successor needs to be CEO and start mentoring that person on those as soon as possible.
You may need to delay your planned retirement so that you have time to select a successor and prepare that individual to take on your responsibilities. Your current 2-year plan may not work, at least without compromises.
Without a management succession plan, the company may not bring in as much in a sale or merger as you expect. It is important that you improve the numbers to maximize the value of the firm if you choose to sell or merge the business.
Look at your current range of projects. Focus on those which are most profitable to you and emphasize these. You may be able to reduce staff and expenses by being more focused.
Situation: A small but very profitable business was founded and has been run for two generations as a family-owned and operated business. To boost performance, the CEO hired a general manager with a good background who is not a family member. The general manager has told the CEO that he feels that there are too many family members in the business. The CEO likes hiring people she trusts, particularly friends and family that she has known for a long time. Is it wrong to hire family members?
Advice from the CEOs:
Don’t try to change what you’ve already done – plan for the future.
Acknowledge the GM’s idea. Tell him that you appreciate his suggestions. Suggest that he test hiring more non-family members to cover one of your low risk market segments. Measure the performance of this team versus the other teams within the business.
The challenge with family members is accountability and objectivity. The question for the family owners is whether they have the freedom to act in the interests of the company. Can they put family ties aside when someone is not serving the interests of the company?
The essential question for the family that owns the business is – what do you want to maximize? If it’s loyalty and longevity – keeping the family together, employed and in harmony – they can be good. If it’s profits and performance – family and friends can be difficult if emotional ties cloud business objectivity.
The upside to family is loyalty and trust. That said, family and extended family friends are different. The latter don’t have the same ties or sense of loyalty.
Can you keep employees for too long? Yes. Make sure that you evaluate all employees every year. Establish job and performance standards and make sure that all employees – family and non-family – are held to the same performance expectations.
Situation: A CEO knows that his employees have been working hard and have been productive all year. Now that we’re coming to the end of the summer, he’s concerned that in the past he has seen an energy drop every August. What can be done to increase the voltage? How do you counteract the Dog Days of August?
Advice from the CEOs:
Anoint a “Champion of Fun.”
The Champion of Fun should be an employee – not management.
This may be a team of two people who focus on different things – one for small, day to day activities, and one for big events, like a Habitat for Humanity day.
Provide a budget for the Champion. Allow discretion to create excitement around the office or workplace. This includes posters announcing events and other ways to make the most out of each event or activity planned.
If out of office activities are anticipated, encourage employees to involve family members if they wish. Maybe a picnic and softball game at a local park, or an early evening of go-kart racing.
Create a sense that your employees have some control over their environment. This adds energy.
Circulate an Office Depot catalogue and give each employee a budget that they can spend to dress up their space.
It’s amazing how much a small investment like this can rejuvenate people and the overall atmosphere.
Bring in lunch as a surprise a couple of times during the month. Take some extra time and let people enjoy each other’s company. This is for deepening personal connections, not for lunchtime business discussions.
Situation: A family-owned business has a family member on hourly pay who puts in excessive overtime. The cost of overtime significantly cuts into company profits. The CEO wants to cut back these overtime hours and get the employee to work more efficiently. At the same time, she feels that maintaining peace within the extended family is important. How do you cut excessive overtime for a single employee?
Advice from the CEOs:
Situations like this within a family business are delicate because of relationships beyond the work place. Treat this individual respectfully, but make it clear that you have to act in the best interests of the company and all employees.
Develop a job description with this employee that will help to get their overtime under control.
Communicate to the employee: “I don’t want to take advantage of you by requiring this much overtime.”
Let the individual know that you are looking for additional talent and want to more tightly define the roles.
Develop a company policy on overtime that limits the amount of overtime that any one individual can accrue. If anyone starts to approach this limit, then have a process in place that shifts additional overtime to others.
This is a serious problem for the company. It calls for company transformation. Enlist the employee as a champion for the cause of transforming the company. Keep this a positive vision.
If the individual is not a keeper: start controlling hours, but don’t give a raise. Let them leave on their own time.
If the individual is a keeper: give them raise, while cutting overtime hours.
Situation: The recovery continues to be uneven and uncertain. One company finds that both staff and their families are nervous about how the company will fare and the future of their jobs, and this has created strain. What are you doing to stay balanced and positive – both within your company and also in your personal relationships?
Advice from the CEOs:
Transparency and communication. These are critical in both business and personal affairs. You have to be honest, avoiding either pessimism or unwarranted optimism.
Share the metrics of where you are – the reality – and projections on your expectations of how things will go. This has been a long bump in the road, but eventually things will get smoother.
Involve your staff in difficult decisions. Do the same with family on difficult personal or family decisions.
Be frank with family, but keep communicating. Time is more important to family than money – they want you to be there with them. If you’re working long hours in the evening, at least go home and have dinner with your family.
Staff adjustments, where necessary, have been done as single events and weren’t drawn out. CEOs have communicated more frequently about the state of business and pipeline. Assure staff that the company is solid. Show them the runway.
Those most worried are employees without project work. Some companies focused them on infrastructure projects to keep them engaged.
Cross-fertilize your teams. One company brought professional service employees into product engineering. Both groups learned and benefitted from understanding each other’s perspective.