By Chris Canavan and Elisabeth Finch
B.C. is always the odd one out. While people in other provinces build rinks in their backyards, we’re mowing our sunny lawns. What happens in the rest of Canada isn’t always reflected west of the Rockies, and that goes for the current generational wealth transfer as well. While the sea change caused by retiring business leaders is making waves from coast to coast, there are still a few critical factors that set this province apart.
The first is that while there are many mature, well-established businesses in B.C., there is also a strong entrepreneurial spirit and therefore a higher percentage of younger and smaller private companies. In fact, as of 2017, roughly 98% of all businesses in B.C. were considered small businesses.
This can make the transition of wealth more difficult: many B.C. business owners are also founders, and therefore have no first-hand knowledge of how to transition a company to a new owner. Passing ownership to a family member may not seem like an option, simply because the business is too young to have a family-focused continuity plan.
The second factor is that recent economic conditions have supported strong valuations for some of our private businesses. A temptingly high business value can make owners favour the sale of their companies rather than continuity and expansion, through acquisitions or family succession. While the landscape is varied, private companies in this province tend toward in-demand industries such as services, manufacturing, consumer products and real estate. With high valuations, a well-performing national economy and a lower Canadian dollar, B.C. businesses can be attractive targets for buyers.
This leaves us with a unique private-company landscape that’s somewhat less familiar with succession and more inclined toward sales – but the right choice will depend on your own priorities.
Whether you’re approaching your own business transition or are still a long way away from it, it’s never too soon to start preparations and considering options. Here are some tips to guide your journey.
1. Face your personal feelings first, and then focus on business priorities
As a business owner, your company becomes a vital part of your identity. Letting that go can feel like a difficult shift. That’s partly why many business owners postpone planning their transition – it’s not because they’re too busy; it’s because they’re afraid of losing their sense of purpose.
Time and time again, we have found that addressing these concerns up front gives clients the clarity they need to move forward. It’s our job not only to help with pre-sale grooming, marketing, due diligence and negotiations, but to listen and share insights gained from years of working with private companies. Once owners overcome their emotional obstacles, everything else can start to fall into place.
2. Maximize the value of your business to make the most of this moment
You never know when you’ll get an offer that you can’t refuse – but if you’re not ready, it will cost you. We witnessed this a couple of years ago when a family business received a sudden bid from a U.S.-based private equity firm. The payout was substantial, but it would have been significantly higher had the founder been prepared in advance. In particular, the owner was still actively involved in daily decisions and hadn’t passed on responsibilities to her management team – so there was a substantial earn-out and the owner needed to work with the business for a number of years post-sale. In addition, the shareholder’s tax structure did not lead to the best tax outcome, as it wasn’t implemented far enough in advance of the transaction.
If the owner had spent some time preparing the business pre-sale, it would have made a huge difference to her eventual payout. More and more, we are seeing companies spend time establishing a management succession plan, seeking formal business valuations and proactively profiling their ideal buyers. Looking at all aspects of the operations of the business, and especially being at the forefront of digitalization of the business, helps get better valuations.
3. Make sure everyone is involved
If your continuity plan involves passing the business to the next generation, family dynamics come into play. These can have a serious impact on the business’ future.
Families are complex, and their members can easily jump to conclusions about each other based on past experiences. Being able to step back, set aside personal differences and engage in productive dialogue isn’t always easy (and usually takes some outside help) but mutual interests and strong relationships make it worthwhile. At the end of the day, a business owned and operated by your loved ones is a legacy worth protecting.
4. Make use of neutral parties
To enable a smooth transition from the current owner to the next, many private companies have advisory boards or hire external management to assist in the transfer. Bringing in an objective perspective can be critical in the high-pressure environment of a succession or sale, and mediation helps all parties find alignment.
In one instance where we served as a mediator, the business owners wanted to sell even though their children were employed at the company and hoped to carry it forward. In another, the parents planned for their children to take over their business – but the children didn’t want to. These situations can lead to difficult conversations, but when handled with professionalism and respect, they can yield results that benefit everyone involved.
The challenges of navigating wealth transfer and succession strategies reach far beyond what we think of as “just doing business.” They’re often deeply personal and emotional, and represent far more than what appears on paper. It’s a pleasure to help private companies navigate these delicate situations to reach solutions that work for all parties – particularly when a family’s legacy, wealth and holiday dinners are at stake.
Chris Canavan (firstname.lastname@example.org )and Elisabeth Finch (email@example.com) are advisors, family business services, with PwC Canada. As wealth transfer continues to shape the B.C. landscape and impact businesses across Canada, be sure to check out our Once in a Lifetime campaign. Please get in touch with Chris or Elisabeth or your local PwC office if you’re working on your own sale or succession strategy.