Sometimes, the right succession plan is to sell the family business.

Recently, four veterans of family business sales shared their experiences with other families at a DWT Family Business Legacy Series Event in Seattle. Our panelists were Steve Gordon, CEO of Gordon Trucking (sold in 2013), Corry McFarland, CEO of McFarland Cascade (sold in 2012), Steve Loeb, CEO of Alaska Distributors (sold in 2008), and Brett Brinton, CEO who was involved with his father in the sale of one family business (Wasser Inc.) and the formation with his brother of another (Zonar Systems).

The panelists had some fascinating insights into what led them to sell, what they wish they had done differently and what they found on the other side. Interesting takeaways included:

  • Reasons for a sale: Concerns about increased regulation and exposure to potential liabilities were common themes. Family dynamics, conflicts in vision, or lack of interest by the next generation may have made the decision easier, but was not the driver – as one might have expected.
  • Get good advisors early. Make sure that accounting, legal, wealth management and business advisors fit well with the various constituents and decision-makers involved – and really understand the goals of the family. This could mean different advisors for different generations. The key is to take the time to develop these relationships as early as possible.
  • Plan ahead for life without the business. Business and personal aspects are deeply interwoven in family-owned businesses. Without the business, the responsibility of many daily functions returns to the individual. Many families choose to create a family office or to engage wealth managers to address these day-to-day needs. These are also ways for families to continue to work together, as several of our panelists participate jointly with other family members in these arrangements.
  • Expect to struggle with the loss of identity. It is impossible to avoid a feeling that something has been lost once the business is sold. It is important to acknowledge this early on (before the sale) and prepare for a satisfying life after the family business. Plus, expect to be treated differently when your last name is no longer on the business (or if the name continues but your involvement does not or is significantly reduced).
  • Options for next steps abound. For some families, the sale of the family business is a welcome opportunity for family members to choose their own, individual paths. For others, they look for ways to maintain that sense of common enterprise in other pursuits. Whether it is in forming a new business together, working together on philanthropy, or combining assets in a family office there is a plethora of opportunities to continue to work together for many years to come.

Bottom line: While a sale may signal the close of one chapter for a family, it is almost never the end of the story. Families find ways to reinvent themselves and their business pursuits – often inventing a new and better family-owned enterprise.