The following is an installment in our series “What Keeps Family Business Owners Awake at Night”
Based on discussions with family business leaders from across the country at the most recent Transitions conference, we wrote an article addressing themes among attendees, and we continue the discussion in this article. One challenge noted by leaders of multi-generation family businesses was how to promote positive shareholder engagement.
As family businesses mature into the third and subsequent generations, it becomes less and less likely that extended family members will be both shareholders and active participants in the business. As families grow numerically, they tend to become more geographically dispersed. Lack of professional involvement in the business, combined with geographic separation, can result in family shareholders feeling disconnected and becoming disengaged from the family business. A successful multi-generation family business can promote healthy family cohesion, but when shareholders are not positively engaged, the business can quickly turn into a source of stress and family strife.
Some families choose to eliminate the existence of disengaged shareholders by limiting share ownership to those members that are actively involved in the business. While this may be an appropriate solution for some families, it can have the unintended consequence of creating distinct classes of economic haves and have-nots within the family. When that occurs, the business quickly ceases to be a center of family unity.
For most businesses, there simply is no necessary link between share ownership and active involvement in the company. If public companies can function well with non-employee owners, surely it is possible for family businesses to do so as well. But to do so, family businesses will need to be diligent to promote positive shareholder engagement.
It might be tempting to label non-employee shareholders as “passive”, but we suspect that term does not do justice to the ideal relationship between the company and such shareholders. “Actively non-controlling” hits closer to the mark but doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue. If “passive” is not the ideal, the following characteristics can be used to identify positively engaged shareholders.
The family business leaders we spoke with at the conference were eager to share and learn best practices around promoting shareholder engagement. The “how” of shareholder engagement is closely related to the characteristics of engaged shareholders noted above.
Most of the intra-family shareholder disputes we have seen (and we have witnessed too many) are ultimately traceable to shareholders that over time became disengaged from the business. Family business leaders who focus on positive shareholder engagement today can prevent a lot of grief tomorrow.
Through our family business advisory services practice, we work with successful families facing issues like these every day. Give us a call to discuss your needs in confidence.
Travis W. Harms leads Mercer Capital’s Family Business Advisory Services Group. Travis’s practice focuses on providing financial education, valuation, and other strategic financial consulting to multi-generation family businesses. The Family Business Advisory Services Group helps ...
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Articles , Insights , Transaction Advisory