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Preventing Feuds in the Family Business

Handling delicate topics--like succession planning--with care is key to keeping the peace in any family business.

Q: I've worked in our family business almost all my life, starting out sweeping the floors on the weekends when I was a kid. Since I graduated from college, I've climbed up the company ladder and feel that I'm now ready to take over the business so that my dad (who's 70 years old) can retire. But when I talk to dad about retiring, he laughs and says "Retire, reschmire. There's a lot more miles left on my tires, so stop trying to push me out the door." The rest of my family agrees it's time for Dad to retire and start enjoying life while he and Mom are still active and healthy. What can I do to get Dad to do the right thing for himself, his family and the family business?

A: Your whole family should give you a big pat on the back for having the wisdom and courage to talk to your dad about the dreaded "R" word while your dad is still active and healthy. Your question about how you can help your dad to "do the right thing" needs to be examined on three different, but related, levels: family issues, succession planning and tax planning.

Family Issues

There's a wise saying that "A family business is just like any other business, only more so." What that means is that the joys, sorrows and the ups and downs that every business owner faces can be dramatically amplified and multiplied when the business is a family business.

For example, it's bad enough to have to endure the tension of having a long-running dispute with your business partners about the direction of the company. But it's far worse to have the same long-running business dispute erupt into a verbal brawl during a family holiday get-together or during Joey's third birthday party.

So before you say anything further to your dad about the dreaded R word, you must be very careful to take the family temperature and thoroughly understand both the family and business history. You must avoid taking actions that could not only wreck the company, but also destroy family relationships.

If you think this is a difficult task, you're right. Doing this type of a "tiptoe through the minefield" of a family business can be both very difficult and immensely frustrating, particularly if you are simultaneously trying to run the business with the same family members that you are trying to negotiate with.

Many times, it's a great idea to start the process by enlisting the help of either a trusted business advisor (such as the business's accountant or lawyer) or a specialist in family business mediation to provide you with guidance and a level of objectivity along the way.

The main thing to keep in mind in coming to grips with this level is that while it is possible to buy another business to call your own, the same cannot be said for your family relationships. So be sure that your motto in dealing with family issues is "handle with care."

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Chris Kelleher is an award-winning small-business advisor and attorney. He's also a sought-after speaker and the founder and resident legal guru of The Law Firm For Businesses, a boutique law firm that helps business owners creatively solve their business and legal problems.

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