By: Patrick Ungashick
“Unlike a marriage, business partnerships are supposed to end.” Attorney William Piercy offers this insight in the opening chapter of his book Life’s Too Short for a Bad Business Partner. Piercy, with the law firm Berman Fink Van Horn in Atlanta, Georgia, is a specialist in resolving and dissolving unwanted business partnerships—an area sometimes called “corporate divorce.” Many business owners have unspoken expectations that their relationship with their business partner(s) will last forever when, in reality, those affiliations are not intended to be perpetual. All business partnerships should one day end, hopefully with a successful exit featuring the “partners departing as friends with full bank accounts” as Piercy observes. In the real world, this does not always occur. Many business partnerships fail, some quickly and others after an otherwise long and successful collaboration.
In his book, Piercy identifies ten reasons partnerships can fail. Knowing these can help you avoid a breakdown in your business relationship, or perhaps recognize that it may be time for your partnerectomy. Listed below are Piercy’s ten reasons, along with some of our experiences that corroborate the author’s observations.
One: Lack of Communication
“When dialogue breaks down, bad things happen,” Piercy writes. Communication breakdowns among business partners are, unfortunately common. One contributing factor is that many co-owners do not consistently allocate time to meet and address ownership issues—shareholder-only meetings are held sporadically or never at all. This bad habit inevitably leads to communication breakdowns.
Two: Lack of Transparency
In healthy business partnerships, there must be a division of labor, which usually means that some partners have a more regular need than other partners to interact with data like, financial records and reports. This may be necessary for day-to-day operations, but all owners must have consistent and unrestricted access to important company operational and financial performance data. When this is not the case, that is when partnerships can get into trouble as accountability, communication, and trust erode.
Three: No Shared Vision
If the business partners are not all rowing the boat in the same direction, Piercy forecasts, “rough seas are ahead.” After many years of close alignment, different business partners may develop diverging plans and aspirations for where to take the company. Exacerbating this, many companies operate with only loosely defined, unwritten strategic business plans. Without a shared, formal business plan with clearly defined goals and tactics, each owner is free to row the boat in whatever direction he or she feels best.
Four: No Clear/Defined Roles
Piercy notes that in a “startup culture…founders roll up their sleeves and do whatever needs to be done”. However, with time and company growth, owners need to divide and specialize their roles in the organization. Sometimes this occurs smoothly, but within some teams, it leads to overlap or gaps. When partners allow themselves to work in the company without written job descriptions governing their roles and responsibilities, this issue is more likely to occur.
Five: Failure to Stay in Your Lane
Even if each partner’s roles have been defined, sometimes a partner strays and engages in behavior that disrupts other people or processes in the company. When this occurs, typically the offending owner is acting with good intentions, but the disruptive behavior often goes unchecked because it’s hard for any organization to tell one of its owners to “stay in your lane.” Regardless, if this continues the partnership and business can suffer.
Six: Disparity in Contribution
When one partner is contributing (or perceived to be contributing) less to the organization: less time, effort, money, results, etc., the seeds are planted for dissent within the relationship. This awareness can be a natural progression within many partnerships. If one partner is significantly older than other(s), his or her energy and engagement may wane earlier than the other’s. If this situation deepens and the partners fail to address it, a complete breakdown may occur.
Seven: The Business Outgrows Its Founders
Piercy points out that starting a business and leading a business demand a different set of skills. Many founders struggle with recognizing the transition and making it. If one co-founder is not effective at leading a maturing organization, it can stress the relationship and the company. Small to mid-sized organizations that emphasize an inclusive culture can struggle with how to handle employees who were once effective but have failed to keep up with the company’s growth; the issue is even more challenging when the no-longer-qualified person is not just an employee but also an owner.
Eight: Failure to Hire Professional Help
“Without outside help,” Piercy writes, “entrepreneurs find themselves dealing with issues well outside their skill sets. Balls get dropped. Fingers are pointed. Relationships fray.” Some owners never fully recognize the need to hire professional management and engage expert advisors. Other owners see this need but then struggle with finding, hiring, and leading those people. Failing to field a competent team not only hinders sustained business growth, but it also endangers the partnership.
Nine: The Kids Don’t Want to Work in the Business
Within family-owned and led companies, lack of interest, engagement, or alignment can undermine business partnerships regardless of how strong the family bonds may be.
In addition to Piercy’s valid point, we, in exit planning, see additional reasons family issues can undermine business partner relations. For example, if one partner has family who works in the company, but another partner does not, the partners may find themselves advocating different exit strategies. The partner with children in the company wants the company to go to his or her kids, whereas the partner without children in the company wants to sell to an outside buyer. These seemingly incompatible exit goals can erode partner relations without a plan on how to accommodate everybody’s desired goals.
Ten: One Partner Has Baggage
“If your partner has more issues than National Geographic, it may be time to cancel the subscription,” writes Piercy. The experienced lawyer also notes that while it is noble to support a partner who is experiencing serious personal matters, everybody must protect the company and not let personal baggage bring down the partnership or the entire organization.
We once worked with a $100 million company where one of the owners had a severe alcohol problem. For years his partners bent over backward to support this person, including covering for their partner during extended absences during periods of treatment, and relapse. However, their tolerance reached its end when the partner drunkenly confronted a client. After this, the other partners regretfully knew they had to pursue a corporate divorce.
How to Avoid a Corporate Divorce, or What to Do If You Need One
While Life is Too Short for a Bad Business Partner is essential reading for the business co-owner who recognizes that he or she must get a corporate divorce, all business partners should read this concise book. It will not only guide an owner through the operational, legal, and financial steps of a partnership dissolution, but Piercy’s book too can help all partners implement sound business practices and take corrective action within a struggling partnership before it is too late.
Click here to register for an upcoming webinar interviewing Bill Piercy about this topic.
To secure your copy of his book, visit Amazon.