Enforcing governance and crafting a Succession plan for our clients in Asia are two of the most critical challenges that we encounter in our regular work at W+B Family Business advisory. Providing a tailor fitted approach for every family owning business and combining it with Asian values has been our core competence since the firm broadened its reach to cover Asia Pacific and South Asia.
But there are two other major risks (ownership and succession risks) that are often neglected and yet takes center stage when family members battle for power and ownership. Succession coupled with ownership issues gets mired in controversy when many marriages end in divorce, legal separation and annulment.
In Singapore alone, where I meet most of my regional clients, the country’s divorce rate spiked a few years ago catapulting the Republic as one of Asia’s top six economies with very high incidence of failed marriages. The latter was exceeded only by South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, China and Taiwan. But it is worth mentioning that all these countries are among the most affluent in Asia that share a common Chinese cultural heritage background.
When we look at the total picture, the marriage rate in Asia has gone down in recent years while the divorce rate continued its upward trajectory. From a family business perspective, what does a failed marriage got to do with Succession and ownership issues? What are the implications when couples terminate their marital vows by saying ‘I don’t’ or ‘I won’t any more’ instead of continuously professing their “I do’s”? The implications and the consequences are too material to ignore!
For starters, most couples who go into business together never dream their relationship will end. But when things unravel and the divorce or separation is set in motion, the emotional turmoil is further complicated by the question of what happens to the family business and the children from the first marriage.
Problems emerge when a significant number of these parents will remarry, adding new children to the marriage and further complicating the already complex family business eco system.
The consequences can be quiet daunting as the creation of a not so merry mix of family members we refer to as a blended family can include half-siblings, step-siblings and children from the current marriage. Expectedly, all of them will jockey for attention and as they become adults, will expect employment, participation in decision-making and future ownership.
Naturally, we can anticipate deep schism and undercurrents within the blended family and if ignored, can cause real tension. Neglecting the latter can devour the best-laid plans of business succession!
But the biggest risk of them all is the inherent risk that will impact the family business system especially when Illness, incapacity and death of a key family shareholder happens. When the enterprise is caught unprepared, we can almost expect the entire family, business, ownership system to turn chaotic overnight as practically all ownership related issues relating to shareholder’s composition, leadership and unity will end up in disarray.
It is therefore important to note that sensitive issues like anticipating failed marriages, remarriage, adopting children and having children out of wedlock are brought into the open so ownership policies can be formulated. In doing so, there is less likelihood that family dissent will cripple the business during the critical transition period./WDJ