Siblings to Cousins: Ownership Goals for Growth, Risk, Profitability and Liquidity

Amy Schuman
Amy Schuman

In the transition from siblings to cousins, families are often called to define the ownership role for the very first time. In earlier stages, a relatively small family allows for more direct involvement of family owners in business operations and tends to put issues of ownership on the back burner.

It is at the cousin stage when ownership goes – frequently for the first time – to a significant number of family members with no direct involvement with the business. It is common for cousin owners to have minimal natural contact points with the business they now own. The majority of cousin owners do not have careers in the business, and some likely live a great distance from business operations.   There is much to understand about the ownership role  – and some excellent resources exist for further reading (see below). In this post, I’d like to focus on the opportunities contained within an ownership goal setting process.

Owners need to know enough about their assets to be able to set educated goals for their performance. What level of return is reasonable to expect? How much risk would be needed to achieve different levels of return, and what is our risk tolerance as an ownership group? What is a realistic expectation for growth of our enterprise at this point in time? What returns should we expect in terms of asset appreciation and liquidity?

A few of my clients have dubbed this goal-setting process “GRPL”, based on John Ward’s suggested four ownership goals of Growth, Risk, Profitability and Liquidity (see article referenced below).

Realistic family ownership goals will vary widely according to factors such as industry of business – age of business – location of business – and many others. But grappling with the GRPL goals allows a large, potentially dispersed ownership group to have a focus for their learning and involvement in their business as owners. In fact, ownership education can provide a clear mandate for the Family Council, which tends to coordinate shareholder education.  Ensuring the ownership group develops the knowledge they need to articulate clear and achievable ownership goals is an investment in the ownership, management, and family circles of the family business system.

In my experience, Boards of Directors welcome the ownership goal setting process with enthusiasm. Written and agreed-upon goals from owners makes the Board’s task easier, especially as independent directors join the effort. They know owners’ expectations, and can conduct themselves in the boardroom accordingly.

Some management teams may initially have reservations about the owners setting these goals.  As the management team is so intimately involved in every aspect of the business, they may question ownership’s ability to set realistic, informed goals for asset performance. However, if management has a role in educating owners about their industry and the company’s competitive position in the market, they usually becomes enthusiastic supporters of the process. Instead of having to worry or wonder if their decisions and actions are aligned with ownership’s expectations, management can now more easily evaluation their actions against stated ownership objectives. I’ve had CEO’s tell me that they sleep better at night, knowing more clearly the owners’ shared goals for the enterprise they have been entrusted to lead.

There is much more to explore in this regard. Hopefully this post has whetted your appetite to learn more. Please feel free to share your questions or experiences with ownership goal setting here, and to explore the resources below.

“What do Owners Do?”, John L. Ward, Families in Business Magazine, June/July, 2003

Family Business Ownership: How to Be an Effective Shareholder, January, 2011,  John L. Ward, Craig E. Aronoff, Stephen L. McClure, Palgrave/MacMillan

“Why Family Business Owners need a Job Description”, Jennifer Pendergast, Family Business Advisor, June 2010

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