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What exactly does an ‘exit planner’ do? Are you into funerals?

February 2, 2018

By Martha Sullivan, CPA, CVA/ABV, CM&AA, CEPA
Partner, Succession Planning Practice Leader

Martha leads HK’s succession and exit planning services division and is a regular contributor to Wisconsin’s InBusiness digital magazine.

In January, the Wisconsin Chapter of the Exit Planning Institute held its bi-monthly meeting simultaneously in Madison and Waukesha. The speaker, Scott Snider, vice president of The Exit Planning Institute, shared a story about a woman we’ll call Jane, who asked him “What exactly does an ‘exit planner’ do? Are you into funerals?”

Visions of old men in top hats and women in black lace grieving in a slow procession behind a horse and hearse danced in my head. I suppose it’s a reasonable question, but in our world exit planning couldn’t be farther from funerals. From my perspective, “exit planning” is all about breathing new life into a business, its owner, or both. The exit planner is the advisor that educates, supports, and facilitates owners on and through that process.

There are other terms that are often used to describe exit planning. The most common is succession planning. Another is transition planning. Sometimes, although not accurate, mergers and acquisitions, or M&A, may be used.

If we focus on succession planning, as it is most commonly referred to, there are often two paths for defining it. One path is the general passing of responsibilities from one person to another. For example, someone is training a less-experienced colleague to grow and step into his or her job, with its roles and responsibilities. The other path adds the technical transfer of business ownership to the assumption of roles and responsibilities. The second definition is the world that the exit planner lives in.

Further, succession planning may, to some, mean the transition of business ownership to an insider — an employee or a family member. They use the term M&A for deals between parties that aren’t insiders.

Realistically, succession planning is a great start but a more holistic approach is warranted. The effective exit plan considers all the possibilities and aspects facing an owner. It’s not just the technical transfer or transaction, which may feel like the end of an owner’s life. Viewing exit or succession planning through the lens of “transition” changes the image of a bleak funeral procession to visions of a spring vacation filled with sunny beaches and new life. Sound too good to be true? Stay with me here.

As discussed in my last blog post (Are you walking toward your business’ destiny?), a well-crafted exit or succession plan considers three key aspects of an owner’s life:

  • Business — Is the business in good health and sustainable with and without you?
  • Financial — Do you have the resources you need for life?
  • Personal — What brings meaning to your life, inside and outside of work? How much gas is in your tank? What comes next?

All three aspects are tightly intertwined. You can’t think about one without spilling over into the others. Answer “no” to any one of the above questions and it’s time to breathe new life into that aspect, and likely the other two, as well. To do that, you need a set of plans. For example:

  • If your financial analysis shows you need more resources to meet your goals, you may need to strengthen the business so that you can increase its value and harvest more wealth from it.
  • If you’re running out of steam and just don’t feel like doing this anymore, you need to look at your financial situation as well as the business. Is the business transferable? Are these two aspects set to optimize each other? If yes, do you know what you’ll do next? Have you set the stage to dive into the new activities, or will you be bored and lost after the first few months of golf?
  • Lastly, if your business isn’t in good health or can’t survive without you, it’s time to change that. You’re at serious risk of not being able to harvest the wealth you need to retire on.

Did you notice that the timing of the exit isn’t included? That is deliberate. The stronger your plan — including plans for growth — the less important the timing of actual exit becomes. The goal should be to make your business “sell-by” date irrelevant. The plan comes with the process described below, which routinely checks in on where the owner and the business are. The owner is able to make the decision to sell at a moments notice if he or she wants or a crisis demands, or decline if there’s still plenty of gas in the tank and he or she doesn’t want to.

So back to the question, “What does an exit planner do?” A certified exit-planning advisor (CEPA) guides business owners through the holistic process that helps assess and answer the questions above. The CEPA helps develop and support the implementation of the owner’s plans.

We’ve adopted the EPI Value Acceleration Model into our approach. The best way to envision what a CEPA does it to think of the business owner as the owner of a football team. The CEPA is the quarterback, bringing the other team members together to get the win. The quarterback is a collaborator with all the owner’s other key advisors (wealth, legal, investment banking, tax, etc.). They act as the owner’s exit plan project manager, facilitator, and at times, devil’s advocate and accountability officer. Together, they help the owner breathe new life into the business and his or her own future.

Scott, when you see Jane again, please let her know that exit planning is not the end of life. It’s quite the opposite.

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