Family Business, Private Wealth

Find the perfect advisor for your business with 5 easy questions


High-net-worth investors who own businesses are a particularly challenging and lucrative group of clients for financial advisors.

They're generally wealthy, of course, and their lives are typically complicated, with family dynamics interacting with business objectives and personal finances in complex, evolving ways. As a group, they need help, say financial advisors.

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Most have likely not undertaken an assessment of where they are, where they want to be and what help they need in getting there. The thousands of family-owned businesses facing a transition from baby boomer owners—and often managers—to the next generation need the full array of financial, legal and counseling services.

"The financial planning community hasn't realized how big the business succession issue is," said Joan Ridley, president of Business Wealth Solutions. Ridley is a certified financial planner as well as a certified exit-planning advisor, a designation for people who advise business owners. "Financial advisors are in a perfect position to help."

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The range of services needed by these clients is broad. Judy Green, president of the Family Firm Institute, which provides educational resources for family enterprises, divides service professionals into two groups: advisors and consultants.

The advisors are those who stay in one of the "buckets," offering, for example, investment management services, tax planning or family trust expertise. The consultants, on the other hand, offer a broader perspective, helping clients determine what their personal and business objectives are and what services they need to realize them. "The consultants have left the buckets," said Green. "They manage the teams [of advisors], and they manage the process."

A single advisor or firm might not be able to handle all the needs of a family business owner. The key is understanding the resources an advisor brings to the table and the role you want him or her to play. Most high-net-worth business owners don't have a good plan for transitioning out of their business and need a so-called "financial quarterback" to manage the process.

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When seeking comprehensive wealth management services, these are the five questions family business owners should ask.

1. How will you help me enhance my legacy?

Business owners usually don't just want to maximize the value of a business they've built during their careers. They want to pass it on to their children or ensure that it continues to meet specific objectives for the family, employees and the wider community.

The process begins with a lot of soul-searching among, and consultation with, family members. Financial advisors don't necessarily have to manage the whole process, but they do have to know where to get the help needed.

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"Family dynamics is a very specialized thing," said Bob Klosterman, certified financial planner and founder of White Oaks Wealth Advisors. His firm helps educate younger generations about family and business values, but he doesn't undertake the task of family counseling and the drafting of family mission statements about running the business. "We use other consultants for that," he added. "No one individual can have all the tools to deal with all the issues."

2. What experience do you have helping business owners transfer or sell their businesses?

Ask for the war stories. A business owner still uncertain about his or her desires for retirement and aspirations for the business needs an advisor who has helped clients in a variety of different situations. That includes businesses that have been passed to the next generation, have undergone a major restructuring or have been sold to a third party.

"Clients need to hear the war stories," said Grant Rawdin, certified financial planner and CEO of Wescott Financial Advisory Group. "Listen to the wisdom the advisor has acquired from different situations." He added, "They need to be able to lay out a plan with all the options a business owner has."

3. What resources do you have to value my business?

The core decision a family business owner must make is whether to sell the business or transfer ownership and/or management to the next generation. Ridley at Business Wealth Solutions focuses her efforts solely on helping clients make that decision.

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She does long-term projections of cash flow from the business and Monte Carlo analyses of business and market scenarios. Ridley also has good connections with investment banking experts to help assess market conditions.

"The goal is to determine what a sale of the business would bring to the owners over the next five years," she said. Ridley added that she doesn't start with any preconceived notion of whether the business will be sold or gifted to family or an outside party. "I subscribe to the process of getting a business and its owners ready for a transition."

4. What process will you use to determine what resources I need?

Clients need to understand who is on the advisor's roster and understand the scope of the advisor's network of peers and resources for which they can access skills and expertise. They also need to hear how the advisor is going to assess their needs.

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At varying times and to varying degrees, business-owner clients will need help with legal, accounting, tax, investment and even business consulting issues. Clients need to know when the advisor thinks those services will be needed and how much of the work they can handle themselves.

What is the process by which they'll find other needed skill sets and services outside their own firms? Be clear about what an advisor is and isn't doing for you.

There are a lot of good-hearted people out there doing great things for clients, but compensation changes behavior.
Elaine King
director of family governance and education at WE Family Offices

5. How are you compensated?

It's an obvious question, but one not always asked or understood by clients. Fee-only financial advisors usually work for a percentage of assets under management. Some—usually bigger firms with broader ranks of advisors, counselors and experts—work for a percentage of net worth.

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Ask the advisors—particularly if they work for a bank, insurance company or investment house—whether they receive any commissions from the sale of investment products. It need not disqualify the advisor, but if he or she is receiving other fees for services, clients need to know.

"There are a lot of good-hearted people out there doing great things for clients, but compensation changes behavior," said certified financial advisor Elaine King, director of family governance and education at WE Family Offices, which charges its 50 to 70 family clients a percentage of net worth.

—By Andrew Osterland, special to