An estate and dealership succession plan often can be a loaded gun waiting to explode. It's a sensitive subject loaded with pyrotechnic emotions, which often lead to hurt feelings, family divisiveness, destructive relationships and the loss of a dream - the dealer's family continuing his legacy.
The good news: these problems can be avoided.
Recently I was asked by the dealer-operator son of a dealer principal to meet with his parents regarding their estate and dealership succession planning.
I asked if he was concerned about what he knew or what he didn't know regarding their planning. He said, "Both!" Since he had invested more than 25 years in the dealership, he wanted to know what had been decided regarding the dealership and what obligations he would be responsible for regarding his siblings.
Upon meeting the parents I discovered that a lot of excellent planning had been done. Mom and Dad's response was, "It's all been handled - we don't have any problems."
"Yes and no" was my response. I agreed that most of the planning was very well done, but without being properly communicated to their children, the seeds for disaster were being sown.
The problem is often perceptions and lack of understanding. Parents are usually concerned with treating all of their children fairly. Fair is generally defined as equal but when there are assets such as a dealership and real estate involved, equal is virtually impossible for most families.
A deceased dealer's son asked us, "Why would dad have set up the plan that way? - That's not fair!" Unfortunately since Dad was gone there was no way to ask him. The advisors tried to explain but only Dad's response would be adequate and that was no longer possible.
This son perceived he was treated unfairly and, without Dad's response, the son could only turn his anger at his brothers who he felt had manipulated their father's final decision.
Bottomline, mom and dad should have the final say. It is their estate and therefore they have the right to do whatever they please. The "but, but, but" only works if mom and dad don't care what happens after they are gone. That is not the case with the vast majority of dealers I have known and worked with over the years.
Usually when a dealer says, "I don't care what happens, I'll be dead," he really means, "I don't know how to solve my problem so I'll avoid dealing with it."
Most dealers do care about their families and want their families to be the beneficiaries of their lifetime of work. For many dealers it is very important that their children have the opportunity to inherit and successfully continue the operation of their dealership.
For a dealership succession plan to succeed it must deal with the emotional family issues. Communication with family members is a vital ingredient and on these sensitive issues it is often very difficult.
But avoiding conflict will not prevent problems. Usually an outside advisor who understands the unique automotive family industry and is skilled in helping families deal with these emotional issues is critical and can help family members to understand why certain decisions are being made.
You definitely want your family to succeed as well as your dealership. If family harmony is going to happen, both now and after you are gone, communication regarding dealership succession must take place, even if uncomfortable in nature. Otherwise you may have a ticking time bomb.
Take the example of the Camp Automotive Group dealership family. With active and inactive children all owning stock, the goals and objectives of each Camp family member were differing as one might expect.
After their father's death in 1995, these pent up emotions exploded. Their nightmare is summarized in this quote from the Wall Street Journal: "But before long his (Phil Camp's) brothers had all but stopped speaking to him. "There is a lot of friction, anger and bitterness,' says Mr. Camp's sister, Julie Camp McKay."
Is your family and business success worth the price of communication, even if uncomfortable? Only you can answer this very personal question. Meeting with family members now in an atmosphere where issues are addressed, feelings are aired and questions are answered can prevent heartache and business failure.
Hugh Roberts, CFP, is a partner in the de Vries-Roberts Group, Woodland Hills CA, specializing in succession and estate planning for family owned auto dealerships.