• Nicole Osolinsky, Author |
3 min read

Everyone knows that families have their quirks and dynamics, and no two of them are quite the same. Add a family business, and it gets mighty challenging. Add multi-generational pressures, perspectives and preferences to the mix, and it becomes downright difficult. There are emotional, financial, and generational challenges that make a family-run business uniquely challenging. There are no rulebooks, and each family is unique. Getting the right advice is just as tricky.

That's what drew me to this area of tax practice in the first place, and it's what propelled me forward to recently complete my FEA accreditation. That's short for "Family Enterprise Advisor," a designation awarded by Family Enterprise Canada. Becoming an FEA has broadened my understanding not only of how to support the success and sustainability of entrepreneurial families and their businesses but also to ensure intergenerational longevity. It's also proven to be a touchstone for trust as families become more discerning about who they rely on for advice.

There are over 800,000 family-run businesses in Canada. You could say they're the backbone of our economy, and you'd be right. In fact, family businesses account for half of the country's private-sector GDP, employing about 7 million workers, according to a 2019 Conference Board of Canada report. Most of these are actually small to medium-size businesses (SMEs; up to 500 employees), and many of them have their basis in agriculture. Family-owned SMEs also have an above-average footprint in sectors like accommodations, food services, fisheries, and retail.

But it's not just the technical advice I provide family businesses that's important. I need to be able to help solve urgent family crises even as we double down on the long view. There's a lot in the mix. Peeling the onion, so to speak, past the tax structure to ensure communication channels are open and supported in a facilitated way helps business families find their best path forward. And even though tackling some conversations about wealth and roles in business can feel daunting to many families, the tools and structures that FEAs can bring provides confidence and clarity.

Relationships and family dynamics are rarely transparent and may not even be well understood by the families themselves. There tend to be a number of presumptions at work, down to who even actually wants to be involved. In some families, this isn't discussed openly.

The point is to have these conversations in a facilitated way so that your business plan reflects the unique emotional aspects of your family business. Any advisor who leans exclusively on the technical approach is in danger of losing the emotional side of these conversations, and that's what I really love about my work. The role of an FEA is not to provide "the answer" or even "an answer." It's to facilitate a thoughtful, intentional discussion that enables excellent communication in a safe and comfortable space.

Let's take an example: voice vs vote. "Who has a voice?" as compared with "Who has a vote?" This deceptively simple question has far-reaching implications. If the founding generation is still managing the business, how can they steward younger family members and help them develop the skill set required to ensure the business' longevity? The next generation may well feel that, without their voices, "Plans that are about us, but do not include us, are not for us," as one of my FEA instructors would say.

I love having conversations with the people in family businesses, and learn what it is that draws their passion, and what their hopes are for both the next generation and the next stage of their family-run business. And I am so honoured by the trust that family owners have in me, and the extent to which they share their dreams, fears and failures. Their willingness to dig into the tools and processes that I can offer as an FEA helps them further develop a future that is cherished and important to all.

As for what keeps me up at night, I guess it's the same thing that fires me up to start work in the morning: these complex dynamics between families and their businesses. Advisors tend to focus on the business of operations when they come in with their tax hats on, but there are larger things at play, and they should be part of the conversation. After all, the hopes of future generations are built on the dreams of the founders.

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