A firm owner's letter to their successor
By BRETT DAVIDSON
I wanted to write you this letter explaining how I’m feeling right now. I know I should be able to share this with you face to face, but I’m struggling. Reaching the end of one’s career is a much more difficult time and transition than I ever gave it credit for.
I’m not looking for sympathy, I’ve had an amazing career, but if we’re going to make this relationship work, I wanted you to have a better understanding of where I’m at right now.
How I got started
When I started my career in financial services it was like the wild west; nothing like what you’ve walked into here in our nice financial planning business.
I started as a commission-only insurance salesperson. Yeah, it was as bad as it sounds.
There were a lot of months where I didn’t earn enough to cover my family’s growing expenses. I had a mortgage and young children. It was really scary.
I was constantly trying to do things right by clients in an old school world, where products were not always client-friendly. And sales managers didn’t give a shit about any of that. Lots of the high producers of that time are no longer in business or had to leave the industry (not of their choosing).
It’s more than two decades since I last felt the fear that went with that situation, but it never leaves you. The fear of not being able to pay my bills is what has forced me to be a good steward of our cash.
Because of that history, I always swore I’d never sell out to a life insurance company or a consolidator. I’m sure they mean well, but they never get it right. There’s something fundamentally wrong about the model. When you focus on the money, eventually it leads to compromises on client outcomes. There’s no getting away from it.
You might have looked at my journey and only seen the last bit, where supposedly I’m worth millions (on paper anyway). One day you’ll come to understand how empty that feeling is. You can’t eat paper millions. Until I actually do sell the business and get all of the cash under my control that’s not going to change much. I’ll always feel hungry.
You might say I should have done better creating my own financial plan and resultant wealth so I don’t need the money at this stage of my life. There’s some truth in that, but I’ve only been able to create this business model in the last 10-15 years and as I did, I reinvested a lot of what I earned back into the business.
I want you to take this business over and continue it on with the same client-focused ethos that I’ve built. I really want that. However, I’ve also got to get paid a fair price for what has been my life’s work. It doesn’t need to be the absolute maximum price, but it does need to be fair. You’re going to have to put yourself on the line to some extent to make it happen. There’s got to be something at stake for both of us if it fails.
For me, that’s my family’s financial security and the awesome retirement I promised myself for years of hard work. If I fail now I can’t go and do it all again. I don’t want to do that and I just don’t have the energy anymore.
For you, it’s the debts you’d still owe if this thing falls over. That’ll cost you 10 years of your life trying to get out from under it.
Those consequences feel about right. They’re major. We’re in this together.
When I stick my nose into stuff you wish I’d stay out of, it’s just fear. I won’t ever admit that to you; it’s just too raw, but that’s what it is.
When I “inter-fear” (see what I did there?) I’d love it if you called me out on it and showed me how I don’t need to be worrying about this issue (with some evidence). I might not always react brilliantly to your push-back, but I’ll respect you for it.
I need to see you step in and elbow me out of the way. I can’t trust that you’ve got this until I see that you’ve got this. You won’t truly understand what it is to be the owner and the person responsible for everything until I’m gone. What it’s like to be responsible for the livelihoods of a bunch of people that work for you. To be on the line completely for payments to suppliers or repayment of debt to a lender.
Maybe you’ll never have to feel that pressure and responsibility, although it seems almost inevitable that at some point you will. Recessions always come unexpectedly, even though we know they’re coming, and they’re always caused by something no one could foresee, even though everyone’s looking. It’s in those times that you’ll be called on to step up.
I can’t protect you from that and nor would I want to. The best business owners and people are forged under pressure. All I can hope is that I’ve helped you know the values that matter in this company. If you can use those values as your compass when you make business decisions in the future, you’ll do alright. It might not be easy, but nothing worthwhile ever is.
I trust you. You know that right?
Even when I behave in a way that sends a message to you that I don’t.
You never would have got the successor gig if I didn’t. There’s just too much at stake for me, for you, and for our clients.
Let’s keep talking and trying to understand each other’s point of view. A high-trust relationship with open communication is the only way we can make this work, and we have to make it work.
I promise to get out of the way more and trust your decisions. I’ve burned my bridges. You’re my chosen successor.
Let’s do this.
BRETT DAVIDSON helps financial planners take the headache out of running a business, so that they can get back to doing what they love — looking after their clients.
This article was first published on Brett’s blog and is republished here with his permission.
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