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It’s uncomfortable, but family businesses need succession planning | Guardian Small Business Network

When my father and uncle founded Little’s Chauffeurs in 1966, they had a three-car taxi firm in Glasgow and ambitions to build a world-class business. When I started working there after university, they had already experienced a great deal of success. I spent one day a week in marketing before joining full-time. After five years, I was made partner.

There was definitely no master plan for me to take over the running of the business. I don’t think we had even considered keeping it in the family. When I joined, my dad was still relatively young and I was focused on day-to-day operations. Looking back, he was quite hard on me, probably because he didn’t want to be seen to be giving me preferential treatment. This certainly led to a few stand-offs, but it helped shape me for the challenge ahead.

It wasn’t until my dad started thinking about retirement that we talked about a succession strategy. Even broaching the subject was a challenge – Dad had started the business in his 20s, and was not used to taking advice from others. I now know that this is one of the hardest things for family businesses to navigate successfully.

For a succession plan to work effectively, everything needs to be put on the table, no matter how uncomfortable for those involved. It is often difficult for the founder to envisage a future for the business without them in it. All too often the succession process leads to a lot of wrangling over moneyand falling out between siblings, which often ends with the business going under. There can be a lot of emotion involved, but decisions about management, finance and how you all want the succession to work need to be based on logic. My sister has wanted to be a doctor from a young age, so she was content to leave running the family business to me. Looking back, I’m glad we started early and took the time to make sure everyone was happy.

My advice to anyone passing on or taking over a family business is to get external help. There are millions of businesses in the UK run by families, and there is now a growing pool of experts to help. We worked with a team at Glasgow Caledonian University over a two year period, who ran workshops exploring issues around succession and family governance. It also allowed us to meet other family businesses going through a similar experience. My dad, like many business owners of his generation, had never really talked to other entrepreneurs, so it was a big surprise for him to find we had so much in common.

Taking over second or third generation businesses, as I did in 2005 when my dad retired, involves a tremendous amount of pressure to live up to expectations. I have learned to acknowledge that, even as adults, we all seek approval and praise from our parents. My dad has been sparing with this, but when he does compliment me on the success of the business, it means a lot. There’s also pressure from the staff too, some of whom have known me since I was a child. I felt this responsibility very acutely when I realised my decisions were going to affect everyone’s livelihoods.

Implementing change has also been a challenge, particularly when the business has been so successful in the past. Little’s is rooted in the great traditions of chauffeur driving, but our clients are changing. We now use technology to connect clients, their offices and our chauffeurs; we have a global network of partners; and increasingly we use eco-friendly cars.

My dad is still a partner in the business but he has no involvement day-to-day. He comes in now and again to see how things are going and he’s an incredibly useful sounding board. I know he has raised an eyebrow at times when we have moved the business in a slightly different direction, but I think he’s happy to let me get on with the job.

I’m often asked what my own plans might be for succession, which I find quite funny because my son is only eight years old. Like my dad, I have no expectation of him having a role at Little’s but if he is interested, it would be fascinating to see where a new generation would take the business in the future.

Heather Matthews is the managing director of Little’s Chauffeurs.

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