Thursday, January 11, 2018

When Forming a Business Entity, Equal Partnership Isn't All It's Cracked Up to Be

“The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal.” ~Aristotle
              
Aristotle got it right. Some things were not meant to be equal. One quarterback should call the play. One physician should determine the treatment. And one person should steer the ship. Sometimes egalitarianism leads to impasse, confusion and even disaster. Yet, every month enthusiastic clients ask for assistance in setting up new businesses.  The conversation goes something like this: “My partner and I have a great idea for a business!  We want to form a company! We want to split everything 50/50!” 

There is a certain appeal in a 50/50 ownership split.  An equal split means “we share the risks, we share the rewards and we’re in this together!”  Splitting equity equally suggests obvious analogies to a marriage and - like marriages - creates the expectation that the business arrangement is “until death do us part.” Dividing ownership interests equally also avoids awkward conversations about the value of each partner’s contribution and the compatibility of individual goals.

Unfortunately, as in marriages, some business ventures do not work out. Management styles may clash and the business may outgrow the talents of its founders. Partners may pursue divergent personal and professional goals. One partner may be in search of a “lifestyle” business - a business that is essentially a life time job - while the other may be a “serial entrepreneur” intent on starting-up and selling out. In the most extreme examples, a business owner may find his or herself partnering with an irrational or self-interested owner, who puts his own needs ahead of the demands of the business.

Any Decision is Better than None

When managerial control is evenly divided between owners, there generally must be unanimous agreement before the business can act.  In the case of strategic decisions such as entering a new market, hiring a high level executive, or borrowing money, the need for unanimity may result in stalemate. Disagreements over strategic decisions may well reflect good faith differences of opinion in how the business should operate. At worst, however, a disgruntled fifty percent owner can use the veto power to exact concessions from a co-owner that have little to do with business strategy. An owner who is piqued at a partner can refuse to pay employee wages, vendors or company debts unless the other owner accedes to his or her demands.  An owner with signing authority at a bank can abscond or move money out of the other partner’s reach. Feuding owners that give conflicting directives to employees makes for a particularly toxic work environment. Employees may be forced to “choose sides” or decide to look for new jobs.

Once the internal dissension becomes public, third parties may decide to take a defensive posture to avoid being “caught in the middle.” Banks, payroll companies and other vendors may refuse to act without the authorization of both owners. The process can be cumbersome, frustrating and damaging to the business. Customers may be reluctant to make further commitments to an entity whose days seem numbered. Over time, the inability to reach any decision might be more damaging than implementing the “wrong” decision.

But Our Operating Agreement Says That…

There are a variety of devices that can be included in operating agreements and other organizational documents to help reduce the perils of 50/50 ownership. While such provisions offer some relief, they are not a panacea.

Many operating agreements contain “shoot out” provisions. Such provisions allow an owner to offer to purchase the other partner’s interests at a formula price or at a price determined by the offeror.  In the event the offer is rejected, the situation is reversed: the other partner is required to purchase the offering partner’s interests for the same amount.  While such provisions may offer an opportunity for “uncoupling” incompatible partners, there may be practical limits to their efficacy. A purchasing owner must have the financial resources to complete the buyout.  Privately-held businesses may be difficult to value and may not be able to attract third-party financing. Borrowing to fund the buy-out may also weaken the company’s financial posture and potentially trigger defaults with existing bank loans.

Even if an owner is successful in selling his fifty percent interest to the other owner, there may still be continuing obligations to the business. The sale of his or her interest will not extinguish an owner’s obligations under a personal guarantee. Third party creditors may have no incentive to release a departing owner from his guarantee obligations to the business.

When amicable negotiation fails to resolve 50/50 disputes, the parties frequently litigate. Unfortunately many county courts are unfamiliar with shareholder disputes. Some courts deal with fewer than a dozen commercial cases each year.  As a result, the tendency of the court is to act slowly and cautiously, which can prolong the often daily combat between owners and frustrate normal business operations.

The Takeaway

When considering a 50/50 split, understand that a dispute between the owners can have a crippling effect on the business that cannot be wholly mitigated by dispute resolution techniques.  While there are many ways of starting the discussion about equity distribution, one approach is to identify and weight key attributes necessary for business success and then evaluate each partner against such attributes. While such percentage weightings are not necessarily dispositive of equity ownership, they offer an objective approach to discussing roles and responsibilities. Such an exercise may also highlight talent “gaps” which must be filled for the venture to be successful. Allocating a percentage of ownership for future managers and deciding how that will affect the existing owners may make recruiting of high level talent easier and more efficient.


Frank, honest conversations at the beginning of a venture can build trust and lay the foundation for effective collaboration. Recognizing differences in talents, resources, management styles and commitment can lead to proportionate - and appropriate - equity distribution. In a business venture, the greatest inequality really is the effort to make unequal things equal.

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