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Risk Management’s Teachable Moment

Business lessons from COVID


Speedbumps are basic facts of life. Dealing with the usual speedbump issues has always been a business process, somewhere between effective planning and crisis management. Suddenly, there is caution and consensus that, particularly in Alberta and Edmonton, the past two years have been different from the other familiar speedbumps. Some say it has been business’ ultimate teachable moment.

Although business is moving forward and a momentum of positivity has begun, COVID tentacles have impacted many aspects of business and left their mark. Not only for business owners in Edmonton but throughout the province and the country, the two years of lockdowns and business disruptions were a wake-up call.

Many were forced to drastically pivot about how they operate their business. They adjusted to the new virtual environment, the critical importance of technology, and workers working remotely. Work-life boundaries got blurred and business owners found themselves working harder and longer.

Some shut down temporarily and, unfortunately, others went out of business or changed their business model. With the COVID curse, owners and employees paid more attention to the importance of good health and life priorities.

Managing through the pandemic has proven to be a business kick starter. In addition to priorities like cash flow, staff management, business projections and strategies and navigating the new normals of operations, there is suddenly a surge of interest in succession planning.

Even before the sudden and abrupt business broadside of COVID, succession planning was a vital business strategy, mostly to identify and ready the next generation of leaders of an organization. Successions planning has always been invaluable to provide a business with a roadmap to ensure continuity of operations when (predicted or unexpected) changes occur. It allowed time to develop the knowledge and skills of future leaders so they are prepared when the time comes to step into new leadership roles.

Until COVID hit, succession planning was resoundingly embraced by business leaders as an effective and wise strategy. The embarrassing reality was that, while most business leaders talked the talk acknowledging succession planning as important, very few walked the walk. And even if they did, it was too often last minute scrambling and crisis management.

Despite fancy C-suite machinations and strategy, countless business surveys have indicted procrastination as the most common cause for succession planning that fizzled or never happened. Stats show that about half (51 per cent) of business owners do not have a succession plan. Of the other half (49 per cent) of business owners that do have a succession plan, 41 per cent have an informal plan. Only 8 per cent have a formal written plan.

Then COVID happened. Life changed. Business changed. Employee work routines changed. Business owner perspectives changed. And strategizing about the future changed.

According to a Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) Succession and Retirement report, “Having a succession (or exit) plan in place will make the process of transitioning out of the business much easier. Without one, the future of the business could be at stake. Early planning will also help maximize the value of the business.”

That was three unexpected and pandemic years ago and assumed business would be normal, estimating that “over $1.5 trillion in business assets would be in play over the next decade and nearly three quarters (72 per cent) of small business owners intended to exit their business.”

Last year, as COVID had inflicted the business broadsides, CFIB pointed out that “most of these plans have been shelved.”

The most recent (2021) CFIB reports underscores that COVID made drastic changes when it comes to continuity and succession planning, and notes “45 per cent of business owners have had to work significantly longer hours as a result of the pandemic; 49 per cent have been impacted by psychological health issues as a result of the pandemic; 48 per cent mention overwhelming stress as one of their top worries; and that 7 in 10 business owners agree that the pandemic has changed their thinking about continuity, succession planning and how they plan to retire or exit their business. The new, post-pandemic business reality is that 42 per cent of business owners are delaying their succession and retirement plans and will retire later due to the COVID fallout. Some 57 per cent estimate the value of their business has dropped because of COVID broadsides.”

The CFIB survey also cautions that this has major implications for the future of Canada’s entrepreneurs and their families.

There is absolutely nothing even remotely positive about the past two years of health crises and business disruptions, but some forward-thinking business track the value of the pandemic hits as teachable moments in risk management and the importance of continuity and succession planing, especially for Alberta and Edmonton businesses.

“There’s an expression that ‘rough waters make strong sailors,’ and that mantra has certainly rung true over the last two years,” says Lynne Fisher, National Team Leader with MNP’s SMART Services. “Business leaders and owners needed to shift, learn, reach decisions and manage risk at a pace rarely seen before. Many have emerged stronger, now armed with new business models and resilience.”

Managing through the past two years of business upheaval, the need for continuity planning and the urgent need for operations processes, strategies and updated technonology for the unexpected new normals of business was underscored. “Many business owners needed to adopt new technology and processes to continue to get their products and services to their marketplace,” says Darrell Huber, Edmonton Regional Leader of MNP’s ExitSMART.

“Many businesses were caught at the beginning of the pandemic with outdated procedures, insurance and processes. Having a fulsome documented emergency plan which documents procedures to be followed, location of critical current (business and personal) information and in the event of temporary or permanent loss of key individuals, who is in charge, is critical.

“The new technology and processes developed have often allowed the business to operate without the owner being present in the day-to-day operations,” Huber adds, “thus adding value since the business goes on despite the owner not being there on a day-to-day basis.”

In addition to the transformative disruptions of COVID and because business continuity and succession is ultimately about people, businesses suddenly faced a challenging global talent crunch. Wth the pending retirement of Baby Boomers in senior management positions, compounded by the predilection of millennials to frequently pursue new job opportunities, succession planning faced additional challenges.

“According to the Harvard Business Review,” Fisher notes, “the greatest churn in employee turnover is in the 30-45 year age group. For many business owners, this is precisely the age group in which they are seeking their successors, as these individuals have the right amount of experience and the right skills paired with a 25-30 year runway. This combination puts them into the high-demand category in the labour market. Everyone wants them and is willing to sweeten the pot to attract them. For business owners, this means that they must consider new measures and approaches to attract and keep good talent at all levels, including ownership and profit sharing and an enhanced focus on creating strong culture and team.”

She emphasizes that the composition of the leadership team, and their individual retirement goals, can certainly have an impact on the succession of the business. If the majority of individuals in leadership roles of a company all expect to leave the workforce in 5-10 years, business owners may face difficulty in realizing their own succession objectives, if keeping the business ‘in the family’ is a priority.

Fisher also adds that business owners should consider the expected retirement timeline of their key employees, to ensure their retirement plan – and business succession – have strong employees remaining to lead the company when the owner and other key players exit.

As Edmonton businesses move forward, in many important ways the past COVID years have been lessons learned, emphasizing that continuity and succession planning is smart strategy for businesses of all sizes from Fortune 1000s to small, family-owned operations.