When it comes to succession planning, local advisers say the baby boom generation is generally doing better than its predecessors.
"My stories of people hanging on too long would all come out of that generation," Marlin Benedict says of that previous cohort, which is known as the Greatest or Silent generation. He's a CPA and managing partner of Manheim Township-based Simon Lever LLP, and he says that, once they hit their 50s, very few boomers he has encountered entirely avoid the issue.
"They have an identity beyond just their work," says Ronald Hershner, an attorney who is the managing partner of York-based Stock and Leader LLP and chairman of its business group. "They view it as a business. It's important, but to them, it is a vehicle that they created and that produced income. If the time has come to pass it on, either to family or to sell it, they look at it more as an economic transaction than a personal loss."
That's not to say it's easy, or fast. Or that the boomers are good enough at it.
"Most of the stats suggest that baby boomers are not doing a great job in planning for a transition," says Donald S. Feldman, a CPA who is founder and president of Keystone Business Transitions LLC in East Hempfield Township.
"Many people think, 'I'll go in and I want this contract or this will — in two weeks, I'll have this done,'" Hershner said. "It takes 30, 40 years to grow the business. It takes a couple of years to plan its next stage."
Claire Weaver, a CPA at York-based SF&Company who serves as chairwoman of its estate and trust group, says she thinks that in addition to the differing generational business mores, there is also more awareness now of the importance of succession and estate planning — and not just from people who want to help with the planning.
"Banks love when businesses have a formal succession plan in place, they really do," she says. "The bank wants to be sure that if anything happens, there's someone to step in."
Benedict says he sees the force of the greater economy at work in the timing of succession discussions and decisions, too.
"I have a number of customers that would love to do some planning with children, etc., in succession, but the way finances are working right now with banking and debt instruments makes that very difficult," Benedict says, particularly for businesses that have both a lot of capital invested and a lot of debt.
On the other hand, Benedict says, the threat of a favorable estate tax law expiring at the end of 2012 was enough to prompt a lot of action. And Feldman says he has seen a bit of a trend of selling businesses to third parties rather than to family members or employees in the past year or two — he thinks because the merger and acquisition market has opened up significantly.
Weaver says she sees the boomers doing more communicating about the future of the business. They also seem more proactive.
"We see more mentoring and training of employees, and we noticed that the owners of the companies, they're kind of targeting which employees they think have leadership skills and are the appropriate people to take leadership roles and possibly take over the company," Weaver says. "I think everybody realizes how expensive it is to continually hire new talent."
As for how, exactly, boomers are planning to transition their businesses, the advisers say they defy easy categorization. Some pass the business on to family members, while others sell to employees or third parties. Some pick a time to sever ties completely, and others phase out gradually by remaining in supporting or consulting roles.
"I very, very much encourage people to plan, even if the plan is simply, 'I don't know when I'm going to retire, and I'm going to work as long as I can,'" says Benedict. "We can work with that."
The big boomer group
Here’s how Forbes quantifies the impending retirement of baby boomers.
60 percent of small-business owners are boomers.
One baby boomer turns 65 every 57 seconds and will continue to do so for the next 16 years.