Bill Hartmann has breathed business for nearly 60 years, returning from the Army in 1953 and, a year later, opening Hartmann Construction in Seward, Neb.
Now 83 years old, Hartmann realizes he won’t be around forever and has taken steps to transition the company to his two sons, who, he said, have been in the business “since they were born.”
“You’d be very foolish not to,” he said.
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Still, it’s a topic business owners tend to avoid until it’s too late: What’s the plan for your company after you’re gone? And are you taking steps now to prepare?
Forging Nebraska’s Future, an initiative by the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry, addressed those issues Wednesday at Mahoney State Park near Ashland as one of three statewide workshops on transitioning a business and drawing up a succession plan.
The goal of the programs — the others are today at Younes Conference Center in Kearney and Friday at Divots Conference Center in Norfolk — is to introduce business owners to ways they can compete in the state’s changing global marketplace while positioning their business for the future, said Richard Baier, the executive vice president of the Forging Nebraska’s Future initiative.
About 25 attendees were drawn to the Mahoney workshop, which was focused on family issues, tax and legal planning and maximizing profit through a transition. The workshop was led by Nick Niemann, a partner in Omaha law firm McGrath North, and Larry Kopsa, a partner in the York-based accounting and tax advising firm Kopsa Otte CPAs and Advisors.
The workshops grew out of the chamber’s effort to gather public opinions for a list of “100 Next Generation Ideas.” A need for a business transition or succession planning program for young farmers and small-business owners made the list as part of fostering a strong business climate.
Kopsa said the first, and perhaps most important, step in transitioning a business is recognizing there’s a deadline. Business owners increasingly are staying in the game too late, he said, often leaving a mess for the next owner. Kopsa said business owners who hang on too long are known for “letting it go in the fourth quarter.”
“You may have the best business in the world,” he said, “but if you let it slide, then it’s gone.”
Niemann said transitioning a business is harder than it sounds because it means facing one’s own mortality and finding time to step back to evaluate the bigger picture. But it’s vital, he said, because more and more baby boomers are leaving the workforce.
He said the No. 1 question clients ask is if they can reduce business transitioning to a formula that allows them to stay in business, grow and eventually transition. He says yes, suggesting development of a solid business core, a continuity platform and an effective culture.
Niemann said sometimes a business core, or its business plan, needs to change. Blockbuster, he said, suffered because it didn’t alter its business plan.
Kopsa said it can be a painful process to revisit a business plan, but business owners have to ask themselves what it will cost if they don’t. Constantly innovating the business plan will help the owner successfully “sell or pass the business on to the next generation.”
Workshop attendee Annette Wiles of Plattsmouth, who sits on the board for the Cass County Nebraska Economic Development Council, said the consequences of not thinking about transition plans can be significant for communities. Youths will be turned off if they know they don’t have the potential to operate an already established, successful company back home.
“It can be a win-win,” she said.