Episode 44: The Boutique: How to Split Up the Pie in a Professional Service Firm

Episode 44: The Boutique: How to Split Up the Pie in a Professional Service Firm

Splitting the equity in a partnership is difficult. However, there is a proper way to do it that results in lots of wealth being created. Learn how to fix broken legacy partnership agreements as you grow, scale, and exit.


Sean Magennis [00:00:15] Welcome to The Boutique with Capital 54, a podcast for owners of professional services firms. My goal with this show is to help you grow scale and sell your firm at the right time for the right price and on the right terms. I’m Sean Magennis, CEO of Capital 54 and your host on this episode. I’ll make the case that splitting up the equity in a partnership is difficult. However, there is a proper way to do it and it results in lots of wealth being created. I’ll try to prove this theory by interviewing Greg Alexander, Capital 54’s Chief Investment Officer, Greg has helped many boutique owners fix broken legacy partnership agreements. Greg, good to see you and welcome.

Greg Alexander [00:01:09] It’s good to be here, Sean and you are correct, I was just helping an owner unravel a one sided agreement. Splitting up the pie is very tricky.

Sean Magennis [00:01:16] OK, let’s start there. Share the story with us.

Greg Alexander [00:01:19] OK, so a husband and wife team started a marketing agency and early on they promoted a key employee to partner and gave them 20 percent of the equity. This was in response to the employee receiving an attractive job offer from another agency. In the beginning, everyone was happy and it seemed to be working. As time went on, the husband and wife started resenting the new partner. The new partner was not delivering the expected revenue, yet he was getting distributions from their efforts.

Greg Alexander [00:01:52] Also, the husband and wife wanted to take the agency in a new direction, but the new partner did not. He resisted and the way the operating agreement was written as he was able to stop it. The situation deteriorated and got hostile, with lawyers and others coming in, a valuation firm was hired to figure out a buyout price. Of course, no one could agree on what his 20 percent was worth and how the buyout would be paid over time. It got ugly and it looks like 20 percent of the equity is now dead equity.

Sean Magennis [00:02:26] So, Greg, what’s going to happen in this situation?

Greg Alexander [00:02:28] Well, they are still fighting and a resolution has not been agreed to yet. However, I’m glad, you know, we let off with this story because there’s a big lesson to be learned here from this example.

Sean Magennis [00:02:39] Greg, what is that lesson?

Greg Alexander [00:02:41] So equity arrangements need to be flexible. So for our listeners, the evolutionary path is a startup that becomes a growth firm, that becomes a firm at scale and then eventually becomes a firm an exit. And equity splits need to change as they move along this life cycle, for example, it is almost impossible to split equity as a startup. There are no clients, there’s no revenue, no profits. It’s also almost impossible post startup in the growth stage. Yes, there are clients and revenue, but there’s no intellectual property or intellectual capital to be valued at that time. The firm is still not worth anything because nobody would buy it. 100 percent of zero is zero. This changes in the scale stage as the firm is now worth something and it changes again in the exit stage because after exit, some partners are leaving and some are staying on. That dictates the need for a new equity split.

Sean Magennis [00:03:38] Greg, this is so key. And before we move on to scale and exit, how should a boutique owner split equity at a startup or in the growth stage?

Greg Alexander [00:03:46] So when starting the firm, I recommend valuing the equity solely based on contributed capital. So, for example, let us say it takes a startup boutique a million dollars to launch. So if you put up 300K and I put up 700K then the equity split is 30 percent you and 70 percent me. A lot of boutique owners split up equity based on sweat equity instead of contributing capital. And this is a big mistake and it leads to hardship down the road. So why is that? Well, it’s impossible to accurately assign a value to sweat equity. So, for example, what percentage of equity should go to a great rainmaker versus an average rainmaker? The questions too difficult to answer instead. Sweat equity is accounted for in salaries, not in equity. For instance, if a partner was responsible for project management, they get paid a salary that reflects the going rate for a project manager. That is the value of the role and it is set objectively in the open market. Does that make sense?

Sean Magennis [00:04:45] Yes, it does. But what happens when a partner does not have any capital to put into a firm at launch, but over time ends up contributing a lot to the firm as it scales? OK, so now you’re talking and this happens all the time and therefore equity splits need to be dynamic, not static.

Sean Magennis [00:05:02] Yes.

Greg Alexander [00:05:02] So in this case, the partners use a tool called the Buy-Sell Agreement. This is a contract that stipulates how a partners share of a business can be bought and sold. It defines that equity splits can happen under certain conditions and it defines exactly how it will happen. For example, it is common that the buy sell agreement establishes how shares in the firm will be priced, who they can be sold to, how they would be paid for, etc.. So having a buy sell agreement in place provides the needed flexibility to dynamically adjust equity splits at as circumstances change.

Sean Magennis [00:05:37] Greg, is this common?

Greg Alexander [00:05:39] Well, yes and no. Buy-Sell agreements are well-worn territory and are an established best practice. A boutique owner could hire an attorney and get one in place very quickly and inexpensively. However, many boutique owners do not have one in place. And you might ask why? Well, this is because founders think they do not need them. They cannot imagine a scenario where the need for one would arise. This is foolish. If you scale your firm in one day, go to sell it. There is a better than average chance someone other than the founder has equity. Founders want to keep all the equity, but I remind them that 100 percent of zero is zero. Sharing the wealth with those who earn it is a very good idea. In my experience. When the founders shares the wealth, more wealth is created for everyone. Magical things happen when employees become owners.

Sean Magennis [00:06:26] That’s excellent advice, Greg, and great examples. Thank you. And now a word from our sponsor, Collective 54, Collective 54 is a membership organization for owners of professional services firms. Members joined to work with their industry peers to grow scale and someday sell firms at the right time for the right price and on the right terms. Let us meet one of the collective 54 members.

Tad McIntosh [00:06:59] Hello, my name is Tad MCIntosh, I own HumCap, a human resources consulting and recruitment forum. We help small businesses with their growth, human resources and recruitment needs. We get asked very often about how we can help you have strategic value in human resources in your growing company. We also get ask what are the risks in H.R. as I grow my company? We solve these problems by building customized H.R. and recruiting solutions for each and every one of our clients. If we can help you with your needs, with our experience and recruiting professionals, please call me at 469-484-6023 or email me at [email protected]. Thank you and have a great day.

[00:07:51] If you are trying to grow scale or sell your firm and feel you would benefit from being a part of a community of peers, visit collective54.com. So, OK, this takes us to the end of the episode, let’s try to help listeners apply this. We end each show with a tool. We do so because this allows a listener to apply the lessons to his or her firm. Our preferred tool as a checklist and our style of checklist is a yes-no questionnaire. We aim to keep it simple by asking only 10 questions. In this instance, if you answer yes to eight or more of these questions, your equity splits are working for you. If you answer no too many times, your equity split is likely getting in the way of your attempts to scale. Let’s begin.

Sean Magennis [00:08:52] Number one, is your firm owned by more than one person? Number two, do the owners contribute to wealth creation in different proportions? Number three, are the owners at different stages in life?

Greg Alexander [00:09:09] Yes, so we should talk about that. So if you start your firm and someone’s in their 50s and someone’s in their 20s, you know, over time that person in their 50s is going to want to exit before the person in their 20s. So that’s the reason. That’s just an obvious example of why dynamic splits as opposed to static splits.

Sean Magennis [00:09:28] That makes a lot of sense. Number four, do the owners have different financial needs?

Greg Alexander [00:09:33] Some might need more cash, so therefore they get a higher salary. Some might be more interested in long term wealth creation. So they take a lower salary to get a higher equity split.

Sean Magennis [00:09:42] Again, makes total sense. Number five, do the owners have different visions of the future? Hence your example. Number six, have the partner contributions fluctuated over the years?

Greg Alexander [00:09:55] And again, this is another good governance seal of approval here. If the equity split is dynamic, then somebody can’t rest on their laurels just because they got, let’s say, 20 percent of the firm, you know, at year three and year ten if they’re not contributing, then they should not hold on to the 20 percent in perpetuity forever.

Sean Magennis [00:10:14] Yep. Number seven, has resentment crept into the relationships?

Greg Alexander [00:10:19] Its all the time. Business partnerships are like marriages.

Sean Magennis [00:10:22] Yep. Number eight, are you living with a legacy ownership structure that is now outdated?

Greg Alexander [00:10:28] Yep.

Sean Magennis [00:10:29] Number nine, will rising stars require equity to be retained?

Greg Alexander [00:10:34] Yeah. And the foolish owner here says, well, fine, I’m not going to give him equity. Well, those rising stars will quit. They’ll go start their own firms and now you’ll have new competitors and you’ll have a talent drain. So, you know, don’t be penny wise and pound foolish.

Sean Magennis [00:10:52] Great advice, Greg. And then to wrap us up, number ten, has the ownership structure distorted policymaking?

Greg Alexander [00:10:59] Yeah, and that’s a separate issue. Governance is separate than ownership. So you could have different classes of shares with different voting rights, but that’s a whole nother topic for another day.

Sean Magennis [00:11:07] Yep. Thank you, Greg. In summary, during the start up and growth stage of a firm development, split up the equity based on contributed capital. However, as the firm scales put a buy sell agreement in place, this converts dysfunctional static equity arrangements into healthy, dynamic ones. This will result in more wealth for everyone involved. If you enjoyed the show and want to learn more, pick up a copy of Greg Alexander’s book titled The Boutique How to Start Scale and Sell a Professional Services Firm. I’m Sean Magennis. Thank you for listening.