The Struggle of Losing a Business Partner

Nothing can ever prepare you for the unexpected death of a great business partner, but succession planning is a start

The Struggle of Losing a Business Partner

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When you start a business, you never think about how it all ends. You dream of the growth of the company, worry about the bills and constantly stress the day-to-day tasks. But you never think about how you walk away from it all. I say that because we didn’t think of it either.  

Five years ago, my mother, one of our founding partners, decided to retire. In a way it was shocking because I honestly thought she would work forever. She is a doer, someone who never sits still. If she has a free Saturday, she will plant a garden, make a dinner from scratch, grocery shop, knit you a sweater and still have the energy left for a bike ride. She is someone who is constantly on the move. But she felt it was time to leave the business and enjoy the relaxation of retirement in Florida. 

I had recently moved back north, and it was an almost seamless transition of her retiring and me taking on a larger role. We hadn’t really planned for it, but it all worked out in the end. I still call her on a daily basis to ask her opinion or to talk to her about something that happened — and just because I like to talk to her.

In most cases, retirement is something you plan for. You hire a successor, you hand over your work and you meet with customers. You do everything necessary for a smooth transition. 

Death is completely different — something you can never plan for. We experienced that last year, when one of our founding partners passed away very suddenly. For those who knew him, Bill was larger than life. He had a huge personality and the true spirit of an entrepreneur. He was constantly plotting and planning, hoping that one day A Royal Flush would be countrywide. One day he was here, and then the next day he was gone. There is no way to plan for something like that.  

It shocked our company to its very core, as Bill wasn’t just the president of our company. He was a sales person; he handled the operations side of our company and so much more. After he passed, we tried to fill his roles in the company but every day there was another thing that we found out he handled. While every one pitched in and took on more than they previously had, there were still daily surprises. 

We went from planning for our seasonal rush to putting out fires 24/7. Because no matter what you do, it’s impossible to plan for something like that. It felt like things were changing every day, and it was hard on the staff. We expected some turnover, but we didn’t expect it to happen so late in the season. With all of that going on, we never really hit our stride last year.

We went into this past winter determined to plan and strategize. We planned for hiring, buying equipment and other really important things. But most important, we talked about our succession plan. We all hate to admit it, but we are getting older. This is a tough job and one you can’t do forever. It is also a tricky industry and not everyone can cut it. You have to find the right people and train them and mold them into what you need. Even at the ripe old age of 35, I still worry about who will cover for me should something happen. 

That is the tricky part to small business. You are the business. So plan for the worst and hope for the best. 

About the author: Alexandra Townsend is co-owner of A Royal Flush, based in Philadelphia.

More articles on succession and planning for the future of your business:

Small Family Business Owners Stress Imparity of Well-Developed Succession Plans

Developing the Next Generation of PROs


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