Business Briefs

Prepare for valuation issues in your buy-sell agreement

Every business with more than one owner needs a buy-sell agreement to handle both expected and unexpected ownership changes. When creating or updating yours, be sure you’re prepared for the valuation issues that will come into play.

Issues, what issues?

Emotions tend to run high when owners face a “triggering event” that activates the buy-sell. Such events include the death of an owner, the divorce of married owners or an owner dispute.

The departing owner (or his or her estate) suddenly is in the position of a seller who wants to maximize buyout proceeds. The buyer’s role is played by either the other owners or the business itself — and it’s in the buyer’s financial interest to pay as little as possible. A comprehensive buy-sell agreement takes away the guesswork and helps ensure that all parties are treated equitably.

Some owners decide to have the business valued annually to minimize surprises when a buyout occurs. This is often preferable to using a static valuation formula in the buy-sell agreement, because the value of the interest is likely to change as the business grows and market conditions evolve.

What are our protocols?

At minimum, the buy-sell agreement needs to prescribe various valuation protocols to follow when the agreement is triggered, including:

  • How “value” will be defined,
  • Who will value the business,
  • Whether valuation discounts will apply,
  • Who will pay appraisal fees, and
  • What the timeline will be for the valuation process.

It’s also important to discuss the appropriate “as of” date for valuing the business interest. The loss of a key person could affect the value of a business interest, so timing may be critical.

Are we ready?

Business owners tend to put planning issues on the back burner — especially when they’re young and healthy and owner relations are strong. But the more details that you put in place today, including a well-crafted buy-sell agreement with the right valuation components, the easier it will be to resolve buyout issues when they arise. Our firm would be happy to help.



HSA + HDHP can be a winning health benefits formula

If you’ve done any research into employee benefits for your business recently, you may have come across a bit of alphabet soup in the form of “HSA + HDHP.” Although perhaps initially confusing, this formula represents an increasingly popular model for health care benefits — that is, offering a Health Savings Account (HSA) coupled with, as required by law, a high-deductible health plan (HDHP).

Requirements

An HSA operates somewhat like a Flexible Spending Account (FSA), which employers can also offer to eligible employees. An FSA permits eligible employees to defer a pretax portion of their pay to later use to reimburse out-of-pocket medical expenses. But, unlike an FSA, an HSA is permitted to carry over unused account balances to the next year and beyond.

The most significant requirement for offering your employees an HSA is that, as mentioned, you must also cover them under an HDHP. For 2019, this means that each participant’s health insurance coverage must come with at least a $1,350 deductible for single coverage or $2,700 for family coverage. It’s okay if the HDHP doesn’t impose any deductible for preventive care (such as annual checkups), but participants can’t be eligible for Medicare benefits or claimed as a dependent on another person’s tax return.

The benefit of the high deductible requirement is that premiums for HDHPs are typically less expensive than for health plans with lower deductibles. You and your employees can use some or all of the money saved on premiums to fund their HSAs.

Pretax contributions

You and the employee combined can make pretax HSA contributions in 2019 of up to $3,500 for single coverage or $7,000 for family coverage. An account beneficiary who is age 55 or older by the end of the tax year for which the HSA contribution is made may contribute an additional $1,000.

The good news for you, the business owner: First, employer contributions are optional. Second, pretax contributions to an employee’s HSA, whether by you or the employee, are exempt from Social Security, Medicare and unemployment taxes.

Growing popularity

Just how popular is the HSA + HDHP model? A 2018 report by the trade association America’s Health Insurance Plans found that enrollment in these plans increased by nearly 400% over the last 10 years — from about 4.5 million in 2007 to about 21.8 million in 2017. Of course, this doesn’t mean your business should blindly jump on the bandwagon. Contact us to discuss the concept further or for other ideas regarding affordable employee benefits.



Business tips for back-to-school time

Late summer and early fall, when so many families have members returning to educational facilities of all shapes and sizes, is also a good time for businesses to creatively step up their business development efforts, whether it’s launching new marketing initiatives, developing future employees or simply generating goodwill in the community. Here are a few examples that might inspire you.

Becoming a sponsor

A real estate agency sponsors a local middle school’s parent-teacher organization (PTO). The sponsorship includes ads in the school’s weekly e-newsletter and in welcome packets for new PTO members. Individual agents in the group also conduct monthly gift card drawings for parents and teachers who follow them on Facebook.

The agency hopes parents and teachers will remember its agents’ names and faces when they’re ready to buy or sell their homes.

Planting the seeds of STEM

An engineering firm donates old computers and printers to an elementary school that serves economically disadvantaged students. The equipment will be used in the school district’s K-12 program to get kids interested in careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines.

At back-to-school time, a firm rep gives presentations at the schools and hands out literature. Then, in the spring, the company will mentor a select group of high school seniors who are planning to pursue engineering degrees in college.

Participating in STEM programs fosters corporate charity and goodwill. It can also pay back over the long run: When the firm’s HR department is looking for skilled talent, kids who benefited from the firm’s STEM efforts may return as loyal, full-time employees.

Launching an apprenticeship program

The back-to-school season motivates a high-tech manufacturer to partner with a vocational program at the local community college to offer registered apprenticeships through a state apprenticeship agency. In exchange for working for the manufacturer, students will receive college credits, on-the-job training and weekly paychecks. Their hourly wages will increase as they demonstrate proficiency.

The company hopes to hire at least some of these apprentices to fill full-time positions in the coming year or two.

Finding the right fit

Whether schools near you are already in session or will open soon, it’s not too late to think about how your business can benefit. Sit down with your management team and brainstorm ways to leverage relationships with local schools to boost revenues, give back to your community and add long-term value. We can provide other ideas and help you assess return on investment.



6 ways to get more value from an IT consultant

IT consultants are many things — experts in their field, champions of the workaround and, generally, the “people persons” of the tech field. But they’re not magicians who, with the wave of a smartphone, can solve any dilemma you throw at them. Here are six ways to get more value from your company’s next IT consulting relationship:

1. Spell out your needs. Define your desired outcome in as much detail as possible up front, so that both you and the consultant know what’s expected of each party. To do so, create a project scope document that clearly delineates the job’s purpose, timeframe, resources, personnel, reporting requirements, critical success factors and conflict resolution methods.

2. Appoint an internal contact. Assign someone within your organization as the internal project manager as early in the process as possible. He or she will be the go-to person for the consultant and, therefore, needs to have a thorough knowledge of the job’s requirements and be able to fairly assess the consultant’s performance.

3. Put in some prep time. Before the consultant arrives, prepare his or her workstation, ensuring that any equipment you’re providing works and allows appropriate access to the required systems — including email. Don’t forget to set up the phone, too, and add the consultant to your company phone list. Also, alert your staff that you have engaged a consultant and, to alleviate potential concerns, explain why.

4. Roll out the welcome wagon. Try to arrange an orientation on the Friday before the start date (assuming it’s a Monday). That way, you can give the consultant the project scope document as well as a written company overview (perhaps your employee procedures manual) that includes policies, safety protocols, office hours and tips on company culture to review over the weekend.

5. Keep in touch. Conduct regular project status meetings with the consultant to assess progress and provide feedback. Notify the consultant or the internal project manager immediately if you suspect the job is off track.

6. Conclude courteously. If you need to end the consulting engagement earlier than expected (for reasons other than poor performance) or extend it beyond the agreed-on timeframe, give as much notice as possible.

Act toward a good consultant as you would any valued vendor with whom you’d like to work again. After all, establishing a positive relationship with someone who knows your business could provide even greater return on investment in the future. Our firm would be happy to explain further or explore other ideas.



Contemplating compensation increases and pay for performance

As a business grows, one of many challenges it faces is identifying a competitive yet manageable compensation structure. After all, offer too little and you likely won’t have much success in hiring. Offer too much and you may compromise cash flow and profitability.

But the challenge doesn’t end there. Once you have a feasible compensation structure in place, your organization must then set its course for determining the best way for employees to progress through it. And this is when you must contemplate the nature and efficacy of linking pay to performance.

Issues in play

Some observers believe that companies shouldn’t use compensation to motivate employees because workers might stop focusing on quality of work and start focusing on money. Additionally, employees may feel that the merit — or “pay-for-performance” — model pits staff members against each other for the highest raises.

Thus, some businesses give uniform pay adjustments to everyone. In doing so, these companies hope to eliminate competition and ensure that all employees are working toward the same goal. But, if everyone gets the same raise, is there any motivation for employees to continually improve?

2 critical factors

Many businesses don’t think so and do use additional money to motivate employees, whether by bonuses, commissions or bigger raises. In its most basic form, a merit increase is the amount of additional compensation added to current base pay following an employee’s performance review. Two critical factors typically determine the increase:

  1. The amount of money a company sets aside in its “merit” budget for performance-based increases — usually based on competitive market practice, and
  2. Employee performance as determined through a performance review process conducted by management.

Although pay-for-performance can achieve its original intent — recognizing employee performance and outstanding contributions to the company’s success — beware that your employees may perceive merit increases as an entitlement or even nothing more than an inflation adjustment. If they do, pay-for-performance may not be effective as a motivational tool.

Communication is the key

The ideal solution to both compensation structure and pay raises will vary based on factors such as the size of the business and typical compensation levels of its industry. Nonetheless, to avoid unintended ill effects of the pay-for-performance model, be sure to communicate clearly with employees. Be as specific as possible about what contributes to merit increases and ensure that your performance review process is transparent, interactive and understandable. Contact us to discuss this or other compensation-related issues further.



Is there a weak link in your supply chain?

In an increasingly global economy, keeping a close eye on your supply chain is imperative. Even if your company operates only locally or nationally, your suppliers could be affected by wider economic conditions and developments. So, make sure you’re regularly assessing where weak links in your supply chain may lie.

3 common risks

Every business faces a variety of risks. Three of the most common are:

1. Legal risks. Are any of your suppliers involved in legal conflicts that could adversely affect their ability to earn revenue or continue serving you?

2. Political risks. Are any suppliers located in a politically unstable region — even nationally? Could the outcome of a municipal, state or federal election adversely affect your industry’s supply chain?

3. Transportation risks. How reliant are your suppliers on a particular type of transportation? For example, what’s their backup plan if winter weather shuts down air routes for a few days? Or could wildfires or mudslides block trucking routes?

Potential fallout

The potential fallout from an unstable supply chain can be devastating. Obviously, first and foremost, you may be unable to timely procure the supplies you need to operate profitably.

Beyond that, high-risk supply chains can also affect your ability to obtain financing. Lenders may view risks as too high to justify your current debt or a new loan request. You could face higher interest rates or more stringent penalties to compensate for it.

Strategies to consider

Just as businesses face many supply chain risks, they can also avail themselves of a variety of coping strategies. For example, you might divide purchases equally among three suppliers — instead of just one — to diversify your supplier base. You might spread out suppliers geographically to mitigate the threat of a regional disaster.

Also consider strengthening protections against unforeseen events by adding to inventory buffers to hedge against short-term shortages. Take a hard look at your supplier contracts as well. You may be able to negotiate long-term deals to include upfront payment terms, exclusivity clauses and access to computerized just-in-time inventory systems to more accurately forecast demand and more closely integrate your operations with supply-chain partners.

Lasting success

You can have a very successful business, but if you can’t keep delivering your products and services to customers consistently, you’ll likely find success fleeting. A solid supply chain fortified against risk is a must. We can provide further information and other ideas.



Get SMART when it comes to setting strategic goals

Strategic planning is key to ensuring every company’s long-term viability, and goal setting is an indispensable step toward fulfilling those plans. Unfortunately, businesses often don’t accomplish their overall strategic plans because they’re unable to fully reach the various goals necessary to get there.

If this scenario sounds all too familiar, trace your goals back to their origin. Those that are poorly conceived typically set up a company for failure. One solution is to follow the SMART approach.

Definitions to work by

The SMART system was first introduced to the business world in the early 1980s. Although the acronym’s letters have been associated with different meanings over the years, they’re commonly defined as:

Specific. Goals must be precise. So, if your strategic plan includes growing the business, your goals must then explicitly state how you’ll do so. For each goal, define the “5 Ws” — who, what, where, when and why.

Measurable. Setting goals is of little value if you can’t easily assess your progress toward them. Pair each goal with one or more metrics to measure progress and success. This may mean increasing revenue by a certain percentage, expanding your customer base by winning a certain number of new accounts, or something else.

Achievable. Unrealistically aggressive goals can crush motivation. No one wants to put time and effort into something that’s likely to fail. Ensure your goals can be accomplished, but don’t make them too easy. The best ones are usually somewhat of a stretch but still doable. Rely on your own business experience and the feedback of your trusted managers to find the right balance.

Relevant. Let’s say you identify a goal that you know you can achieve. Before locking it in, ask whether and how it will move your business forward. Again, goals should directly and clearly support your long-term strategic plan. Sometimes companies can be tempted by “low-hanging fruit” — goals that are easy to accomplish but lead nowhere.

Timely. Assign each goal a deadline. Doing so will motivate those involved by creating a sense of urgency. Also, once you’ve established a deadline, work backwards and set periodic milestones to help everyone pace themselves toward the goal.

Eye on the future

Strategic planning, and the goal setting that goes along with it, might seem like a waste of time. But even if your business is thriving now, it’s important to keep an eye on the future. And that means long-term strategic planning that includes SMART goals. Our firm would be happy to explain further and offer other ideas.



Trust is an essential building block of today’s websites

When business use of websites began, getting noticed was the name of the game. Remember pop-up ads? Text scrolling up the screen? How about those mesmerizing rotating banners? Yes, there were — and remain — a variety of comical and some would say annoying ways to get visitors’ attention.

Nowadays, most Internet users are savvy enough not to be impressed by flashy graphics. They tend to want simplicity and the ability to navigate intuitively. Most of all, they want to feel protected from scams and hackers. That’s why, when maintaining or updating your company’s website, trust is an essential building block.

Make it personal

Among the simplest ways to establish trust with customers and prospects is conveying to them that you’re a bona fide business staffed by actual human beings.

Include an “About Us” page with the names, photos and short bios of the owner, executives and key staff members. This will help make the site friendlier and more relatable. You don’t want to look anonymous — it makes customers suspicious and less likely to buy.

Beyond that, be sure to clearly provide general contact info. This includes a phone number and email address, hours of operation (including time zone), and your mailing address. If you’re a small business, use a street address if possible. Some companies won’t deliver to a P.O. box — and some customers won’t buy if you use one.

Keep contact links easy to find. No one wants to search all over a site looking for a way to get in touch with someone at the business. Include at least one contact link on every page.

Mind the details

Everyone makes mistakes, but typos and inaccuracies on a website can send many users to the “close tab” button. Remember, one of the hallmarks of many Internet trolls and scamsters is ineffective or even nonsensical use of the English language.

Check and doublecheck the spelling and grammar used on your site. Bear in mind that spellcheck programs look only for misspelled words. If you have correctly spelled a word but it’s misused — for example, “to” instead of “two” — spellcheck won’t catch it.

Also, regularly check all links. Nothing sends a customer off to a competitor more quickly than the frustration of encountering nonfunctioning links. Such problems may also lead visitors to think they’ve been hacked. Link-checker software can automatically find broken links within your site and links to other sites.

Construct good content

Obviously, there are many more technical ways to secure your website. It goes without saying that cybersecurity measures such as encryption software and firewalls must be maintained to the fullest. But, from a content perspective, your site should be constructed first and foremost on a foundation of trust. Our firm can provide other ideas and further information.