Most of my clients are well-educated, high-net-worth women, and many are successful entrepreneurs who have accomplished a lot in the face of challenges. Overcoming those obstacles takes commitment and hard work – and a laser focus on ensuring their companies thrive and survive. Their attitude is admirable and inspiring, yet sometimes this intensity of commitment also contributes to a problem I often see among my clients: they are so focused on company financial goals that they’ve neglected their personal financial goals.
That might be understandable, but from a financial perspective, it is also dangerous. Many entrepreneurs have their wealth and their income completely tied to their businesses. If there’s a downturn – in their company, their industry or the economy in general – they run a heightened risk to their financial security. No doubt, entrepreneurial drive often means making personal sacrifices, but a secure financial future for you and your family shouldn’t be one of them.
I encourage clients to think about their finances in a way that goes beyond their business. Together, we develop a holistic financial management strategy that works toward short- and long-term goals for their company and for them. Whether the client is a self-made business owner, a woman stepping into a senior executive position at a growing company, or someone taking over an established family business, the goal is the same: to turn planning for their business into a robust personal wealth management program.
How do we start? With the most important element of financial security: free cash flow. Now, most entrepreneurs are familiar with the concept of free cash flow in business – it’s the money left over after operating expenses and asset expenditures. But do they think about personal free cash flow – the money left over after all their household expenses? Both for companies and for individuals, generating free cash flow – and using it wisely – is the key to financial success. It gives you and your business greater flexibility, more financial security, and a nest egg to put against future liabilities, like, say, corporate acquisitions (for a company) or retirement (for an individual).
For many entrepreneurs, the impulse is to put free cash flow – from their company or even their personal finances – back into the business. That might make sense if their company is in growth mode, but for owners of mature businesses, doing that would only increase the risk to their income and wealth. A wiser path might be to direct free cash flow into assets unrelated to the business – for instance, real estate or other income-producing assets, or financial investments like stocks and bonds.
When developing a financial program, we start with a couple of key concepts. One is ensuring that the mix of assets matches your time frame (When do you need the money?) and objective (Are you investing for retirement? Wealth transfer? A major purchase?). The other consideration is risk management. Every investment has an inherent level of risk, but we’ve found that the biggest risk to a sound financial program is that most people don’t tolerate losses well, especially when it comes to stocks. When there’s a downturn in the market, people tend to abandon the long-term view and “get out” at precisely the wrong time – effectively throwing their long-term financial management plan out the window. To counter that impulse, we typically recommend a conservative approach that manages downside risk. The goal is to ensure you don’t lose wealth – and to make sure you are comfortable sticking to your long-term program.
After all, having a long-term plan – and sticking to it – is the key to financial success. For business owners in particular, the long-term view also applies to how and when they will exit their company. Many of the women I advise have been so busy growing their business that they haven’t really thought about an exit strategy. And that’s despite the fact that leaving their company will often be the biggest financial transaction they will ever undertake.
A sound exit strategy brings a number of advantages. One is effective tax planning. There are several ways to monetize your business – public equity investment or sale, leveraged recapitalization, private equity investment, or succession to management or family – and each has different tax implications. As well, having an exit plan gives you time to develop a realistic view of your company’s value and take steps to enhance it, if necessary. But most importantly, an exit strategy puts you in control of the financial future of your company and yourself.
One often-overlooked part of exit planning is communication, especially with managers or family members who might be impacted if you opt for succession. These can be difficult conversations: many of the women I advise are far more comfortable talking about building their business than about leaving it. So I typically recommend building a communication plan into their financial program – regular, structured conversations about the future of the business, your plans for exiting it, and managers’ or family members’ interest in and ability to take over the reins when the time comes.
If you’re a woman who’s busy building and running your business, you’ve got a lot on your plate, and developing a long-term personal financial management program might seem daunting. But it doesn’t have to be. A capable team of financial advisors can help decode the complexities and develop a plan that’s right for you. And the process begins and ends with a simple commitment: to put as much priority on securing your own financial future as you do on the success of your business.