August 19, 2011

When it gets too hot for “co-preneurs”

When Heston Blumenthal recently left the family home he shared with his wife and three children, it wasn’t just the personal side of his life he had to consider.

On a number of occasions, he has publically stated he could not have created his business without his wife Zanna, who has supported him throughout his career.

Many ventures in the catering and hotel industry are family-run and a split in the husband and wife relationship – often referred to as “co-preneurs”- can severely damage the business if it is not resolved swiftly.

Blumenthal’s break up is the latest in a line of high-profile chefs including Rick Stein, Marco Pierre White and Tom Aikens who have all divorced their business partners.

When beset with this situation, the importance of reaching a financial solution can help prevent personal emotions from impacting negatively on a company and its staff.

With divorce acknowledged as one of life’s most stressful experiences, the additional challenge for small and medium-sized enterprises is to ensure the company’s direction focus and vision are sustained through this period.

Many couples also employ their children in the family business – increasing the importance of a smooth transition to safeguard their sons’ and daughters’ respective roles.

The most complex cases to resolve are where husband and wife teams own joint shareholdings as “co-preneurs” and are both seeking to retain their stake in the company.

Traditionally these disputes have been handled in a stressful court environment, over a long period of time, with timetables set to suit the hearings rather than the business.

One option – which aims to resolve matters amicably and more quickly without going to court – is collaborative family law (CFL).

The approach, which originated in the US, entails both parties and their lawyers working face-to-face on problems with additional professional advisers, such as accountants, on hand when necessary.

If matters relating to the business need to be resolved more speedily, there can be an intensive series of meetings over a short time, leading to early resolution, which minimises disruption to the company.

If more time is required to work through issues such as a major contract or the recruitment of key personnel, then collaboration enables the process to be slowed down.

Another clear advantage of embarking on this route is that both parties take personal responsibility to agree face-to-face solutions without having decisions forced on them.

While it can take an inordinate amount of time secure a decree absolute, collaboration is much speedier if both parties are willing to talk about decision relating to their business.

Its transparency and immediacy removes much of the hostility and trauma that can arise from misunderstandings when separating couples communicate through solicitors’ letters.

Openly discussing your fears and aspirations for the future of your business and whether you will run it together while living apart – in a calm and supportive atmosphere – is key to the outcome.

At Jones Myers LLP we advocate this route as infinitely preferable to the hostility and acrimony that all too often permeates traditional divorce proceedings. It is less likely to create animosity and the associated stresses and traumas of a dispute in court.

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