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For business founders, diversifying outside their firms is bitter medicine

Yet spreading wealth among other investments can protect them and their families in the long run

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Diversifying investments to manage risk can be a tough sell for entrepreneurs who have devoted all their focus – and wealth – to building a business.

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After years of plowing capital back into the enterprise, owners may be uncomfortable with taking money out and spreading it around.

“The two key hurdles are, ‘I know my sector better than any other industry’ and ‘it may not be tax efficient to diversify,’” says Ken Grewal, co-founder and chief executive officer of the Toronto-based multi-family office Forthlane Partners.

For some business owners the issue can also be overconfidence bias, adds Grewal. “In the real estate sector we’ve had a lot of families make a lot of money. You’ve had a 25-year bull market and you think you can never lose money,” he says.

For owners with a business still in its growth phase, reinvestment and the control that affords is attractive.

“If it’s a business that’s successful and still growing, there’s a possibility to increase your wealth at a much faster rate than you can with a portfolio,” says Toronto-based Ed Giacomelli, market leader for Canada with the Chicago-based Family Office Exchange, or FOX.

Financial advisors have to consider timing when suggesting a new strategy. “Is the founder still in that wealth-creation phase? If you pose the question at the wrong time you’re going to get the answer ‘Of course I’m not going to diversify,’” says Giacomelli.

But at some point diversification becomes a defensible long-term plan to preserve wealth for founders and their families.

Consider there will be troughs

Businesses can face tough times, says Bernadette Churchill, client portfolio manager at CWB McLean & Partners, an affiliate of CWB Wealth Management Ltd. in Calgary. She also has experience working in a single family office.

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Alberta’s oil and gas business, for instance, has experienced tough times in recent years. Anyone seeking to build wealth should know that business cycles include troughs, she says

Other factors that can affect business are new technologies, changing consumer preferences and industrial obsolescence, she adds.

COVID-19 accelerated the digitization and resulting technological disruption of every sector, says Grewal. “If you’re a family and you’re not diversifying based on heightened digitization, that is not wise. So much can change.

“You become Kodak or Blockbuster much faster than you used to.”

Should you borrow money to do it?

Grewal adds that record low interest rates, which have buoyed the fortunes of real estate and stocks for 30 years, have no room to go lower. “Every asset class has benefited from lower interest rates. … If they go up, you’re all going to have capital losses. Earnings aren’t going to go up fast enough to offset the multiple compressions.”

In addition, COVID has affected second- and third-generation family members living off distribution payments from the family business.

“Say your family owned a consumer business and you literally just got a check every year. If the government shuts your business down, you don’t get a check. So for the very first time they’re interested and saying, ‘What’s the operating company doing? Are we diversified?’”

For families ready to take the big leap into full diversification, Grewal says step one is to borrow a bit of money if there isn’t much debt in the core business.

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“We’ll start investing some in private equity, some in hedge funds, some in infrastructure. Start diversifying into the different asset classes. You don’t need to do it overnight. … You can execute it over a six- to 24-month period.”

Families can learn more about diversification by studying how Canadian pension plans do it, he says.

Aim for a fresh perspective

In any case, family advisors and the core business managers must come together to strategize if the family plans to withdraw capital from the business in order to diversify.

“I’m an advocate of doing a strategic options review every few years,” says Giacomelli. “What is the business worth? Can you recapitalize the business? Can you bring a partner into the business?

“In the capital markets in Canada today there are many options,” he says.

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Churchill says businesses can create leverage by bringing in a private equity investor. Doing so reduces some of the founder’s control, but it may benefit the business by bringing in a fresh perspective and expertise, she says.

Churchill also counsels clients to adopt a fresh perspective in terms of where they should invest their capital. “Take people in oil and gas, for example. They are prone to invest in what they know, and [they] buy more oil and gas. That’s totally not what they want to do.”

They should be looking at other geographies, other assets and investments that are counter-cyclical, she says.

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Advisors should ask the right questions

Giacomelli says family office advisors have relationships with their clients that allow for some exploration of their interests.

Some entrepreneurs may already be venturing into investments with their friends or business networks without a long-term strategy. “I often find they’re doing some of these things already, but unless you engage them in a conversations about it you’ll never know it,” says Giacomelli.

“It’s important to find opportunities that fit their appetite. It may take a few till you find the right fit. That’s the beauty of a trusted relationship between investor and advisor: You can build a strategy around what those alternative interests might be.”

Grewal recommends that families consider investing outside their usual Canadian preferences for real estate and banks.

“The average Canadian family has very little growth equity exposure on a relative basis versus their global peers,” says Grewal.

It’s a good time for investment in Canadian growth companies, he advises, which are inexpensive relative to their U.S. peers.

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