Business partnerships are like marriages; sometimes they work great from the start and before you know it you are celebrating a 25 year anniversary with a big party with all of your clients and customers in attendance. And sometimes; not so much. For reasons unique to business relationships and the personalities involved, business partners sometimes find they can no longer function together, no longer share the same vision, and can no longer tolerate sharing the responsibilities or benefits of common ownership. We refer to the painful and expensive process of separation as “business divorce”.
As in any divorce, emotions run high. The natural instinct is to assess blame and recruit those close to the business to one “side” or the other. Such recruiting efforts implicate disclosure of sensitive, often damaging information with the idea that inflicting pain will induce a desired course of conduct. Rarely is such an ill-conceived plan rewarded with success.
The reality is that preservation of the business as an asset should be the primary concern. Often that means preserving the opportunity for the business venture to continue operations without interruption, modification or additional added pressures attendant to disharmony. Whether the business can be divided according to an acceptable plan among the shareholders, sold as a going concern, or liquidated in an orderly fashion, continued successful operations are essential to return on the shareholders’ investment.
Successful operations are a function of several factors. First and foremost, management, employees, contractors and staff must be confident in the direction of the entity. Public disclosure of disputes among ownership breeds workforce instability, discontent, mass departure and potential competition on the part of key employees with the capacity to do so.
Customer relationships must also be protected. Instability will most certainly cause a client to search for an alternative provider of the same product or service. A client will not risk their own business by not addressing the potential impacts of instability in yours.
The bank can become concerned as well. Lending relationships are complicated. Often businesses obtain term loans or lines of credit which must be “rested” (reduced to zero) from time to time. A borrower’s options upon maturity can be limited and, notwithstanding a long and happy banking relationship, the bank may not be required to extend credit on the same terms and conditions. The bank may even take the position, under certain circumstances and certain loan agreements that the bank is insecure as a result of dissention thus forcing very difficult financial decisions.
Finally, in all likelihood, public disclosure of internal disputes results in the parties becoming entrenched in their respective positions such that a future together is impossible. Even a sale under such circumstances is likely to net less than market as a buyer is quick to assert pressure on one shareholder or the other in an effort to negotiate the best deal.
Really no good can come of a public airing or an internal dispute. Just like a married couple should not publicize their grievances on Facebook, business owners should take care to keep their disputes in house while seeking resolution through any number of mechanisms – at least until it becomes apparent that such resolution is not possible. Even then, the minimum amount of information necessary to effectuate a course of conduct should be disclosed in the least applicable public way.
A corporation or limited liability company provides multiple advantages to business owners which is why business lawyers so frequently recommend their use. Among the most significant of these advantages is limited liability, a concept grounded in the fact that the entity has a separate legal existence from its owners and therefore its obligations are not those of its shareholders or members. Of course an owner may voluntarily agree to be responsible for such obligations as, for example, would be the case if he or she guarantees the entity’s bank borrowing. The shield of limited liability is not, however absolute. It can be breached rendering owners financially responsible for the entity’s obligations. In Pennsylvania, as in most states, there is a strong presumption against ignoring the distinction between the entity and its owners. However certain conduct by business owners will result in the court’s “piercing the veil” – ignoring the distinction between the corporation or limited liability company and its owners. Generally, courts will pierce the veil when those in control of the entity use that control, or use the entity’s assets, to further his, her or their own personal interests. While there is no single test to determine when the piercing of the veil is appropriate courts look to many factors.
1. Is the entity undercapitalized?
2. Did the owners fail to adhere to requisite formalities such as holding shareholder and directors meetings and keeping appropriate records?
3. Was the entity insolvent at the relevant time?
4. In the case of a corporation were dividends paid or were corporate funds siphoned into the pockets of the controlling shareholders?
5. Was there a functional board of directors and corporate officers managing the affairs of the entity?
6. Was there substantial intermingling of the financial affairs of the entity and its owner(s)? 7. Under the circumstances, was the entity form used to perpetrate a fraud? Generally, the court will pierce the corporate veil when a review of these factors shows that the form is a sham, constituting a facade for the operations of the dominant shareholder or member making the entity effectively the “alter ego” of the individual(s).
This post continues my series explaining the main elements of a contract, which are outlined on the attached infographic. My goal is to demystify some of these basic provisions to help business owners have a better general understanding of what they are signing.
Moving through the structure of a typical contract, next up is offer, acceptance, and consideration. Together, these clauses define what the offering party is promising to do (or refrain from doing) in exchange for the compensation the other party is willing to pay or provide. They basically comprise the tit for tat, or the meat of the obligations and privileges which are being offered. This is often referred to as a “meeting of the minds.” While this might seem obvious on its face, the devil may be in these details, so it is vital that you know and understand the specific nature of your obligations and be sure that they are sustainable, practical, and likely to result in a benefit to your bottom line or some other benefit to your business. So what can happen when parties fail to clearly memorialize their “meeting of the minds”? Here are a few scenarios that could result:
• The parties might become embroiled in a “battle of the forms”, particularly in the sale of goods context where a buyer submits a purchase order using their company’s form, and the seller responds using their own terms and conditions form containing different and/or additional terms.
• Parties can ask the court to apply certain legal theories to supplement the “four corners of the document” where the intent of the parties may not be clear from the contract itself. For example, even if there is no formal consideration, courts can apply the theory of promissory estoppel to enforce a party’s promise to do something if the other party relied on that promise to his or her detriment.
• Another equitable remedy allows the court to compel a party to make restitution if that party is enriched at the expense of the other party and the surrounding circumstances lead the court to conclude that it is unjust.
• Pennsylvania has a little-known statute called the Uniform Written Obligations Act, which allows the court to infer that consideration exists where the agreement includes language that clearly and expressly states that the parties intended to be legally bound by the agreement.
Stay tuned for Part 3 of this series, which will move to the next element on the infographic: Conditions.
As a business owner, after spending countless hours researching and visiting commercial space, and finally finding the right location, you are often presented with a lengthy commercial lease. Many will focus on the rent and term of the lease, but overlook the other details. It is important to have an attorney review any commercial lease, whether you are entering a new lease or renewing an existing lease. Far too often, the business owner only consults an attorney when a problem arises – and they are surprised to find out that the terms do not mean what they thought at the outset.
Key areas that the business owner should review with their attorney are:
• Common area maintenance costs and calculations
• Confessions of judgment
• Responsibility for repairs
• Insurance requirements
• Subletting and assignment
• Legal options in the case of a breach.
Often there is room for negotiation, but even if there is not, you can gain valuable knowledge by consulting with an attorney so that you have a full understanding of your rights and obligations, and can plan accordingly.
While consulting with an attorney may result in a modest increase to the amount of legal fees associated with the cost of starting up a business, it is important for small business owners to recognize the long term impact of signing a lease that has not been negotiated, or at least reviewed, by an attorney, and may save money in the long run.
People often ask, “What kind of lawyer are you?” After my stock (and feeble) comedic response of “a good one”, I often say I am a “commercial litigator”. I explain that our practice includes litigation of disputes which arise between businesses and business owners. Commercial litigation includes a wide range of potential issues ranging from business torts to breach of contract, both internal to a business entity, and between two or more separate entities. While there are a wide range of potential issues which must be considered, there are certain basic tenets which I always discuss with our clients before recommending litigation or taking on their representation.
First, do you have an agreement which might apply to the situation and, if so, what does that agreement say about your position? Agreements can come is various shapes and sizes, such as corporate by-laws, a formal shareholder agreement, a proposal combined with an acceptance or performance, or even a simple exchange of emails. Documentary evidence is key, as a litigator is challenged to explain why the written word should not be impactful.
Second, what is your goal? The kiss of death as to our representation is a client who says “it’s not about the money, it’s the principle”. When I was a young lawyer I had a mentor who gave sage advice when he communicated the firm’s policy that litigation was only appropriate when money was involved. He would politely say, “we don’t litigate over principle”. In many ways and in most situations that adage applies. However, in the corporate setting, sometimes the connection to money is not readily evident or direct such as with regard to disputes over corporate control or enforcing a covenant not to compete. In many situations, I caution stakeholders to take the long view and weigh the probable outcomes from a purely practical standpoint, taking care never to lose sight of their long range business goals.
Third, what is your capacity for litigation and business distraction? Litigation not only costs money in terms of attorney fees, accountant fees, experts and costs, but participation also requires commitment of a leader’s most valuable commodity; time. Business people are first and foremost concerned with business (daily operations, management and the bottom line). Litigation invariably requires substantial client involvement in developing strategy, reviewing pleadings, searching for documents, reviewing documents produced by other parties and preparation for testimony. I advise potential parties to litigation to think long and hard about the cost/benefit to the business of such an undertaking.
Fourth, what can you hope to recover or save; and what will it cost to do so? While a corollary to litigation about money, it is not the same question. The evaluation of potential cost is complex and issue dependent. In a recent case, settlement discussions in a commercial litigation setting were driven by the anticipated six figure cost to translate thousands of pages of information from Chinese characters to English. Costs of experts on any issue involving an opinion on issues ranging from the standard of care applicable to a corporate officer, to whether a machine functioned in the way represented, can rapidly accumulate. Unless there is a provision in an agreement which provides for the recovery of attorney fees or such recovery is otherwise permitted under law, those fees and costs are not recoverable.
The above is not to discourage litigation of bona fide disputes; of which we handle many. It is simply imperative that the lawyer and the client be on the same page as to expectations, risks and litigation management. These questions can assist in forming the framework of a solid attorney client relationship in a commercial litigation setting, which goes a long way toward developing realistic expectations, reducing the stress inherent in the process, and optimizing the chances of a successful outcome.
In my many years of practice as a commercial litigator dealing with conflicts between shareholders, it has become clear time and again that one of the best things business owners can do when in business with multiple shareholders or partners is to have a well-defined agreement which governs the operations of the business. Not only can that agreement memorialize the respective rights and obligations of the parties, it can also provide dispute resolution mechanisms which may serve the parties well in the event of material disagreement. Utilizing the powers granted by the Business Corporations Law and granted by the terms of an agreement governing business owners can be complex and risky but can often force an acceptable resolution when the status quo is no longer tenable.
In the case of a corporation, a shareholders agreement or by-laws will often identify the corporate office which holds supreme executive authority subject only to removal of that corporate officer by a vote of the directors. If the officer controls sufficient votes from the board, removal by a disgruntled shareholder may be impossible. The acts of the executive are subject to the business judgment rule and granted a certain amount of deference at law.
A majority shareholder who holds the top executive office is free to wield that power, consistent with the business judgment rule, in many ways - including business dealings with outside parties and, generally, with respect to employment decisions. If the disgruntled shareholder is an employee of the company, which is often the case in small business, that shareholder’s continued employment may be at the discretion of the majority. Termination of employment, if justified, is a use of corporate power which often impacts on the relative negotiating positions.
Of course, a majority shareholder who exercises corporate authority can be faced with claims that the minority has been “frozen” or “squeezed” out of the business. In such cases, it is important that the majority have “clean hands” and has avoided self-dealing, corporate waste or fraud as such allegations, if proven, could result in the appointment of a custodian or receiver and a loss of control. Certainly the majority cannot transfer the assets of the business to a new entity controlled solely by the majority. However, the existing entity can be managed in a way that maximizes benefit to the majority consistent with the exercise of business judgment. The existence of a dispute between shareholders does not in and of itself negate the discretion afforded by the business judgment rule.
AMM counsels clients through the minefield of corporate authority and with regard to available strategies to address disputes which arise between business owners.
This post continues my series aimed at explaining the main elements of a contract. These elements are outlined on the attached infographic. My goal is to define the key elements of a contract and to offer some tips and cautions to avoid costly mistakes as you approach these essential documents in your day-to-day business operations.
First up: the preamble and recital sections. The preamble of a contract is the introductory paragraph that identifies the parties to the agreement. It is typically followed by paragraphs known as recitals (also called the background section). Sometimes, these recital paragraphs are labeled “Whereas”. Taken together, the preamble and the recitals tell the who, what, when, and why of the transaction. In other words, they should tell the reader who the parties to the agreement are, the date of the agreement, and what the parties hope to accomplish by entering into the agreement.
As with stories told in other settings, inaccuracies and ambiguities in the preamble and recitals of a contract can cause problems down the road. One of the underlying purposes of a contract is to set forth the agreement of the parties so that their expectations can be enforced by a court or other tribunal. An accurate and detailed introduction to the contract can educate the person who is charged with resolving the dispute as to who the parties are, why they entered into the contract, and what their expectations were at the time the agreement was entered into.
One of the most common mistakes in these preliminary sections of a contract is to incorrectly name the owner of the business as a party, rather than using the entity name. This mistake results in the owner being personally obligated as a party to the contract, which is clearly not the result an owner expects after taking the trouble to incorporate.
While it may be tempting to gloss over these preliminaries without questioning their accuracy, I highly recommend taking the time to carefully review this section in every contract to be sure the story it tells is true and complete. It could prevent costly conflicts later.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series, which will move to the next element on the infographic: offer, acceptance, and consideration.
It is not unusual for business owners such as manufacturers and their suppliers and consultants to enter into joint ownership in the pursuit of mutual business goals. Those pursuing this strategy should consider that such entanglements can lead to costly future litigation should circumstances change and interests of the parties diverge. In a recent case, a dispute arose between owners of a custom manufacturing limited liability company in which AMM’s client (and a supplier to that same LLC) possessed 33 1/3% of the issued and outstanding ownership interests. The firm’s client also owned 100% of the stock in a separate business entity which supplied materials to the jointly owned custom manufacturer.
When the owners had a falling out, an issue arose with regard to the payment of outstanding invoices generated by the supplier for materials provided to the jointly owned custom manufacturer. When a resolution could not be reached, AMM, on behalf of the supplier, commenced litigation. During the litigation, the majority member of the jointly held custom manufacturer transferred all of the inventory and other assets to a newly formed entity, owned entirely by him, without the payment of consideration, that is to say, without compensating the supplier entity. The transfer of assets left the jointly held entity with insufficient assets to meet its’ liabilities; including the liabilities to the supplier. As a matter of strategy, the controlling member of the jointly owned entity allowed default judgment in favor of the supplier and against the jointly held custom manufacturer. The newly created entity went about doing business utilizing the inventory transferred without regard to the liability to the supplier.
The transfers gave rise to new and additional claims under the recently adopted Uniform Fraudulent Conveyances Act and claims of breach of fiduciary duty; all of which had to be litigated while the newly formed company operated a separate business. Clearly, a small business owner can no longer simply set up shop as a new entity when things go bad and debt accumulates. However, the complexity of ownership structure and relationship between the various entities made judicial intervention very difficult. In the end, the newly formed entity was forced to file a general assignment for the benefit of creditors; the majority owner lost his interest in all of the respective entities and eventually filed for personal bankruptcy.
The above is just one of many “war stories” encountered in attempting to unwind jointly owned business enterprises. Business owners and potential investors should think very carefully before engaging in shared ownership. What may seem like a mutually beneficial relationship at the outset can be costly and challenging to undo if things go bad in the future.
The take away for business owners and potential investors is to think very carefully before engaging in shared ownership. What may seem like a mutually beneficial relationship at the outset can be costly and challenging to undo if things go bad in the future.
As a business owner, you are routinely asked to “sign on the dotted line.” The document could be a purchase order, an equipment lease, or a bill of sale. Often, these documents are in fact contracts that impose obligations on the parties, even if they don’t say “Contract” or “Agreement” at the top of page one. I can’t overstate the importance of knowing what you are signing – i.e., being able to recognize a contract when you see one, as well as understanding the components of a contract and how they impact your business. I often say “think before you sign; review before you renew.”
Over the years, I have worked with many business owners who discover a little too late that they have signed a document that does not align with their intentions and may have costly consequences. For this reason, and under the theory that knowledge is power, I have put together the attached infographic to try to demystify and define the essential elements of a contract. In the coming weeks, I will be writing a series of informational blogs on each of the identified sections of this schematic to offer guidance for business owners as they approach the documents which are so essential to the health and profitability of their enterprise.
There are many reasons why businesses sell. Certainly, the lifecycle of a successful business is often longer than the founder or controlling shareholder’s desire to continue working. In such circumstances, a business owner may wish to extract the reward for years of sweat equity by transitioning to a new ownership group. In other situations, a strategic combination is necessary to fuel continued growth in scope of services or customer reach. Sometimes, an entrepreneur must simply choose between a number of different projects such that divestiture of one opportunity becomes necessary.
Whatever the reason, preparing the business for the sale process can both enhance the value of the transaction and make for a smooth transition. A sophisticated buyer is loath to take on uncertainties, non-ordinary course liabilities or business practices which may give rise to same. A potential seller is wise to get their “house” in order before going to market or even considering discussions with a potential buyer.
Financial information is a primary focus of due diligence. Many businesses do not commission audited financial statements on an annual basis. For many more, the annual tax return stands alone as an indication of the value of the business. However, tax returns prepared without an eye on sale often reflect information designed to reflect a reduced tax liability as opposed to demonstrating the value of a going concern. A business owner is wise to consider the assistance of a qualified accounting firm to prepare corporate financial information in a light more suitable for transactional purposes. The actual filing of all applicable returns is a must.
Human Relations & Employment Practices and Policies
Human relations matters are a potential land mine. An employee handbook summarizing policies and procedures is essential. If benefits plans are in place, compliance with all applicable laws will be required if a deal is to be consummated. A current employee census and proof of citizenship or immigration status will be required. Key employees should be subject to employment agreements with assignable restrictive covenants. An acquiror will desire protection against an exodus of management.
Customers and Business Partnerships
Customer relationships and key business agreements should be locked down. An analysis of such agreements in advance with special attention to assignability or change in control provisions is necessary due diligence in any sale. Disclosure to a client or customer may make for a difficult discussion, however, a buyer will want to ensure the continuation of the business relationships prior to commitment. Indemnification obligations and intellectual property rights are certain to be addressed to the extent integral to any customer relationships.
A well-constructed house sells more readily and for greater value than a leaky one on an unstable foundation. Further, a buyer will often require representations and warranties as to the material issues summarized above such that, even after closing, a deficiency can be costly to a seller who thought the transaction was over and the profits safely secured. monetarily impactful. A seller is wise to identify and address deficiencies in advance of sale discussions both to maximize value and make for a smooth, efficient and cost effective transaction.