Consider this common scenario.
You’ve entered into business with your spouse, friend, or relative. At the inception of your business, you agreed that both of you would serve as the directors or managers of the Company, and you would be equal partners, each allocated fifty percent (50%) of the shares or ownership interest in the Company. Your relationship with your partner is healthy; you trust them; you trust their judgment; you’re excited about your idea, about your business. And life is great until…….
….. You have your first real dispute. The one that does not solve itself nor does it resolve with a drink at the bar.
As the business develops, you’re faced with decisions about the future direction of the business, about major business activities. Eventually, there may be a decision on which you simply cannot agree. And because you have equal control of the Company, your conflicting views ultimately stalemate or deadlock the business until you come to some agreement or decision.
Unfortunately, more often than not, people in this common scenario do not properly plan for or consider the potential for corporate deadlock, and it can lead, not only to the deterioration of a personal relationship, but also a business relationship and a business.
HOW TO RESOLVE CORPORATE DEADLOCK
The best way to avoid corporate deadlock is to plan ahead. This should be a major consideration when you enter into a business relationship with anyone. Sit down with your partner and discuss setting up a procedure for what happens if a deadlock arises. It may not be an easy conversation to have – it may be difficult to imagine disagreeing with your partner. But sit down with your partner early and really consider the following things: (i) the nature of the business; (ii) your business plan; (iii) you and your partner’s individual ideas of the direction of the business; (iv) what problems that could arise in the business, financial or otherwise; (v) each person’s individual skill set. All these things can play a role in your deadlock discussion and the most appropriate procedure for resolving a potential deadlock. These frank conversations are even more important when one party is providing the money and the other is providing sweat equity.
We find a lot of times that people who enter into business with a family member or close friend don’t even have a Shareholders’ Agreement or an Operating Agreement. This might be for a variety of reasons – they didn’t plan for initial legal costs and fees; they feel that they will be able to run the business through oral agreements and understandings; or, they find it uncomfortable to discuss the issues found in corporate governance documents, like transfer upon death, disability, divorce, debt, dissolution, or simply the desire of one partner to monetize and be paid out etc.
We recommend to all our clients, regardless of relationship between partners, shareholders, or members (even husband and wife), that they have some form of Shareholders’ Agreement or Operating Agreement in place establishing the governance of the entity, the rights, duties and obligations of the parties, including, if necessary, provisions addressing potential deadlock scenarios in management or between members or shareholders.
There are a number of different ways that an entity can resolve deadlock, and, in fact, it may be beneficial to a Company to implement multiple or hybrid deadlock methods. These methods can easily be incorporated into a Company’s governance documentation. Here are a few ways to resolve deadlock:
- Create a third party advisory board – either with other Members or Shareholders of the Company, or even an outside third party knowledgeable in the business and/or decision subject to deadlock;
- Consider implementing automatic mediation or arbitration – this may not be feasible for all companies or for all deadlocked scenarios – it can be costly and time consuming – but it can be quite effective in preventing dissolution when there is a deadlock for a major decision;
- Consider splitting or designating certain decisions to each partner – for examples, this partner has the ultimate decision making authority on banking and property, and the other partner has the ultimate decision making on sales and marketing – this method requires the partners to determine strengths and weaknesses and delineate accordingly – this method is useful when doing some form of hybrid deadlock provision;
- Consider a buy-out provision – if the partners cannot agree, one partner can buy the other partner’s shares or membership interest – there are a number of ways to structure a buy-out provision;
- If nothing else works, provide for a definitive right to withdraw or force dissolution or liquidation without court intervention. In this instance, you may be left relying on the default solutions contained in the Florida Statutes [Sections 605 and 607] or the decision of a judge who is unfamiliar with your business.
Need help in putting in place a shareholders’ agreement or an operating agreement?
Need help revising your current agreement with some alternative deadlock provisions?
The Walk Law Firm is available to review your current Shareholders’ Agreement or Operating Agreement in order to help you determine if, in fact, it’s appropriate for you and your partner(s). Document review and drafting can be handled on a Flat Fee or Fixed Fee basis. To learn more, please contact us at the Walk Law Firm.