As professional accountants grow older, their thoughts inevitably turn to their exit strategy – not only from the firm, but from practicing accounting altogether. As they consider their departure from business life, they may wonder if the firm they have built up will have value in someone else’s eyes.

A successful succession plan allows for the orderly exit of the practitioner. This means it is not left to chance, and there is a plan in place, giving a degree of comfort to those involved, particularly staff.

The challenges of succession planning

The number of issues currently facing the profession has been well documented, including:

In addition, a large percentage of accounting firms are one- to two-partner firms. While this is what the practitioners wanted, many sole practitioners will need to consider taking on partners as part of their succession plan. A majority of them will find this difficult, as they will likely have been on their own for many years. This may seem contrary to the whole philosophy of operating as a sole practitioner.

The sooner the succession plan is underway, the sooner these issues can be dealt with.

Developing your succession plan

One of the best ways to enhance the value practitioners realize on exit is to plan for it in a structured manner.

The first step in succession planning is to get the firm “succession-ready.” The best way to do this is to consider the questions a potential purchaser, or future partner will ask. You should then develop your firm in such a manner in order to give strong, positive answers to these questions. A purchaser will typically assess their purchase against specific criteria including:

Whichever succession option the firm chooses, it may need to improve its financial position to be a more attractive investment option for potential purchasers. The key areas above are typically those in which a firm can improve and which will have a positive impact on financial performance. It is important that these improvements have been implemented and are ingrained in the firm before putting the firm up for sale.

Selecting your succession option

The next step is to consider which succession option is most naturally attractive and which will maximize the final settlement amount. Three options to choose from are:

Each option is quite distinct and brings its own set of considerations, including planning, taxation, funding, and an exit plan.

Firm valuation

The valuation of the firm is an important step in the succession plan. The traditional methods include:

The most commonly used method is the capitalization of future maintainable earnings method, followed by the rule of thumb method. Where partnership agreements are in place, the agreement would normally nominate the valuation formula to be applied and identify certain key components, such as number of years’ earnings to be included and capitalization rate to be used.

It may take a number of years for the strategies to have an impact on the value of the firm, which highlights the need to start the succession process early.

This article has covered many of the areas you should consider when making your succession plan. As it is likely to be one of the most significant occasions in your practice life, it is of great importance that you plan for it very carefully. More information on how practitioners can develop and implement a succession plan can be found in the International Federation of Accountants’ Guide to Practice Management for Small- and Medium-Sized Practices.

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