Death in a Business

Death in a business
20 Apr 2017

What happens when a small business owner dies? We don’t want to think about it, but it happens more often than we care to know.

I was wondering why one of my favourite long-term clients had not paid their monthly invoice. Sometimes they were a few days late when things got busy for them, but this was out of the ordinary.

And then I opened the email from their accounts team.

“I am sorry to inform you that Terry* died suddenly last week. We are trying to make sense of where everything was at but a lot of it was in his head. At this stage, we have been advised by our solicitor to carry on with business, but where we go from there will depend on legalities.”

I sat there staring at the screen … stunned. I was willing the words to be different.

After having a deep ugly cry over the loss of a good man, my heart felt for his team.

I gave them a call, and their shock and numbness was raw. They were floundering and confused, and didn’t know where to start, let alone who to tell.

The Small Business Problem

Many of us in small business cover our assets through creating a will, and setting up an enduring power of attorney (if you don’t get onto your local Public Trustee or solicitor pronto!)

We may also have Key Person Insurance that covers our loss, but many of us don’t go the next step and think about what would actually happen to our business and our team if the worst happened to us.

We ARE our business. For many of us, there is only us, or perhaps one or two staff. We have no-one who knows and loves the business like we do.

There is no record of Mrs Jones who comes in every third Tuesday like clockwork, so we never put her in the diary. There is no listing of the tiny local business who supplies those widgets at a super discounted mates rate because we have been going there for years. There is nothing written on the tattered and fading receipts in the glovebox of the car, simply because we know what they were for, and hadn’t got around to entering then into the system.

We carry around supplier arrangements and client records in our heads, or in cryptic jotted half notes in files. We have our passwords hidden away where only we can find them. Our financial records are the only record of our regular bills, and our diary only reflects what is, and not what we know from years of relationships will come.

Yes. The business may fold if we die, but how can we make it easier on our team and our family during what will be a difficult time for them?

Business Continuity Planning

I did what I always do when life throws stuff left curve things at me. I had a chat with my kids and then hit Google to see what I could do differently.

A few careers ago, I used to take larger businesses through large scale business continuity planning exercises, where entire teams would take weeks thinking through possible disasters (man-made and natural) and then work out what they would do if the worst happened. Most of these plans are big, terrifying and totally unworkable in a small business.

Small business needs something a lot simpler that preferably can be drawn up over a coffee or two.

This free business continuity template from the QLD Government is the simplest that I have been able to find. It is broad in that it covers everything from natural disasters through to accidents and injuries, but covers most of the bases.

Do it. Grab a coffee and fill it in.

Planning is something that we all tend to want to avoid, but if we do it we will spare a small bit of the pain and uncertainty for our team members, family and friends who pick up the pieces after us.

As for Terry’s business, it is still too early and too raw to know if it will keep trading or if it will close.  He was a larger than life personality and went way too soon. I was grateful for knowing and working with him and his team over the years. He will be missed.


* I have changed his name simply because his family and team members are still notifying people, and I don’t want to negatively impact on his legacy in any way.

About the Author

Ingrid Moyle

Ingrid Moyle (BA - Psych/Industrial Relations) is the Chief Web Wizard at Heart Harmony Communications. A self-confessed multipotentialite, Ingrid shamelessly blends her passions of human resources, psychology, web design and copywriting. When not hardwired to her computer, she quests for the perfect coffee while chasing virtual reality creatures across the backstreets of Brisbane.
Bowler hat with lightbulb.

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