The Thin Line Between Warm & Fuzzy and Hot & Messy

My partner and I have grown apart. He isn’t the same fantastic guy he was when I offered him a full partnership in 2007. He plays favorites with the employees, he comes and goes as he pleases. His arrogance is creating a toxic environment. If we don’t separate soon, it will kill our business. Can you help?

Archie (not his real name) asked me to meet him and his wife at their home to assure full confidence in the conversation. He is a rather prominent figure in the community, he didn’t want to have a personal business conversation in a place where he might be recognized. I had not met Archie before this meeting, so I didn’t have a good sense of how to read the situation. There are times when one partner complains about another partner, yet it’s the one doing the complaining who needs to look in the mirror. But after two hours with Archie and his wife, the real picture began to emerge. Archie was on the brink of losing his company if key employees defected given his partner’s behavior.

Buying out the difficult partner wasn’t going to work because the partner didn’t want to sell. He liked the income and prestige afforded from being a partner in this prominent company with Archie’s name on it. I asked Archie if he was willing to sell his share to the difficult partner, but Archie said the partner didn’t have any money given his extravagant lifestyle. “Hey, I know how much money we both make, and unless his wife has an inheritance I don’t know about, there’s no way he’s saved enough to buy me out.

Business owners usually call me when they are ready to sell to a third party, but even that isn’t an option in this case given the fractious gestalt within the company. Bottom line, Archie is in a mess; he can’t buy and he can’t sell, yet doing nothing will likely lead to the whole shebang coming unwound.

There is a detail I left out of this story which further complicates the situation. Archie is 69 years old and ready to retire. I asked him how the value of the business might impact his decision to retire. “Fortunately, my wife and I have led a reasonably modest lifestyle, so what happens to this business doesn’t really affect our retirement lifestyle. I can walk away now and be fine, I just don’t want my name still on the company.

This comment led me to understand the real problem. Archie is ready to walk away and indeed can walk away, but he wants to take his name off the company when he leaves. But since he owns the company 50/50 with his partner, he can’t leave and expect his partner to willingly give up use of the name for which they are so well known.

I don’t have a silver bullet solution for Archie, short of him walking out the door and praying the partner runs the company in a way that doesn’t sully Archie’s name around town. And though I am short on solutions for helping Archie out of this mess, I am long on recommendations for what not to do to avoid a mess like this in the future. First, avoid like the plague a 50/50 business relationship. Second, don’t use your name to brand your company. Life has a way of taking a business relationship that seems warm and fuzzy and making it hot and messy, making an eventual exit more complicated or maybe even impossible.


JIM CUMBEE is President of Tennessee Valley Group, Inc. a retainer-based business brokerage and transition mediation firm in Franklin, TN. Cumbee is an attorney and has an MBA from Harvard Business School. Jim is the author of Home Run, A Pro’s Guide to Selling a Business. https://www.amazon.com/Home-Pros-Guide-Selling-Business/dp/1599329239 . He has a wide range of corporate and entrepreneurial experiences that make him one of the most sought-after business transition advisors in the state of Tennessee. The principles above are true, but the story, names and fact patterns are changed to preserve the parties’ identities.

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Tennessee Valley Group

Jim Cumbee established Tennessee Valley Group to help business owners fulfill their dreams for life after business ownership. It’s a mission that his 30+ year career history had prepared him well for—in addition to being an attorney, transition mediator and business broker, Jim has been a buyer, seller, and entrepreneur. His broad range of experience gives him unique insight into how business buyers and sellers can achieve their goals.

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