The Power of Follow-Up
The journey to where I am now began some years ago during a breakfast meeting with a colleague at a hotel conveniently located between our respective offices. Twenty minutes into our regular cereal and toast encounter, I was discomforted by a bout of indigestion, drank copious amounts of water, excused myself, left the table and, with profuse apologies, advised my colleague that I felt distinctly unwell and would have to defer our conversation to another time.
You may have guessed by now that indigestion wasn’t the problem at all; I had been suffering a heart attack and found myself in hospital before sunset on that fateful day. Within 24 hours, I was struggling through the effects of heavy medication while in the intensive care ward.
In the pre-dawn hours, as the dulling sensation began to wane, I fuzzily started to assess what had happened and came to the realisation that my life was in crisis.
Here I was, a family man with a wife and two young adult sons and, at the same time, the proprietor of a business with 30 employees, forced to lie almost motionless and be at the mercy of whatever fate had in store. Although optimistic by nature, my assessment at that moment was fairly bleak:
• My chances of survival were unknown
• If it was “all over”, my family would have adequate insurance payouts but would my business carry on, and if so, how?
• My junior shareholders and I had taken out cross insurance but had not finalised the legal buy/sell share agreements
• Over the years, I had progressively given effect to a will and Power of Attorney but my wife had no idea where they were (and at that point, I wasn’t so sure myself).
Fortuitously, life was not at an end (I’d had a “lucky escape”) and within a few weeks (and a slew of precautionary advice from the wonderful medical practitioners), I was back at work. The business survived and a soon after the incident we sold it.
Lessons learned and questions asked
The experience provided instructive insights on a number of fronts, including: ensuring that, as a family, we had a basic action plan in case this ever happened again; that whatever life and disability insurance cover we had it had better suffice because it was highly unlikely I would qualify for more in the foreseeable future; and, as far as the business was concerned, we needed to create a valid succession plan as well as consider selling the enterprise within a reasonable time (and certainly avoid selling at a distressed price, which is what would certainly have happened if I hadn’t survived).
There were two specific items that were at the top of the “to do” list:
1. Institute a methodology to ensure that my family would know exactly where every important document was located, and, just as importantly, how they all came together so loved ones would have no need to worry about how to carry on.
2. Try to understand why our lawyers had not played a more positive role in our affairs. Was this a general turn of events or was it specific to us?
Solving the first, researching the second
While addressing what kind of management system to use to handle family information and documents, I learned that I was in virgin territory. Finding no suitable off-the-shelf solutions, the challenge was to create something that would be appropriate for our personal circumstances.
Former colleagues got to know what I was up to and asked if, once finished, I could make the solution available to their families. Almost all of them declared to be in the same boat. Further enquiry illustrated that, indeed, there were (and are) very many people in that boat.
After years of development, I worked with some highly talented people to bring to market a solution that reached far beyond the original concept and the service, Now Sorted, is now available online.
My research into the lawyer issue was quite challenging. Within a few weeks of leaving hospital, I interviewed our legal advisers (a mid-size city firm) and asked them why they had not engaged with us to follow through on a number of items including:
• Our Wills. As it turned out, they had not been updated for more than a decade and, at the time of my hospitalisation, were no longer as relevant as they should have been
• No deed of enduring guardianship was in place (in fact we didn’t even know what it was)
• They had suggested the buy/sell agreements between myself and the two minor shareholders – but, although we had given effect to the insurance policies, we hadn’t been contacted to sign the documents.
The answer? “Well, it’s not really our job to follow you up, you know”. We parted company.
Polite yet forceful
When the characteristics of a broad cross-section of legal practitioners are discussed, adjectives such as analytical, logical, literate, hard-working, and sceptical are voiced. These traits indisputably serve clients well.
My own experience (and that of many others in small business) is that, while our characteristics are the very opposite of the mainstream lawyer, we need the skill and wisdom of legal practitioners as much as they need our business.
Far from judging a legal practitioner as pushy or extrovert, we would welcome some benign intrusion into our affairs; we would welcome being called in for a chat and, as a result, having an action plan agreed so as to give effect to the advice being delivered.
Above all, we would be happy to pay for the advice and its implementation (because non-implemented advice is worthless).
So, please, for our sake and yours, engage with us. We need you.