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Lessons from the pirates: Compensation and corporate benefits

Corporate benefits in family businesses

It is important to co-ordinate family members’ various expectations, spending habits, and preferences to ensure everyone is happy with their compensation.

Corporate benefits can create a lot of issues amongst family members (both active and non-active). Many benefits offered by family businesses to family members are taken for granted, whether it be a company car, paid lunch every day, or personal use of company resources. When these benefits are not properly managed, it creates the perfect opening for conflict and jealousy to arise.

This jealousy or resentment can also start to permeate the family members who are not active when the benefits seem to greatly surpass what would typically be provided in a business. Policies or rules relating to corporate benefits for family members must be detailed, as an open-ended benefit or unclear rule can cause as much animosity as no rule.

Family business example

I worked with a family business where two siblings, James and Michelle, both worked in management. The policy in this business was family members in management got a company car. However, the policy was not clear as to what that really meant. Michelle, being economical in all decisions, chose a midsized car, which in her mind met her needs. James, on the other hand, had a taste for sporty cars and chose a high-end sports vehicle he couldn’t wait to show his father.

Once Michelle started to see the costs associated with her brother’s choice (new accessories, winter tire storage fees, weekly car cleaning, and expensive repairs and maintenance), it started to frustrate her, as the cost for her car was a fraction of that. She could use that money to put her kids in private school, travel, or plan for retirement. Just because she didn’t feel the need to waste money on a car, that didn’t mean she didn’t want those funds for something else. This resentment permeated their meetings. Every time James recommended spending money on something, Michelle would get upset. She equated his personal fiscal management to his business fiscal management.

The point here is the benefit was intended to be equal, but due to the lack of clarity, its application was not. One may also wonder if it is fiscally responsible for a business to pay for excessive costs related to the kind of car James chose. James’s choice may have been very different had the policy for the car benefit been for a certain amount every year (say $7000), and anything above that had to be paid personally.

Family business rules: Corporate benefits

With a benefit block, family members can put their money in savings or toward a major purchase rather than, for instance, being mandated to buy a company car.

All family members have differing expectations, spending habits, and preferences. Therefore, many family businesses endorse the concept of a benefit block. This is an amount allocated to each family member in management. They can do whatever they want with it, whether that means placing it in their registered retirement savings plan (RRSP) or tax-free savings account (TFSA), using it to put their kids in school or to travel, or putting it toward a car.

This means instead of being mandated to get a car, Michelle would have been able to use her benefits on something important to her. It also means having a more satisfied management team, as they get to choose what they want to spend the benefit on and know the benefit is the same for everyone.

The benefit block amount needs to be predetermined and reviewed every three years or so. For instance, it could be for $10,000 per year, with whatever you don’t use by the end of the year either paid to you in full or carried forward to the next year. Family businesses can consider having a benefit block for family employees, managers, and owners, with the amount getting higher as the family member moves up the ranks.

The important lesson we get from the pirates is clarity. All pirates onboard knew what they would be compensated (one share for the majority of them), what they would receive for good performance, and what would be done if they were hurt on the job. Typically, all family members joining the family business have very different expectations with respect to all of these items. We need to get the whole family onboard with family business rules to remove conflict and be able to focus on the business—just like the pirates!

Anchors aweigh

Up next is Part 3: Exit strategies! I am not saying you’re going to maroon your family members on an island (although sometimes that’s an appealing thought), but that predetermining the terms and conditions of an exit from the business is key to success and informed decision-making.

Danielle Walsh is founder of Walsh Family Business Advisory Services, a consulting company specializing in helping family-owned and operated businesses navigate the rough waters of management and ownership succession. She is a certified public accountant (CPA), chartered accountant (CA), and holds certificates in family business advising and family wealth advising from the Family Firm Institute (FFI). Walsh is also president of the Ottawa chapter of the Family Enterprise Exchange. She developed her philosophy and desire to help family businesses from her father, Grant Walsh, who has worked as a family business practitioner for the last 25 years. Walsh also currently teaches the first family business course offered at the undergraduate level at Carleton University in Ottawa. She can be reached via e-mail at

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