The Secrets of Our Succession

Passing the Torch to the Next Generation

Ian Ardill, BA, MTS
John Ardill

When a family business gets passed down from one generation to the next, it can be disastrous. For family members’ relationships with each other, and then for their relationships with clients.

That didn’t happen here at Ardill Group, a family business focused on financial advisory, tax and risk mitigation, and accessing public and private equities through our exceptional ecosystem of experts.  In contrast, we regard our succession as hugely successful.  We started the process in 2016, and it’s now in its closing stages.  John, founder of Ardill Group and father to Ian, is happy in retirement and in a mentor role, while Ian is happy running the business – and our clients are happy with the entire arrangement.

How did we do it? What advice would we give to business owners who want a really successful succession?  We’ve given it a lot of thought – and we think it comes down to these Six Secrets of Succession.

Secret of Succession #1:  Pick the Right Person

This is clearly the job of the person planning to pass along the business. This is not the time to pick your favourite child, sibling or cousin.  What kind of leader, exactly, are you looking for? Does the person you’re considering truly have the right stuff?  Conduct personality profiling to find out.  

And make sure your prospective successor succeeds somewhere else before joining the family business. Ian, for example, was already having great success as a pastor. John already knew Ian was a rainmaker: it was a role that required Ian to have ideas and take them to fruition with efficiency, growing the church and ensuring its financial success along the way.  He was a natural.

In a good, healthy marriage, you need two parties who really want it to work, or it won’t.  It is the same thing in business succession: both the person leaving and the person coming in need to really want this.

Having trouble choosing just one successor?  Whatever you do, don’t give the job to two people and have them share power.  It’s a recipe for disaster.  

Also, make sure you really, truly respect your successor.  It also helps if you believe they are more talented than you are, and that they have a natural ability for the gig.  If you aren’t convinced on either of these scores, you’re going to have trouble letting go.  

Secret of Succession #2:  Give Up

Which raises another issue:  control. Are you really ready to give up the business? Not all at once, of course, but in a structured, pre-planned way, over time?  If you’re not completely committed to letting go, you’re going to create pain for everyone.

Secret of Succession #3:  Know That Family Businesses Are Not Always Logical

We know of a family business owner who saw the purpose of his business as employing all of his family members.  

That sounds nice, but it also sounds more like government than having to do with the competent operation of a profitable, sustainable business. It is the kind of thinking that uniquely affects family businesses, which get themselves into other unproductive situations, including hiring and promoting lesser qualified family members over more qualified outsiders and giving family too much room to make mistakes.

The inside of a family business is a different world. They have many advantages over other companies.  Just be aware that there are many landmines to watch for.

Secret of Succession #4:  Make Expectations Very Clear and Put Them In Writing

You should make it this simple: the successor is on trial.  We did that for a year.  John did not even start giving up his industry licences and transitioning the business to Ian until a full 12months into the succession process.  The up-and-coming leader needs to know that this might work out, and it might not.  That they might be staying, and they might be leaving.  

The essential element is a clear set of expectations that you both agree upon in advance, so the decision to fish or cut bait is as straightforward as it can possibly be.

Here’s what we did:  we decided on the model of succession we were undertaking.  What will it be for you:  vendor takeback?  Wasting freeze?  There are many different models to choose from.

Then we wrote out our financial obligations to each other.  And we designed a process to measure profit sharing.  And we talked about accounting checks and balances.

And so important, we built flexibility into our agreement and discussions.  At one point, for example, Ian realized he was not so jazzed about some aspects of the agreement.  So, we talked about it, made some adjustments, and came up with a very reasonable compromise.

Secret of Succession #5:  Give Robust Feedback

What you need is a contractual agreement and framework that facilitates brutal – but loving – honesty between you.

As Ian puts it, “There has been a pattern of robust feedback. From day one, I have always felt respected, and that my opinion is valued by my dad.  And I think that is mutual.  

“We had a system of doing a pre-meeting, then the actual client meeting, and then follow-up meetings where we talked about how we could be better.  This led to some very difficult conversations between father and son, but always in a respectful way.  That kind of ‘iron sharpens iron’ experience is not always great fun, but the successor needs it.

“For the first two years, we did almost every client meeting together. Dad led almost every one of them in the first year, and I listened and added my two cents. In the second year, I led every meeting and my dad gave me feedback.

“And it was robust. It was not all warm and fuzzy. At times, it was ‘Why the heck did you do that?’ We had this one meeting at a car dealership.  It was the worst we ever had.  We argued right in front of the client, right in the meeting.”

But says John: “It was probably the best meeting we ever had in terms of what we learned.”

Secret of Succession #6:  Plan, Plan, Plan

In far too many family businesses, this stuff is done seat of the pants.  That’s why there are far too many disasters. So make sure of this: that you are starting the process early enough so you can roll out all the groundwork.

There is actually a seventh secret, and here it is:  call us if you need help.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Olympia Trust Company, Olympia Financial Group Inc., or any of its affiliates. The author’s views and opinions are based upon information they consider reliable, but neither Olympia Trust Company, Olympia Financial Group Inc. nor any of its affiliates, warrant its completeness or accuracy, and it should not be relied upon as such.

Ian Ardill, BA, MTS
CEO, Ardill Group

For Ian, every day starts the same way – with him asking, “How do I create the greatest amount of value and respect for the people I am working with?” Ian is the second-generation CEO of Ardill Group, a family business focused on financial advisory, tax and risk mitigation, and accessing public and private equities. As Ian puts it, “Our reason for being is to walk with our clients through their financial lives. Now it’s my job to continue that journey.” Ian can be reached at (905) 717-5698.

John Ardill
Founder and Mentor, Ardill Group

After more than 40 years managing the investments of his clients, company founder John Ardill recently transitioned the business to his son Ian, and moved to a mentorship role. John and Ian have much in common, but according to clients, one thing stands out: the tremendous trust those clients have in them. It is a recognition that did not materialize by chance. As John puts it, “We believe that earning – and keeping – our clients’ trust is the ultimate accomplishment.” John can be reached at (416) 400-5882.