Q: What do you do if you have a 50-50 business partnership with a friend, but after 10 years, it no longer works?
I don’t want to ruin this friendship, but the business is suffering tremendously. He still expects his 50 percent share. From experience I know that he is not going to improve. What would your view and solution be?
— P, Australia
A: This is a common and sensitive situation, so I frequently receive questions about it. Friends often set up businesses together, and their camaraderie and trust serve them well. However, as the business grows larger and more complicated, this bond can be strained, and yet the constraints of friendship may prevent the founders from taking decisive action.
Handled properly, there is no need for this situation to damage a business or friendship. When I confronted a similar situation in 1980, the recession in Britain was having a negative impact on Virgin Music. As sales dropped and the economic outlook worsened, our forecasts showed that the company was going to lose 1 million pounds that year. Tensions were high and my relationship with my best friend and partner Nik Powell was going downhill fast.
Nik was one of the co-founders of Virgin, and along with Simon Draper and myself, had been crucial to its early success. But as our financial situation forced us to make tough decisions, we found that we were increasingly at odds over strategy.
Nik wanted to consolidate the business, while Simon — who as managing director ran the label — wanted to expand our way out of our troubles and sign a couple of new acts. Two prospects interested him: Phil Collins and The Human League.
I had added to our difficulties by buying two nightclubs. I felt that the deals were just too good to turn down, even if they added to our already mounting debts.
Things quickly came to a head, since we were under pressure to raise cash and sell our assets. While Nik ran our record stores well and had produced the cash we needed to expand our music label, I realised that we were not going to get ourselves out of the hole just by increasing the profit margin on sales in our record stores. We needed to do something drastic. We needed to find another breakthrough act.
With the business stuttering and the management team at odds, I had to choose between the two approaches and decided to go with Simon’s.
It was a tough call, but it was the right one, even though it meant that we had to dissolve our partnership with Nik.
Once I had made the choice, we moved ahead quickly. I borrowed the money to buy out Nik and he took with him the businesses he loved — our film business, for one. When everything was settled, we held our “divorce party” at one of the new clubs.
Since then, I have done business with my friends in other situations, and looking back over 40 years, the lessons are clear. There is nothing wrong with doing business with your friends — in fact, I encourage it. It’s important to create an atmosphere where friends can work together and where friendships flourish. We all spend so much of our adult lives at work, so let’s enjoy it.
Do make sure you deal quickly with any problems, because unresolved differences have the potential to destroy both your business and your friendship.
In your situation, P, you need to confront the issue head-on. You should be honest with your partner about his shortcomings and their consequences, or else these problems will fester.
Employees who pick up on the tension may take sides; rivalries may develop. If this happens, your personal relationship — and also perhaps your business — could deteriorate beyond repair.
On the other hand, if the issue is dealt with quickly, honestly and openly, you will clarify for yourself and your employees where the business is headed and why. Once you have made the decision to dissolve your partnership, try to be generous in your convictions — buy him out if you can.
If you work out an amicable settlement and provide your partner with a dignified exit, you will then be able to work on your friendship and mend bridges in the years to come.
© 2018 Richard Branson (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)