Enhancing Business Responsibility of India Inc. Through ESG Disclosures

The global community is negotiating ways to manage climate change and mitigate its impact while ensuring that there is no adverse effect on employment, food security or the living standards of the masses. Addressing climate change is one of the most urgent tasks, particularly for a developing India, which is already bearing the harsh consequences like water shortages, extreme weather events such as floods, coastal erosion, droughts, rising temperatures, anarchical expansion of unregulated industrial growth and other climate affecting events.

On top of it, what is rarely spoken about is another silent killer – fast expansion of concretization, which by itself is a by-product of uncontrolled urbanisation due to the lackadaisical approach of civic agencies. India is decades away from its peak in terms of economic growth and energy consumption, but India’s energy demand is estimated to grow faster than any other country over the next few years. India, a developing country of more than 1.3 billion people, is the world’s third-largest emitter of carbon dioxide after the US and China.

In this background, speaking at the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, more commonly referred to as COP26, held in Glasgow in October – November 2021, our hon’ble Prime Minister, Sri. Narendra Modi made five key pledges for how India would decarbonise over the next few decades. He had pledged that India would reach net zero-emissions by 2070.  

 

Broadly, ESG stands for Environmental, Social, and Governance and refers to the three key factors when measuring the sustainability and ethical impact of an investment in any business or industry. The term “environmental” includes carbon emissions, air and water pollution, deforestation, green energy initiatives, waste management, and water usage. The term “social” includes employee gender and diversity, customer satisfaction, corporate sexual harassment policies, human rights at home and abroad, fair labour practices, etc. The term “’governance” includes data protection, privacy, security, transparency, business ethics/values, anti-corruption and anti-bribery policies.

The Financial Times Lexicon defines ESG as “a generic term used in capital markets and used by investors to evaluate corporate behaviour and to determine the future financial performance of companies.” Broadly, the term ESG refers to the examination of a company’s environmental, social, and governance practices, their impacts on the company’s performance, ability to execute its business strategy, create long-term value, and the company’s progress against benchmarks.  

In response to this need, there has been a greater emphasis among investors and stakeholders on businesses that are responsible and sustainable in terms of the environment and society. As such, reporting on a company’s performance on sustainability-related factors has become as vital as reporting on its financial and operational performance. Modern business organisations are now being motivated by more than just profit-oriented strategies and revenue-generating objectives. Sustainability has become an integral aspect of corporate branding and shareholder expectations. ESG, used interchangeably with sustainability based on quantitative or semi-quantitative data, is about pursuing responsible and ethical business practices with attention to social and environmental equity along with economic development. The term “sustainability” is broadly used to indicate programs, initiatives and actions aimed at the preservation of a particular resource. However, it also refers to four distinct areas: human, social, economic and environmental – known as the “four pillars of sustainability”.

The policies adopted by Indian regulators over the past years also indicate that India has made an aggressive move towards decarbonisation to adopt sustainable ways of doing business. India is one of the first countries to demand ‘ethical’ commitments from corporations and industries. In 2013, Corporate Social Responsibility was mandated in India within the Companies Act of 2013, as was suggested in the National Voluntary Guidelines (NVGs) on Social, Environmental and Economic Responsibilities of Business in 2011. The Companies Act, 2013 introduced one of the first ESG disclosure requirements for companies. Section 134(m) mandates companies to include a report by their Board of Directors on conservation of energy with their financial statements and is further detailed under Rule 8(3)(A) of the Companies (Accounts) Rules, 2014, which mandates the board to provide information regarding conservation of energy.

 

SEBI’s Role in Mandating ESG Disclosures

 

There may not yet be any single, comprehensive and stringent enactment governing the entire subject with all checks and balances, but SEBI (Securities and Exchange Board of India) has taken on the role of implementing an efficient ESG policy. As far back in November 2015, SEBI issued a circular prescribing the format for the Business Responsibility Report (BRR) with respect to reporting on ESG parameters by listed entities. The top 500 listed companies in India were instructed by SEBI to disclose indicators of business responsibility and sustainability through Business Responsibility Reporting (BRR). Companies were mandated to include disclosures on opportunities, threats, risks, and concerns as part of their annual reports under Regulation 34(3) of the SEBI (Listing Obligation and Disclosure Requirements) Regulation, 2015 (LODR Regulations).

In 2017, SEBI issued a circular on ‘Disclosure Requirements for Issuance and Listing of Green Debt Securities’ (also known as Green Bonds) to introduce the regulatory framework for the issuance of green debt securities in India and enhance investor confidence. It supplements the SEBI (Issue and Listing of Debt Securities) Regulation, 2008 and envisages a list of disclosures that an issuer must make in its offer document before and after commencement of a project financed by green debt. These additional disclosure requirements have been prescribed to attract the finance reserved for ESG-compliant projects, such as renewable energy and sustainable energy, clean transportation, sustainable water management, climate change adaptation, energy efficiency, sustainable water management, sustainable land use and biodiversity conversion. 

To further strengthen the ESG disclosure regime in India, SEBI amended Regulation 34(2)(f) of the LODR Regulations and on May 10, 2021, SEBI issued another circular detailing new sustainability-related reporting requirements on ESG parameters called the Business Responsibility and Sustainability Report (BRSR) to replace the existing BRR and place India’s sustainability reporting on par with the global reporting standards. The BRSR is intended to have quantitative and standardized disclosures on ESG parameters. Such disclosures will be helpful for investors to make better investment decisions and also enable companies to engage more meaningfully with their stakeholders by encouraging them to look beyond financials and towards social and environmental impacts.

The filing of BRSR after the implementation of new norms has been stipulated as mandatory for the top 1000 listed companies (by market capitalization) for the financial year 2022-23 but voluntary for the financial year 2021-22, to provide the companies with sufficient time to get used to new reporting compliance/regulations. The BRSR seeks continuous disclosures from listed entities on their performance and is aligned with the nine principles of the ‘National Guidelines for Responsible Business Conduct’ (NGBRCs). Adoption of BRSR is yet to pick up pace because of the detailed nature of disclosures required in BRSR. To speed up the process, in a Press Release on May 6, 2022, SEBI constituted an advisory committee on ESG matters in the securities market to create faster momentum.

In respect of non-listed companies however, there is currently no law that mandates that such companies be subject to mandatory ESG disclosure or reporting requirements. However, it can be expected that once the scheme is fully implemented where it is comparatively easier to regulate, it will certainly cover other companies as well as industries in unorganised sectors.

ESG disclosures are highly significant and relevant for all prospective stakeholders involved in business for reasons briefly described as follows.

  • Investors – If a business is not conscious of sustainability, there are chances of it becoming redundant in the future due to legal and regulatory changes prohibiting certain ways of doing business or decreasing demand for business products or deteriorating services. This aspect would certainly motivate the investor’s focus while investing.
  • Businesses – ESG disclosures identify potential transition risks, assess future viability, and take the necessary steps to adapt to likely future changes. Companies that are not aware run the risk of losing profit-making capacity as well as market reputation.
  • Consumers – ESG disclosures also help conscious consumers identify responsible businesses that not only concentrate on profit maximisation but also growth in a responsible manner. Accordingly, the disclosures become part of a marketing strategy to attract more consumers.

ESG goals are a set of standards for a company’s operations that force companies to follow better governance, ethical practices, environment-friendly measures, and social responsibility. They are used by socially conscious investors to screen potential investments. Environmental criteria consider, for example, how a company performs as a steward of nature, safeguards the environment, including corporate policies addressing climate change. Companies with better ESG performance have a better track record on issues such as human rights, climate change, environmental sustainability, social responsibility, ethics, and transparency, and hence are more resilient against future risks. It has become absolutely essential for companies to have comprehensive ESG policies in place.

In conclusion, to quote our Hon’ble Prime Minister, “The decisions taken in Glasgow will safeguard the future of generations to come and give them a safe and prosperous life.”  

The policies adopted by Indian regulators over the past years also indicate that India has made an aggressive move towards decarbonisation to adopt sustainable ways of doing business. India is one of the first countries to demand ‘ethical’ commitments from corporations and industries. 

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Reasons For Failure Of Mergers & Acquisitions Deal

Mergers and Acquisitions are vital tools of business strategy to facilitate organizational and economic growth of a business. The terms are often used inter-changeably, however both offer different legal implications. Mergers mean the unification of two players into a single entity, while acquisitions are situations where one player buys out the other to combine the bought entity with itself[1]. Mergers can take place in the form of a purchase in which one business buys another, or they can be a management buyout, in which the business is bought by the management from the owner.

With reference to the legal process of initiating an M&A strategy, the businesses are required to undergo a long drawn and tedious process of sanctioning the initiation of the M&A process by the High Court. At different stages various provisions of the Companies Act, 2013 have to be complied with. Further, the involvement of the central government through the appointment of an Official Liquidator (OL) or the Regional Director of the Ministry of Company Affairs also has to be dealt with. All of the compliances should be carried out to the satisfaction of the Court, resulting in unavoidable delays that may sometimes render the M&A irrelevant or detrimental to the business by the time it is concluded.

However, the serpentine legal process is not the only factor that contributes to an unfavorable M&A. This article aims to analyze the various reasons that add to the failure of M&A deals and enable businesses to mitigate the related risks in the future.

Analysis and Reasons for Failed M&A Deals

Mergers and acquisitions gained significant popularity after 2015. Nearly 3,600 deals worth more than $310 billion were associated with mergers and acquisitions. [2] They are lengthy and complex processes, so a lot can go wrong when negotiating a deal. As per a recent article by Harvard business review, nearly 70% to 90% of the mergers and acquisition deals were deemed to be a failure.[3]

Regulatory issues

Adhering to the legal mandates of the relevant jurisdiction is necessary. There is a chance that the shareholders of an organization may cause legal difficulties by dissenting from the approval of the mergers or by disagreeing with the business’s decision to merge. This would significantly slow down the functioning of the company, forcing it to pay appraisals to the shareholders as a remedy.

Example: HDFC and Max Life Merger Deal:

HDFC Life and Max Life had announced their merger plans in August 2016 through a three-step merger process, under which Max Life would first merge with its parent company Max Financial Services, and subsequently the life insurance business would be demerged from Max Financial and would be merged into HDFC Life. This merger transaction would have led to the automatic listing of HDFC Life through a reverse merger process and would enable HDFC Life to hold a majority stake in the combined entity. The Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority of India (IRDA) denied permission for the proposed merger of Max Life Insurance Co. Ltd and HDFC Standard Life Insurance Co. Ltd (HDFC Life), and observed that the structure of the deal violates Section 35 of the Insurance Act, 1938, which barred the merger of an insurance company with a non-insurance firm.[4]

Mistakes in Negotiation and Overrated Synergies

In various mergers and acquisitions, there are cases of overpayment for the purpose of breach of agreement. Acquiring a company based on money without knowing the working format, procedure, structure of the company and going through the due diligence process will lead to a failed merger.

Mergers and acquisitions are considered significant tools for increasing revenue, reducing net working capital, and improving venture power. Overvalued synergies go hand in hand with transfer overpayment. Overvaluation of exchange synergies is often the initial stage of overpayment. While the prospect of numerous costs remaining largely equivalent between the two combined organizations is attractive, it is also decidedly harder to achieve in practice than most directors admit. Also, energy cooperative income is no less confusing. M&A practitioners would therefore be encouraged to look at the expected cooperation from the exchange through a deeply traditionalist contact point.

Lack of Due Diligence

The importance of due diligence can never be emphasized enough. One of the main problems that arise during the process is that the acquirer depends on the target company to provide information that is not always suitable for their management. This creates obvious problems with agency.

Example: Daimler-Benz and Chrysler Group

In 1998, German automaker Daimler Benz merged with Chrysler Group for $36 billion. This was seen as a win-win situation for both companies as it was essentially a merger between equals. However, after a few years, Chrysler’s value dropped to just $7.4 billion. The merger proved unsuccessful. Many reasons contributed to this, but all experts agree that Daimler Benz never did  proper due diligence before merging with Chrysler. In other words, it overestimated the value of the target company, which led to the failed merger.

Hence, even though an M&A deal may seem lucrative on paper, it is essential for the respective businesses to carry out thorough due diligence and research on predicted profitability trends and projected growth patterns of the proposed merger or acquisition.

Deficiency in Strategic Plan

A good “why” is an essential part of all successful M&A transactions. This means that without a good motive for the transaction, it is doomed from the start.

The academic M&A literature is replete with studies of managers engaged in “empire building” through M&A and research on how hubris is a common trend in M&A.

Difficulty with Integration and Swap Ratio Differences

Integration difficulties that are mostly faced by companies when a new company has to follow or accept a new set of challenges and regulations to position itself in the market. It is very difficult for society to adapt to new conditions. Various plans are created in the form of strategies to help the company adapt to the new environment. This integration sometimes becomes the reason for the failure of the merger due to insufficient effort and imprecise planning.

Example: IDFC Group and Shriram Group deal:

IDFC Group and Shriram Group called off their talks of a merger after failing to agree on a swap ratio. A swap ratio is the ratio at which the acquiring company offers its shares in exchange for the target company’s shares during a merger or acquisition.

The two parties had, on July 8, 2019, entered into a 90-day agreement to evaluate a strategic combination of their relevant financial services. Shriram Employee Trust, Piramal Group and Sanlam Group were set to become the largest shareholders in IDFC and drive the business, but the deal would have hurt the government, which owned a 16.38 per cent stake in IDFC. So due to the difficulty in integration and swap ratio differences this deal was called off. This was the reason for the failure of this deal.[5]

Lack of Involvement of Top Management:

Management involvement is a catch-all answer that also includes many of the abovementioned reasons within its ambit. 

No phase of the M&A process can successfully sustain itself without proper involvement of the management, from the search for a suitable target company to the integration of both companies into a newly created entity.

When managers consider other tasks in their company more important than successful M&A implementation, they should not be surprised when their business is ultimately considered a failure.

Lack of Adequate Communication

Proper communication is one of the most important features of any agreement or contract. If the purpose of closing the deal is unclear, the intent of the buyers and sellers is also unclear, then communication is poor. If there is a lack of synergy and the buyer and seller are unable to articulate the desired results, this is a sign of poor communication. Not only that, but poor communication can also include a lack of communication between key managers and employees. Whenever a company enters into a merger or acquisition, there should be an honest and clear disclosure of the motive and intent. All doubts should be clarified at the initial stage. All levels of society should be given the opportunity to have their say. Messages should be interpreted in a general sense and according to common sense.

Culture Mismatch

Culture mismatch is another significant factor that causes merger failures. If companies have different cultural aspects, then there is a chance of low employee productivity, which leads to lower profits. Culture includes the willingness of employees to collaborate, share, support and team together with a single motive. Company culture is shaped by company founders, but it was also influenced by company managers and employees.

Example: Facebook and WhatsApp

Facebook bought messaging platform “WhatsApp” in 2014 for $22 billion. However, companies quickly realized that the corporate cultures were clashing. There are some memorable articles about table size and toilet stall arguments, but there have been discrepancies in values. WhatsApp famously valued the privacy of its customers and employees (no wonder they had a problem with short toilet boxes), while Facebook had more of an “open door” policy when it came to privacy. Since WhatsApp had committed to using a no ads and no encryption policy for the app its customers, it was clearly not a match that would have succeeded and the founders of WhatsApp eventually left Facebook.

Therefore, while considering an M&A it is not only important to ascertain the collective vision and objectives of the businesses, but also to make sure that the culture, policies and values of the businesses stay in alignment going forward.

Human Resource Issues

Human resource issues also pose a threat to the merger. There is insecurity as people tend to leave their jobs due to sudden changes in the course of work or because of cultural or identity issues. There are many human resource related issues even in the pre-combination stage such as the acquisition of key talent etc. as those could be the major concern for the companies for acquisitions. Another critical HR issue is the selection of a leader who will actually manage the new business combination for smooth business operations. These issues may lead to a lack of direction and the postponement of major business decisions. Companies should put their best people in charge of implementing M&A deals, and seek union and community involvement to avoid the risk of deal failure.

Geographic Restrictions

Geographical barriers cannot be overlooked. These play an important role when it comes to cross-border mergers. In general, when a cross-border merger occurs, a two-layer articulation is needed due to the merger of two different companies into different countries with a different set of rules and regulations prevailing in the respective countries.

Other External Factors

External factors may include market position, competition, financing situation, and credit in the company’s lending. If all these things are against the company, there is a chance for the merger to fail.

                                                                          Source: PWC Report[6]

The Way Forward

It is expected that mergers and acquisitions will exceed $105 billion, breaking the record for the largest transactions. [7]  High-rated deals like Reliance Industries’ (RIL) potential $10 billion (Rs 76,000 crore) acquisition of European drug chain Walgreens Boots; the Adani and JSW groups, bidding for Ambuja Cements, and the HDFC twin merger are the leading big mergers and acquisitions (M&A) deals. Consolidation of all the market players has been a major driving force behind the M&A transactions. Tech Mahindra and Infosys focused on exiting entities, while Byju’s acquired Aakash Education, White Hat Junior and Topper Technologies.

According to the 2022 M&A report, despite the ongoing challenge posed by the Covid-19 pandemic and geopolitical tensions in South Asia, the market is showing strong signs of recovery. M&A volumes hit an all-time high in 2021 with more than 80 deals worth more than $75 million. The increase in investment can be partly attributed to Indian government policies such as the productivity-linked incentive program introduced under the Ease of Doing Business initiative. [8]

Thanks to the great interest of foreign buyers, the Indian market for mergers and acquisitions also did well (the US accounted for 35 percent of invested dollars). India’s economy is set for strong growth in 2022 – The IMF has forecast GDP growth of 8.2 percent in 2022, making it the fastest growing major economy and double the expected growth rate of China.

With a total of 174 deals in Q1 2022 (up 28% year-on-year), the stage is set for India’s M&A market to witness strong technology-driven performance. This would make the M&A management process more efficient and powerful. For example, sellers are seeing in real-time how artificial intelligence and machine learning are automating many of the time-consuming parts of M&A—from preparation and marketing to due diligence on both the sell-side and the buy-side. [9]

According to Data site, a leading provider of SaaS technologies to the M&A industry worldwide, deal activity from January to May 2022 shows that companies continue to invest in technology acquisitions as they undertake digital transformations accelerated by Covid-19. Trading on the Datasite platform shows that new global TMT projects rose 18 percent worldwide in the first quarter.

The median time to open and close a new deal or asset sale or merger at Data site increased five percent year-over-year this year, while deal preparation time is also increasing, up 31 percent over the same period. This means that many vendors are “ready” but have not yet launched their projects. [10]

                                                                            Source: VCC Edge[11]

If handled properly, mergers and acquisitions can be a powerful means of propelling a business to greater profitability. Businesses should be cognizant of the abovementioned factors discussed before taking the M&A leap, to ensure sustainable and stable growth projections for their future.

It can be fairly concluded that mergers and acquisitions are powerful means to propel a business to greater profitability, if dealt with properly. Businesses should be cognizant of the abovementioned factors discussed before taking the M&A leap, to ensure a sustainable and stable growth projections for their future.

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Indian Diaspora Being Chosen to Lead Global Companies is No Accident

Mr. Laxman Narasimhan, former CEO of Reckitt Benckiser, was recently appointed CEO of Starbucks Inc. A few days later, advertising and PR giant Ogilvy (part of WPP, the global marketing and communications group) announced the appointment of Ms. Devika Bulchandani as its global CEO. These two are only the latest additions to an already impressive list of Indian-origin CEOs of global business organizations. This list includes blue chip names like Microsoft, Alphabet/Google, Adobe, Deloitte, IBM, Twitter, Bata, FedEx, Arista Networks, Vertex Pharma, Chanel and many more. Leading global VC firms including Masayoshi San’s Softbank have a number of Indians at the helm.

Ms. Indira Nooyi became Pepsico’s CEO in 2006 (and remained in that powerful position till 2018). However, it’s fair to say that the currently visible trend of Indian-origin leaders being appointed CEOs of global enterprises with headquarters outside India began about a decade ago, with the appointment of Mr. Ajay Banga as CEO of Mastercard. Since then, a number of other leaders who were born/raised and studied in India (at least their undergraduate degrees) have been chosen to lead global organizations across industries. All of them qualified with advanced degrees abroad and have spent a significant chunk of time working in overseas markets; most of them are no longer Indian citizens. Nonetheless, it is a matter of pride that no other non-G7 country has contributed as many executives to C-suites across the globe. Admittedly, the technology sector has the highest number of such leaders as CEOs, but companies from other sectors too are following suit.

To me, this trend is not a fad. It is also testament to more than just the intellectual capabilities, global experience or proficiency in English that these Indian-origin executives offer. I believe this phenomenon is also an acknowledgement of the innate ability and willingness of Indians (I use the word loosely because many of these business leaders are no longer Indian citizens) to deal with adversity, crises and rapid changes- all of which are dominant characteristics of our emerging world. These are the very same elements that have shaped the first 25 years of their lives, and taught them to adapt. This point was made more than two decades ago by the late Dr. C. K. Prahalad, who pointed out that those growing up in India quickly learn to be “natural managers” because they have to deal with infrastructural inadequacies, insufficient capacities and other constraints. This helps them develop a solution mindset and think outside the box.  

Given India’s inherent cultural diversity, Indians are more used to coping with diversity in multiple spheres; this helps leaders work in multi-cultural organizations and environments. Such a complex, competitive environment imbues individuals with a certain level of humility- something that probably also has a cultural dimension. Add to all this the fact that Indians working abroad have to work extra hard to prove themselves at every step- and you have a near-perfect recipe for leadership success. Of course, I must also acknowledge the critical role played by the US and other western nations in allowing Indian-origin talent to evolve, mature and shine. Although no society has as yet achieved the perfect balance, these countries are more proactive in promoting merit and providing equal opportunities.

But it would be unfair if I paint a universally rosy picture. Not every Indian leader who has become a CEO has been successful. There will naturally be variations based on a host of factors including the company, industry, external events, timing of becoming the CEO etc. For example, Vishal Garg, CEO of Better.com did not exactly cover himself in glory when he fired 900 employees on a Zoom call. He is back in the saddle of the company he founded. A couple of months ago, Ms. Sonia Syngal resigned as the CEO of Gap Inc. But there have been claims (supposedly backed by studies) that in corporate America, women leaders typically have shorter tenures and are more likely to be forced out when things start going wrong- irrespective of what causes the unravelling and to what extent the CEO could control those factors. But that’s another topic and I must not digress.

New sectors are emerging, driven by scientific and technological innovation. Combined with India’s burgeoning ecosystem and large talent pool, and changes to our education system and shifts in operational models and organizational development paradigms, we as a nation stand at the cusp of a huge opportunity to accelerate our socio-economic progress. It is time for organizations across sectors to rethink how they engage with talent in order to create enriching work environments that remain productive and mutually beneficial at a time when mindsets and aspirations are shifting more rapidly than ever before. Only then can we ensure that home-grown enterprises too are led by committed, dynamic and visionary leaders who can propel India to the US$5 Trillion league at the earliest.

Given India’s inherent cultural diversity, Indians are more used to coping with diversity in multiple spheres; this helps leaders work in multi-cultural organizations and environments.

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Exodus of Indian HNIs: Risk to Aspirations

India’s economy continues to be on a path of sustained growth. Especially over the last decade and a half or so, several factors have contributed to this growth. These include globalization, a large domestic market, policy reforms, technology-driven disruptions, and much greater levels of entrepreneurial activity than in the past fifty years. On the back of a robust start-up ecosystem and a flow of risk capital, 44 unicorns were created in India during 2021; the first four months of 2022 have seen 14 more Indian ventures get that coveted status. This is truly a remarkable achievement in the face of the large-scale shocks the global economic system has suffered in recent times.

It is estimated that over the next decade, the number of Indian millionaires and billionaires (in terms of US dollars) will rise by over 80%. This represents a significantly higher growth rate than that which will be seen by the US, UK, Germany or France. While this is undoubtedly good news, there is also some sobering news: an estimated 8000 high-net-worth Individuals (HNIs) are likely to relocate from India in 2022 alone. In 2019, an estimated 7000 Indians left India.

At different points in time, different destinations have attracted Indian HNIs. At this time, Singapore, Australia and the UAE are the top destinations, although European nations such as Portugal and Greece are also seeing a rise in the number of Indian HNWIs relocating to their jurisdictions given the benefits of lower costs, the mobility advantages of EU member nations and less stringent physical residency requirements. Just as important are the tax regimes of these countries vis-à-vis what prevails in India. More HNIs staying in India for an adequate number of days in each financial year is helpful in bringing their global income under Indian tax. However, it must also be kept in mind that even when families stay in India for shorter durations to minimise their income tax liabilities here, they will end up paying GST on various goods and services they consume.           

A growing number of Indian business families are taking a considered view of where their members should be based, what citizenship(s) they should hold and where their companies should be registered for regulatory and tax purposes. The travel bans imposed at short notice to curb the pandemic has provided one more reason for many to reconsider where their home bases should be. While reasons will naturally vary with specific individuals and families, this trend of wanting to move out is more evident amongst first-generation entrepreneurs, compared to more-established business houses. It is also more prevalent in new age businesses that are built on new technology paradigms and require clarity and relative stability in the regulatory frameworks. This is not to say that western countries are automatically better in this regard: the EU recently announced that device manufacturers must move to standard mobile charging ports (for phones, tablets, cameras, earbuds, etc.) in the next 2 years – a decision that is expected to significantly impact Apple.

As governments take more action against climate change, to protect data privacy and to regulate AI, 5G, etc., new regulations will come into existence at a faster pace than before. More changes to existing rules and regulations can also be expected. There’s also a greater likelihood of new trade blocs forming and countries becoming members of multiple blocs. There is also likely to be greater harmonisation of tax rates (the first steps have already been taken). In the face of such changes, families need to more carefully think through decisions such as the location of businesses, holding structures, governance and multi-jurisdictional estates in order to ensure smooth inter-generational wealth transfers.

Image Credits:

Photo by Monstera: https://www.pexels.com/photo/anonymous-person-magnifying-view-of-coins-shaped-in-world-map-7412098/

A growing number of Indian business families are taking a considered view of where their members should be based, what citizenship(s) they should hold and where their companies should be registered for regulatory and tax purposes. 

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Voluntary Liquidation Process Under IBC: An Update

The Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016 read with, the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Board of India (Voluntary Liquidation Process) Regulations, 2020, establish a procedure for the voluntary liquidation of solvent corporate persons.

However, in practice, it can be observed that the majority of voluntary liquidation processes are getting delayed. As per the Discussion Paper released by IBBI, as on December 31st, 2021, 1105 voluntary liquidation processes have been initiated. Of which, the liquidators have submitted final reports to the Adjudicating Authority (AA) in 546 cases only. In other words, more than 50% (i.e., 559 cases) of the voluntary liquidation processes are still ongoing. On closer perusal of the ongoing cases, it is found that 293 cases (around 52%) of them have crossed the one-year time mark. In this background, the Voluntary Liquidation Process (Amendment) Regulations, 2022 have been introduced on April 5th 2022 by the IBBI.

Brief Analysis of the Voluntary Liquidation Process Amendments

The new changes seek to complete the voluntary liquidation process in a quick and efficient manner and ensure that the company does not lose value on its remaining assets since the asset value falls drastically with time. Further, the amendment seeks to clarify the date of the commencement of the liquidation process.  Now, the liquidator shall complete the liquidation process and ensure the submission of final reports within 270 days, 90 days earlier as compared to the statutory time period of 12 months. As per the Discussion Paper released by IBBI, Voluntary Liquidation, being non-adversarial in nature, can be completed in 270 days. Further, the liquidator is directed to distribute the proceeds from realization within 30 days from the receipt of the amount to the stakeholders, as compared to the earlier mandated time period of 6 months.

For the past few years, the government has been promoting several initiatives focusing on “ease of doing business” for corporates. However, it is essential to observe that “ease of doing business” does not only include ensuring a seamless start of a business but also includes a quick and easy structure for the exit.

In this backdrop, in the Union Budget 2022-2023, the Honourable Finance Minister announced that “Now the Centre for Processing Accelerated Corporate Exit (C-PACE) with process re-engineering, will be established to facilitate and speed up the voluntary winding-up of these companies from the currently required 2 years to less than 6 months[1].”

Further, in a Discussion Paper released in February 2022[2], IBBI identified the following problems plaguing the voluntary insolvency process:

  1. It was pointed out that the values of assets fall drastically, and hence a quick and efficient liquidation process is pertinent. However, the Code has failed to stipulate a time limit for such a voluntary liquidation process.
  2. It was also observed that more than 50% of the voluntary liquidation cases had been ongoing as per the data presented to the Board (as of December 31st, 2022). Further, 52% of the ongoing cases had crossed the one-year mark.

The relevant stakeholders also observed that one of the aspects that prolong the voluntary liquidation process is the practise of seeking a ‘No Objection Certificate’ (NOC) or ‘No Dues Certificate’ (NDC) from the Income Tax Department by liquidators during the process, even though the Code and the Voluntary Liquidation Regulations have not mandated the issuance of NOC/NDC. In this regard, the Board issued a Circular in November 2021, clarifying that “an insolvency professional handling a voluntary liquidation process is not required to seek any NOC/NDC from the Income Tax Department as part of compliance in the said process.”[3]

In alignment with the intention of the legislation, the Board has introduced the following amendments to optimize the voluntary insolvency process:

Section 10 (2) (r): Corporate Debtor shall be substituted by Corporate person

The amendment states that the liquidator shall maintain such other registers or books as may be necessary to account for transactions entered by the corporate debtor with the corporate person. This ensures holistic coverage of all financial transactions of the corporate debtor for the purpose of liquidation.

Section 30 (2): timeline for preparation of the list of stakeholders in case where no claims are received is reduced

 

Section 30 (2) requires the liquidator to compile a list of stakeholders within 45 days from the last date for receipt of claims. The amendment inserts the following provision; “Provided that where no claim from creditors has been received till the last date for receipt of claims, the liquidator shall prepare the list of stakeholders within fifteen days from the last date for receipt of claims.”

Previously, no differentiation between the timelines was prescribed in cases where there were no claims from creditors. This timeline was introduced because if no such claims were received till the last date, then it must not take much time for the preparation of a list of stakeholders as the list of shareholders/partners is available with the liquidator at the time of commencement.

Section 35: Timeline for distribution of the proceeds from realization reduced

The amendment reduces the period for distribution of proceeds from realisation to the relevant stakeholders to a period of thirty days from the receipt of the amount, from the earlier mandated six months.

The reason for the reduction of this timeline is that the liquidator remains in close contact with the corporate person and hence should be able to distribute the proceeds quickly.

Further, in cases where there are creditors, since the resolution regarding the commencement of the process is approved by the creditors representing two-thirds of the value of the debt of the corporate person, distribution to the creditors should also take much less time than is currently stipulated.

Section 5(2): Timeline for intimation of appointment as liquidator to the Board enhanced.

5(2) provides that an insolvency professional shall notify the Board about his appointment as liquidator within 3 days of such appointment.  As per the amendment, the regulation has changed the timeline for the intimation from 3 days to 7 days.

Section 37: Timeline to complete the liquidation process reduced.  

The amended provides that if the creditors approve the resolution, the liquidator shall complete the liquidation process and submit the final report to the registrar, board, and adjudicating authority within 270 days from the date of the commencement of the liquidation and within 90 days from the liquidation commencement date in all other cases (where there are no creditors for the company). Previously, the time period for completion of liquidation was one year and no such bifurcation of the time period for completion of liquidation on the basis of the presence or absence of creditors was enumerated. The reason for this reduction in the timeline for completion is that the liquidation estate of the corporate person undergoing the voluntary liquidation process is non-adversarial and also generally straightforward both in terms of the size and heterogeneity of the assets involved. Therefore, the realisation of the assets involved during the voluntary liquidation process takes less time as compared to the liquidation process.

Section 38(3): Final Report and Compliance certificate shall be submitted in Form-H.

Section 38 directs the liquidator to submit the final report to the adjudicating authority along with the application. The amendment has specified Form H for submission of the final report. Such specifications were not provided previously. A compliance certificate provides a summary of actions taken by the liquidator during the voluntary liquidation process. It will assist the Adjudicating Authority in expediting the adjudication of dissolution applications.

Section 39(3): Form H substitutes Form I

As per the amended Rules, Section 39 (3), the stakeholder claiming entitlement to any amount deposited into the Corporate Voluntary Liquidation Account, may apply for an order for withdrawal of the amount to the Board on Form H and not Form I.

Date of Commencement of Liquidation

The amendment clarified that for the corporate person who has creditors representing two-thirds of the debt of the corporate person, the date of liquidation commencement is the date on which such creditors approve the declaration passed for the initiation of the liquidation.

Note: In order to curb delays in liquidation, the Board had recently issued a circular clarifying that an Insolvency Professional handling a voluntary liquidation process is not required to seek any NOC/NDC from the Income Tax Department as part of compliance in the said process.

Conclusion

The amendments effectually fall in line with the Board’s intention to substantiate a streamlined and quick voluntary insolvency procedure, which certainly can be perceived as an initiative in the right direction. The proposed amendments by curtailing the unwarranted time spent on various activities (such as obtaining a No-Objection Certificate from the Income Tax office) may ensure the early completion of the voluntary liquidation process, thereby, providing a quicker exit for the corporate person. Further, the proposed reduction in the time taken for distribution of proceeds would result in an early distribution to the stakeholders and thereby, promote entrepreneurship and the availability of credit. It will assist the Adjudicating Authority in expediting the adjudication of dissolution applications.

The amendments effectually fall in alignment with the Board’s intention to substantiate a streamlined and quick voluntary insolvency procedure, which certainly can be perceived an initiative in the right direction.  The proposed amendments by curtailing the unwarranted time spent on various activities (such as obtaining No-Objection Certificate from the Income Tax office) may ensure early completion of the voluntary liquidation process, thereby, providing a quicker exit for the corporate person.

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Why Businesses Should Focus on ESG?

The world has changed in many fundamental ways especially in the last 25 years. I am not referring to technology-led transformation or geopolitical shifts, this piece is about Environmental, Social and Governance criteria – collectively referred to as “ESG”.

Environmental Criteria

 

Environmental costs, which were for long viewed by economists as “externalities”, are now an important consideration in decision-making by governments and business leaders. Given the devastating effects of widespread environmental degradation and climate change, countries around the world are taking concrete actions to limit further damage; many are setting “net zero” emission targets for individual sectors over the next couple of decades. As a result, new legislations are being enacted that require businesses to act in certain ways and desist from other kinds of actions. Arguably, this is the biggest facet of change globally.

Social Criteria

 

The second area of change is that various forms of social injustice are no longer being tolerated. While there were always rules against such inequities, there is now a greater cost imposed on organizations that violate these rules- not just by governments and regulators, but also by consumers, who choose to shift loyalties towards brands that exhibit greater sensitivity to social causes. By definition, social injustice covers a broad range of issues that includes exploitation of children, women or certain races (e.g., the Uighurs); not providing employees good working conditions (physical environment, denying employees time for bio-breaks and rest, harassment at the workplace etc.); discrimination against people with disabilities, gender, age or marital status; even selling goods that are not safe or bad for health arguably fall under this category.

Governance Criteria

 

The thrust on “governance” is the third major driver of change. It is not as if rules and regulations did not previously exist to prevent breakdowns in governance. Yet, there are a number of examples from around the world that showcase bad governance: from companies in South Korea, Japan, the USA and Europe to the ongoing matters at the NSE and BharatPe in India.

 

Why ESG Adoption is Crucial?

 

In recent years, various members of business ecosystems worldwide, including enterprises, investors, regulators and the general public have become far more aware of the importance of compliance with “ESG” norms and standards. They are much less willing to tolerate breaches in an organization’s “ESG” conduct.

At one level, companies that do not do well on “ESG” parameters are more likely to face explicit financial penalties (e.g., carbon taxes). But just as important are the hidden costs that will increasingly need to be borne by ESG laggards. Perhaps the most important is the reduced access to capital because both banks and PE/VC firms are incorporating ESG criteria into their funding/ portfolio strategies.

On the demand side, many consumers (especially from the younger generations) are more conscious of brands that fare better in terms of their commitment to ESG and this, in turn, shapes their purchase decisions. Brands can quickly lose market share if they do not raise their ESG game.

As shown in the chart below, data over the past decade reveals that companies that have successfully implemented ESG strategies have consistently performed better than other global companies that have not paid as much attention to ESG.

 

Source: Stoxx.com quoted in https://sphera.com/spark/the-importance-of-esg-strategy/

This out-performance can be attributed to a combination of factors, including faster top-line growth, sustained cost reductions, higher employee productivity and reduced employee attrition and of course, fewer instances of fines/penalties for non-compliance. Investment decisions and technology choices that are guided by ESG considerations will drive a more efficient allocation of capital; in turn, this will boost ROCE (Return on Capital Employed).

While it is convenient to look at the three strands of ESG separately, in reality, they are closely intertwined. The sooner business leaders acknowledge that ESG is not a fad or a feel-good factor, but in fact, makes sound business sense, the better it is for the world as a whole.

 

Start Your ESG Journey Right Away

 
Someone quipped that the best time to plant more trees was years ago, but the second-best time is now! It’s not too late for you to begin your ESG transformation. But make sure you do it as a well-structured program, and not merely a hotch-potch of initiatives that have no clear owners, goals or measures and therefore cannot be sustained.

 

To report ESG performance, you can take the help of commonly used frameworks such as the following:

  • UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
  • Global Reporting Initiative (GRI)
  • Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB)
  • Climate Disclosure Standards Board (CDSB)
  • Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD)

Image Credits: Photo by Photo Boards on Unsplash

While it is convenient to look at the three strands of ESG separately, in reality, they are closely intertwined. The sooner business leaders acknowledge that ESG is not a fad or a feel-good factor, but in fact, makes sound business sense, the better it is for the world as a whole.

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Beyond the Pandemic: Are we Recovering with Integrity?

This morning, I came across a news report about an autorickshaw driver in Bangalore who returned Rs10000 that was erroneously transferred to his account. He had just dropped off a passenger, who had paid the fare via UPI. Sometime later, the auto driver received a payment of Rs10000 from the same passenger’s mobile phone. Turns out that soon after getting off the auto, that passenger had received a request from his friend to transfer Rs10000, but by mistake, he had transferred the amount to the auto driver’s account. The honest auto driver called up the passenger and returned the money. The grateful passenger wrote a letter of commendation to the police authorities.

While the above news report gladdened my heart, I have also, in the last few days, read news reports about independent directors of various companies resigning from their respective Boards for various reasons. While honesty and integrity have not altogether disappeared, it is saddening that there seems to be a dearth of these values in the corporate world- where, arguably, they are needed the most. I therefore write this piece with mixed feelings.

E&Y’s Global Integrity Report 2022 reveals that a third of the respondents from India reported that their organizations had suffered a “significant incident of fraud” in the last 18 months. In itself, this is a grave concern but what’s worse is that India ranks second worst in this survey, which polled business executives from 54 countries. The survey’s other findings about Indian executives and companies are cause for worry too. Almost two-thirds of the respondents from India have acknowledged that to benefit their careers, they would be willing to indulge in patently unethical conduct such as falsifying information, paying/receiving bribes or ignoring misconduct in their teams/organizations.[1]

The economic disruption that has occurred in the wake of the pandemic has undoubtedly increased challenges for organizations across industry sectors. Owners, business leaders and employees at all levels have experienced the impact in many ways- cost cutting, job losses, scaling down, longer working hours, greater difficulty in closing deals through virtual channels etc. The magnitude of the impact has been varied but some sectors have bounced back faster than others and depending on the nature of their business, have been able to adapt better to hybrid models of working. But to me, nothing gives anyone the excuse to compromise on one’s integrity and ethics. It is better to work smarter and harder, have honest conversations within the organization and with clients or reach out for help than to succumb to the temptation of short cuts. Once we fall prey, it’s a slippery slope, and there’s almost always no going back.

One of the most important lessons I have learnt from my father and grandfather is to never compromise ethics and integrity no matter what the reasons or potential payoffs. This is one of the core values that our firm holds dear. Every individual who is part of our organization understands the importance of honesty, personal and professional integrity and ethics. To me, leadership is not just about vision, strategy and execution or delivering financial success; it is as much about being able to hold one’s head high and look at anyone in the eye because there is nothing to hide in our conduct or speech. And this is what my colleagues and I strive hard to practise every single day.

 

The economic disruption that has occurred in the wake of the pandemic has undoubtedly increased challenges for organizations across industry sectors. Owners, business leaders and employees at all levels have experienced the impact in many ways- cost-cutting, job losses, scaling down, longer working hours, greater difficulty in closing deals through virtual channels etc.

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Family Businesses Must Think and Act Like the Boy Scouts

A couple of weeks ago, India’s first Chief of Defense Staff, Gen. Rawat, his wife Mrs. Madhulika Rawat and a dozen other army/air force officers and personnel died in a helicopter crash near Coonoor. The loss of any life is sad, but this tragedy was of much greater proportions because Gen. Rawat had only begun the critical task of rearchitecting India’s defense forces in ways that enable greater integration. In a few weeks, our government will assign someone else the responsibility for leading the transformative process that Gen. Rawat had begun; after all, institutions like nations, their armed forces and even corporates are larger than individuals.

But what this tragic incident has painfully reinforced for many of us is the unpredictability of life. And if it hasn’t, it should. There are striking parallels that can be drawn between the outcomes of this helicopter crash and what happens when the head of a family business suddenly dies or becomes incapable of running the company. Both are sudden and cause large voids that can be hard to fill because the next generation family members are young and inexperienced or perhaps not interested in the traditional business.

This is why succession plans must not only cover people in leadership roles but also entire businesses. Maybe a strategic sale should be triggered or perhaps several group companies that already share synergies should be merged and after a few years, the entity could go public. The specific strategy is not the point of this article; rather, the key point I wish to make is that family businesses in particular should be ready with this kind of thinking. Not just a slide deck with the future strategy and trigger events, but at a much more granular level so that implementation becomes easier for those who will become responsible for it.

By the way, the sudden death of founders and leaders is by no means the only uncertainty that family businesses need to be prepared for. Many family businesses have complex holding structures that involve the formation of trusts registered in India and elsewhere. But the world is witnessing a new wave of concerted actions that are aimed at shoring up tax revenues by plugging various loopholes and tax planning avenues that have existed for years. As a result, tax laws can change quite drastically in various jurisdictions. And as geopolitical realignments occur and new regional partnerships are forged, regulatory changes may impact more than just one country. Family businesses that either does not plan for such risks or are not agile enough to respond quickly might find themselves seriously disadvantaged.

Plans are ultimately plans, and any plan can go wrong. Who, for example, could have forecast the Covid pandemic or that it would stretch for 2+ years (and God knows how much longer)? But that does not mean that there is no merit in planning. What is vital is to plan for various scenarios and figure out a solution that works best under a majority of situations. This needs expert advice and more important, perspectives and business savvy. The role of business advisors needs to change; they must acquire and hone their ability to transcend silos or be a part of the right ecosystem so that they are able to orchestrate the best advice for their clients and thereafter, help them execute the strategies and plans.

If you’re still wondering about the reference to the Boy Scouts in the title, I just wanted to tell family businesses to “Be Prepared”.

PS: Being slow to adopt cutting edge technological capabilities and putting them to use to capture insights that help drive strategies is another form of risk – but one that applies to more than just family businesses.

Image Credits:  Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

Many family businesses have complex holding structures that involve the formation of trusts registered in India and elsewhere. But the world is witnessing a new wave of concerted actions that are aimed at shoring up tax revenues by plugging various loopholes and tax planning avenues that have existed for years

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Impact of India's Proposed Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC)

Numerous signals have been emanating from the government and the RBI in the past several months to indicate the imminent launch of India’s Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC). This includes the announcement last month that the Cryptocurrency and Official Digital Currency Bill, 2021 will be tabled for discussion in the ongoing session of the Indian parliament.

What is a CBDC?

In simple terms, it is the digital version of legal tender issued by a sovereign central bank. In terms of value, it is the same as the country’s fiat currency and is exchangeable with physical currency on demand. Thus, India’s CBDC will be denominated in Rupees. Like physical currency notes/coins, CBDC can be used by individuals and businesses as a store of value and to make payments for purchasing goods/services.

 

Why does India need a CBDC?

There are many reasons why countries will need their own CBDC systems. In India, interbank transactions and settlements already take place through the reserves individual banks maintain with the RBI, so there may not be much impact in this arena. However, in the retail segment, a bulk of the transactions still rely on physical cash and increasingly, on digital payment solutions. It is important to recognize that payment solutions such as those from Google, Amazon, Apple, or Paytm and Phonepe are all privately-owned and controlled; as such, their growing popularity does pose a risk to the country’s financial system.

For example, it is estimated that 94% of mobile payment transactions in China are processed on transactions owned by Alibaba or Tencent. As the companies behind these apps start to build “ecosystems”, more and more goods and services can be paid for through these apps. Such integration and breadth of usage can easily create a virtual stranglehold that has the potential to place at risk the entire financial system of a country; there could even be regional or global ripples. The launch of a CBDC is thus not just a digital payment system, but also a mechanism towards mitigation of major risks that are associated with an increasingly digital world.

Currently, all payment solutions in India, whether developed and deployed by fintech players, Big Tech or banks, run on the Unified Payments Interface (UPI) infrastructure built and managed by the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI), which is jointly promoted by the RBI and the Indian Banks’ Association (IBA). That India’s payments backbone has never been in private hands reduces the level of risk to our financial system. Also, it must also be acknowledged that the NPCI has done a fabulous job so far. The month of October 2021 alone saw more than 4.2 billion transactions being processed through NPCI infrastructure. But it is important to keep in mind that the payment apps owned and managed by fintech and Big Tech companies are not under the direct regulatory supervision of the RBI because they are not licensed banks. A CBDC-based ecosystem will make the regulation of such apps and platforms easier and more effective- thus enabling a higher degree of consumer protection. 

There are other reasons too why an Indian CBDC will become a necessity sooner rather than later. Countries like China are already at an advanced stage of launching their versions of CBDC. Given global cross-border trade and investment flows and repatriation of funds by Indian diaspora overseas and tourist travel, it is only a matter of time before Chinese or other CBDC enter the Indian financial system. And as more countries launch their own CBDC, it is imperative that we have our own, so that we can negotiate from a position of experience (and strength) when it comes to agreeing on multilateral CBDC protocols.

A well-designed CBDC system reduces the threat of counterfeit currency- something that our adversaries have used over many decades to weaken our economy. Arguably, CBDC can also play an important role in the nation’s fight against corruption and black money- although much will depend on how it evolves and the operational rules and regulatory framework governing it.

 

CBDC: The Road Ahead

At this time, it is unclear when and how the government will choose to launch India’s CBDC. But it is fair to say that an entirely new digital currency ecosystem will be needed. It is likely that the RBI itself will cause to design, develop and run the CBDC infrastructure. There are also speculations that they would be regulated as financial assets by the Securities & Exchange Board of India (SEBI). Big Tech, fintech and banks will need to link their apps to this new infrastructure as well- assuming that over time, individuals will retain the option to pay via physical currency-backed UPI platforms or their CBDC cousins.

Since no regulator can compete with those it is tasked with regulating, the RBI may have to let financial intermediaries continue to take responsibility for the distribution of digital currency via e-wallets or other pre-paid digital instruments and similar solutions. This also means that fintech players, BigTech and retail banks will need to evolve their platforms and come up with innovative offerings to ride this new wave of opportunity. The road ahead will have its own challenges at both the policy and operational levels. The success of CBDC will also depend on how quickly internet access expands across the country and how resistant to hacking and breaches the underlying systems are.

Fasten your seatbelts and prepare for an interesting ride at the end of which, digital currency could be the crowned king. 

 

Image Credits:  Photo by Alesia Kozik from Pexels

At this time, it is unclear when and how the RBI will choose to launch India’s CBDC. But it is fair to say that an entirely new digital currency ecosystem will be needed. It is likely that the RBI itself will cause to design, develop and run the CBDC infrastructure

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Tools for Effective Succession Planning for Family Businesses

The pandemic has hurt many families. There is no solace or succor for the lost loved ones. Yet as harsh as it may sound, life has to go on, for the rest of the family. This feeling of vulnerability has to be channelized to ensure that every entrepreneur, business owner, and head of business family think of securing themselves legally to ensure succession & estate planning.

It is way past the days when parampara (tradition) and prathistha (prestige) and prashasan (administration) were sufficient for a family to run its business. Since change is the only constant, the pandemic has forced many family businesses to re-consider and re-structure their succession and legacy planning as it has drastically increased the probability of unforeseeable deaths and long-term health complications of the family members. Demise of the family’s patriarch in the absence of a legitimate will, post-covid health complications rendering everyday functions and business operations redundant are some of the scenarios which are impairing the families resulting in stress, loss of business liquidity, and business opportunities.

Despite the abovementioned challenges and economic uncertainty statistics reveal a strong resilience for recovery. In the current financial year. 51% of family businesses are eyeing opportunities for growth in the domestic market, 22% shall be focusing on diversification, while 10% are contemplating entering the international markets[1]. However, it has also paved the way for drastic changes in the ways a family business shall operate.

Two areas that will be witnessing restructuring in the family business operations are; legacy planning and digitization. According to PWC’s 10th Global Family Business Survey, 2021[2] over 87% of family-run businesses have identified digital innovation and technology as the focal point of priority over the next two years. Succession planning is one of the most sensitive issues in family-run businesses. However, Covid 19 appears to have concentrated minds in this area. The survey confirmed that 20% of business families have incorporated a formal succession plan, while 7% of such families have revised their legacy plans in light of the pandemic.  

This piece intends to explore various tactics, legal resources, and preventive measures that are currently available at the disposal of family businesses to adopt a viable succession plan and lay down a comprehensive list of suggestions and actions that can be immediately incorporated and undertaken by such entities to this effect.

Dos and Don’ts of Succession Planning

 

While undertaking measures to establish a legacy plan, family harmony and communication are the two keys, which are imperative to be kept at the forefront. It is pertinent to ensure that succession planning does not prove to be detrimental to a family’s peace and unity.

The following two approaches should be incorporated while formulating a succession plan for a family business, in favor of the family’s interest:  

  • Family Harmony Comes First: Successful family business owners have believed that selflessly putting the family first is key to the survival of their business. Decisions that keep the family together should be given priority even if they could potentially cause short-term losses. Dynasties crumble due to family feuds and individual egos overpowering affection and mutual respect.
  • Communication is the Key: There needs to be clarity amongst all the family members, especially the next generation about their future roles. The older generation needs to have an open discussion with the young beneficiaries, about their exit and the subsequent taking over of the business after them. Similarly, the younger generation needs to communicate their plans for the future and expectations in advance so that a succession plan can be tailored in line with their mutual terms of agreements and prospects. It is advisable to engage an external facilitator who can assist the concerned parties to convert their aspirations, interests, and competencies and formulate a plan in the larger interest of the business. If the younger generation wants no part in the family business, then their decision should be respected otherwise a forced responsibility in the family business either through a Will or otherwise will only lead to resentment and strife in the family; and be violative of industry’s regulatory clauses depending upon the nature of business.
 
 

Planning for Protection of Assets in the Event of Succession

 

Most Indian family-owned businesses managed their assets and wealth themselves. Therefore, succession was either governed by will or personal laws. However, since succession and property laws are unique to every religion, the process became complex.

The indifference and ignorance of senior members of the family towards these issues is the primary cause for extensive litigation cases, mainly pertaining to title disputes. The following succession planning tools are recommended to sidestep from such scenarios:

  1. Will: Leaving behind a validly executed Will is the most uncomplicated mode through which a property can be passed down to the next owner. There is no fixed format for a Will under the law. The only requirements for a valid Will according to the Indian Succession Act, 1925 are; it should be made by a sound adult, signed by them, and attested by two witnesses. It is recommended that an Executor be appointed in the Will to reduce hassles. It is not compulsory to register a Will. Probate is also required only if the Will is made in Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, and Assam and within the local limits of the ordinary original civil jurisdiction of the High Courts of Madras and Bombay or where the property of the deceased is situated in these areas.

There are two scenarios that are to be considered while determining the ownership of a share in the family business after the death of a person:

  • In case a person dies leaving a Will: A person can make a bequest of his share in the family business by a Will according to the constitution of the family business:
    1. Corporate Structure: Large family businesses often operate through a private company structure in which the shares are issued to family members and the management positions are held by family members. Shares held by an individual family member can be willed by that person. A family company continues to operate after one’s death as it is a separate legal entity. The assets in the company belong to the Company alone and cannot form part of the estate and therefore cannot be transferred by a Will.
    2. Partnerships: Most small-scale family businesses in India work through the partnership model. The Partnership Deed between the family members as partners should ideally have a clause that provides for the procedure to be followed on the death of a partner. A family business owner can make a bequest of his share in the partnership in the Will, but the beneficiary does not become a partner to the firm unless all the partners of the firm consent to it.
    3. HUF: Many traditional family businesses do not have a formal document in place but may operate through a Hindu Undivided Family (HUF). According to Section 30 of the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, a person can make a testamentary disposition of his share in a co-parcenary property i.e he may dispose of his share in the assets of the family business (HUF) through a Will.
  • In case a person dies without leaving a Will: The ownership of the stake in the family business will be determined by intestate succession i.e succession according to the personal law of the deceased individual. The heirs will be determined in accordance with the religion of the intestate for example Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Jains will be governed by the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, Muslims will be governed by the Mohammedan Law and all others will be determined by the Indian Succession Act, 1925.
  1. Trusts: The Indian Trusts Act, 1882 governs the creation of a Private Trust. A trust may be created during the lifetime of a person, referred to as the author / s It may be created with a written legal document through which the assets of the settlor are placed into a trust and trustees are appointed therein who manage these assets for the benefit of the settlor and the beneficiaries named in the Trust Deed. The biggest advantage of Trust is that it operates both during and after a person’s life.
    • A written Trust Deed is signed by the Settlor, requires a minimum of two trustees and two witnesses. The trust may or not be registered; registration is required only if an immovable property is transferred to the trust.
    • Family wealth can be secured with the help of trusts. The manner of conducting business, areas of responsibility, and pre-empting scenarios can also form part of the trust constitution.
    • Another benefit of Trust as a planning option is its dependability during a crisis. It helps in ringfencing the assets from any action taken by creditors or banks in the event of a financial crisis.
    • When a settlor dies, the trustee pays the debts, files the tax returns, and distributes the assets of a deceased. Trusts are an effective estate-planning tool if one wants to avoid the costs and hassles involved in obtaining probate. It is a quick and quiet procedure, preserving one’s privacy and done without any court interference.
  1. Family Constitution/ Charter/ Framework: Business assets such as securities can be accounted for in a Will or a Trust, however, it is also necessary for a family business to plan for succession of management of the business. These are often covered in Family Constitutions or any other business manifests. It clearly lays out the interaction between the family and the business. It is a document that can be used for governing the administration of the family business. Apart from detailing the values and ethos of the family business, it may also specify rules like the incoming generation would need to get a master’s degree and, work outside to ensure they are well equipped when they join the business. It may also make provisions for events like death, marriage and divorce in the family. However, for any family members to succeed onto the Board of Directors or any other Key Managerial Position, resolutions by the existing Board of Directors and/or shareholders would be required. It is recommended that the younger generation (if adults) should be made aware of the Family Charter, allowed to participate and their opinions should be given due consideration so that the document is in line with the thoughts of the incoming members of the business. This helps in maintaining a balance between the old and the new.
  1. Family Arrangements: Family arrangement resolves present or possible future disputes among family members ensuring equitable distribution of property among the family members. In a Family arrangement, a member gives up all claims in respect of all the properties in dispute other than the ones falling to their share. The rights of all the others are recognized. Therefore, under a Family arrangement, members of a family may decide amongst themselves about the distribution of the property of the deceased. A Family arrangement would have to be appropriately stamped and registered. However, even oral arrangements are valid in the eyes of law.
  1. Clear Retirement Policies: While making a succession plan, there should be a provision for a clear retirement policy that includes defining the benefits and shareholding of the outgoing generation post-retirement.
  1. Guardianship: Where minor children are involved, it is very important to make provisions either in a Will or by Trust, for appointing a guardian for minor children in the event of a parent’s death. If one parent dies, then the other living parent likely becomes the guardian subject to personal laws. If both parents die, then it is needed to mention who will be accorded guardianship. Failure to do so will involve the intervention of courts and various applicable laws given India’s pluralistic society. The need for an appropriate guardian is not only to provide for personal needs but to also ensure that the share of minors in family businesses are protected during the period of minority.
  1. Conflict Resolution Forums: Family disputes are often dragged to courts and fought in public. Creating conflict resolution forums in the family constitution is recommended where family members can discuss their differences and resolve disputes amicably. These forums may consist of trusted family members or outsiders like family friends who can fairly resolve the dispute. In case the dispute continues, family members may resort to mediation or arbitration. Litigation should be used only as a last resort. To maintain peace in the family, a well-drawn-out conflict resolution forum is necessary. Resorting to legal recourse at the first opportunity creates hostility and breaks down family relations.
  1. Setting up of Family Offices: Keeping track of investments and family wealth as it grows can become an extremely cumbersome task. Family Offices rescue family businesses and high net worth individuals from such burdens along with managing the administrative issues that crop up daily. Family Offices handle investment portfolios, taxes, provide legal support, maintain documentation, and manage shared assets of the family businesses.
  1. Choosing a Successor: The family business will flourish only if a family member has the passion to take on the responsibilities to run the day-to-day business. It is, therefore, important to identify a successor who not only has the skill sets to be the leader but also has the drive and excitement to take the business forward. Forcing the responsibility of running the family business onto uninterested family members would be detrimental to the business as the stakes are high for all stakeholders. When deciding between family and non-family members to run the business, the family should objectively identify and evaluate a variety of candidates early on. Whether family or non-family, they should be given the requisite training and opportunities to grow, and the best candidate often emerges over time. If no family member is qualified and/or willing to take the position, then the current leader must make the tough decision to appoint an external candidate or professional for the role.
  1. Mentoring the Next Generation: An important factor for successful business transfer is mentoring of the next generation of leaders before and after they take over the family business. It would be fruitful to train and groom them so that they learn and understand the culture and values on which the business was built. Often, business owners are afraid to give up their central roles in the system and hand over the reins of the business to newcomers even if they are family members. Successful family business leaders have kept aside their egos and objectively help build the mindset of the prospective leaders. One way to groom the next generation is to give them challenging tasks and the autonomy to make their own decisions. The current generation can also create a management training program for the next generation joining the business, in consultation with key senior personnel. This gives them a flavour of various aspects and functions of the business.
  1. Tackling Issues of Nepotism: One of the biggest challenges in any family business is tackling nepotism allegations, especially by the younger generation. Nepotism is inevitably a part of the package deal that cannot be avoided. If an undeserving family member is given a senior position in the business, it may result in low morale amongst the employees. What can be done is, minimalize its effect on the non-family employees. A good way to tackle nepotism is to set out clear employment policies. What qualifications would be required for a certain position in the business and what is expected from a family member if they do take up that role? Giving them compensation based on their performance instead of their relationship within the family, preparing them thoroughly for a position, and giving them jobs that fit their skill sets are some of the best practices which can be adopted by family-run businesses.

Since change is the only constant, the pandemic has forced many family businesses to re-consider and re-structure their succession and legacy planning, as it has drastically increased the probability of unforeseeable deaths and long-term health complications. Demise of the family’s patriarch in the absence of a legitimate will, post-covid health complications rendering everyday functions and business operations redundant are some of the scenarios which are impairing the families resulting in stress, loss of business liquidity, and business opportunities. 

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