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Running a business when you are grieving

Updated: Nov 9, 2020

As we come out of lockdown, life has changed forever for most of us. The way we work, the way we live and the way we socialise. However, for many of us, there has been one more factor to deal with - the loss of someone we love to COVID-19.

Coping with the loss of someone or something you love is one of life’s biggest challenges and it can feel overwhelming. The pain of grief can also disruptive to every aspect of life - sleeping, eating or even thinking straight. During the lockdown, families and friends couldn't even get together to grieve, to talk about shared memories and get some measure of comfort from each other.

Just over a week ago, we lost someone who was an amazing human being, a son, a husband, a brother and a father. It has been one of the most devastating weeks for our family and has broken our spirit and made us question everything but in the same breath it has consolidated us into one living entity. We have been united in overwhelming grief that doesn’t need words when we talk to each because it is a pain that needs no voice. It is written in every fibre of our beings. We didn't lose him to COVID and it was completely sudden and unexpected. It shook the ground we all stood on.

I spent most of last week on the telephone with family and unable to concentrate on anything but mindless TV programmes where I didn't have to engage my brain. I couldn't concentrate and I needed to connect with all of those who really knew him. I didn't have the energy to move beyond getting basic things done - like getting out of bed and dressed.

But there were things that had to be done and work was piling up. As the old adage goes - life goes on! Businesses still need to be run, decisions still need to be made, work problems continue and staff still need direction. I was lucky! We have a great senior management team and staff who have devolved authority and responsibility. They gave me time.

As I came back to my desk this week, I thought about all those business owners who may have had to deal with grief in the last few months but still have to carry on because livelihoods, especially in these time, depend on them. They may not have had the luxury of time.

So what happens if you can't afford to grieve?

Small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) owners are the most amazing people and are driven by their passion to create something meaningful. They are builders, makers, creators, innovators–you name it! The top priorities for most small business owners are creating something valuable and leaving a legacy. They have been passionate about their business, taken less holidays than the general public and given their blood, sweat and tears to make it succeed.

Nearly half of all small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) owners in the UK fear their business is under threat of closure due to the impact on trading caused by Covid-19 and the country’s lockdown measures. According to a new survey from insurer Simply Business, 41% of owners were concerned the pandemic would force them to close for good, and 4% said they’d already folded — a figure Simply Business suggested represents 234,000 firms when the results are generalised to the UK’s 5.8 million SMEs. Those staying afloat are having to pump some of their own money into the business with no guarantee they will ever recover it.

Business owners are already emotionally overloaded trying to keep their businesses afloat.

So when you are already dealing with a world that is changing shape so fast that you can't catch breath, how do you also cope with grief? Or if you are dealing with grief how can you also make sure that your business, and the livelihoods that depend on it survive? What do you do?

I am not sure there is a right or wrong answer here but I know that each person has to do what is best for them at that time. Grieving is a highly individual experience; there’s no right or wrong way to grieve and inevitably, the grieving process takes time. Healing happens gradually; it can’t be forced or hurried and there is no “normal” timetable for grieving.

There are many owners who will just shut up shop and others who will work a day at a time to save what they have built. There are others who will put their energy into their business to stop themselves thinking about their grief and then others who will just wither away and maybe sell their businesses.

When we sold our businesses, we were at our lowest point emotionally and it hurt to do so. They were sold for really valid reasons and absolutely the right thing to do at that moment in time. However, it took years for me to walk past the street they were located and more years than that to do so dispassionately. What hurt was seeing the changes because the new owners had not taken enough time to understand what had made the business unique and easily recognisable. They made it vanilla.

When I started the M&A business, there was one thing that I was absolutely sure of. It was going to be about the people first. M&A has generally been about the strategic growth; acquisition of business knowledge; increasing market share; diversification of product range; decreasing competition and of course costcutting. However, the most important assets in any business at all are the people in that business. They are the ones that make that business successful. Without good people, a business is a sheet of numbers.

The culture of what happens in a company comes from the very top and that is what makes SMEs successful.

SME owners have built a successful company with trusted employees and when the owner is hurting so are their staff. When you want to sell your business, you want the new owners to know what makes the business tick and it may not be as simple as looking at the P&Ls and balance sheet. You need to look at the people and how they feel about their place of work. You need to understand the nuances of everyday relationships and each employee's fears and hopes for their jobs. You need to address all the questions by the owner and their loyal staff with honesty, integrity and a little humility.

At MGG Capital Partners, we start with the people and know that the reasons for selling your business are varied and personal. But whatever they are, they are important. When you are selling your business because grief has led you there, it is a challenging time when you are feeling vulnerable and bereft. This is another decision that you have to make that is going to heartbreaking. We understand that. We have been there.

If you are just thinking of closing shop, please don't. Talk to us first. You should see your life's work prosper even though you feel like you can't deal with it anymore. This is not meant to be a sales pitch but this last week has made me think of the other times when business and grief were incompatible.

I know that a helping hand that has a little understanding attached to it goes a long way.
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