Thursday, November 4, 2010

Anticipated Rule Change Could Spur IPOs of Family Owned Businesses

Family owned businesses play a central role in the economies of both developed and developing regions around the globe. Economic studies estimate that 40 percent of large companies in the United States and Europe are family owned. In the Middle East this percentage is even greater: more than 80 percent of Middle Eastern companies are owned or operated by a single family. However, the ownership dynamics within controlling families is quite fluid. Experts believe that over the next 10 years companies worth approximately US$1 trillion will be passed from one generation to the next within business-owning families.

In Oman, the central role of family owned businesses is even more pronounced. The local press has cited HE Yahya Bin Said Al Jabri, Executive President of the MSM, in reporting that 95 percent of Omani companies are family owned.

For this reason, safeguarding the future of Oman’s family businesses has been a key priority in the Sultanate’s economic development model. Recent plans announced by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry to lower capital dilution requirements suggest that the most promising future path for some family owned businesses may lie in tapping Oman’s public capital markets. This path leads directly to augmented share capital and strengthened corporate governance mechanisms.

According to a report in the Times of Oman, the government is preparing a new set of amendments to the Commercial Law which will lower the minimum capital dilution from 40 percent to just over 20 percent for family owned businesses undertaking initial public offerings (IPOs) on the Muscat Securities Market (MSM). By lowering the percentage of equity in the company that the law requires a family to relinquish, family owned companies should be more likely to float of portion of their shareholdings on the MSM.

The goal of these amendments and the policy behind them is that promoting public flotation will (i) strengthen family owned businesses by allowing them access to public investment capital; (ii) refine their corporate governance practices through adherence to listing standards; and (iii) streamline access to professional strategic and management advice that could fill potential succession gaps.

While Oman’s family owned businesses are currently among the strongest and most respected enterprises in the Sultanate, some family businesses may face vulnerabilities over the longer term. A leading professional services firm recently released a survey indicating that relatively few family businesses in the region survive beyond the third generation. That report also highlighted that only 16 percent of family owned businesses have instituted a clearly defined succession plan.

Another potential area of vulnerability for family owned businesses is the need for larger amounts of capital to compete in an increasingly international, big-player dominated environment. Concurrently, the more restrictive credit environment in recent years and some high-profile defaults by family owned businesses has made borrowing necessary capital much more difficult. Loosening the requirements for tapping the equity markets should afford family owned businesses another source of much-needed funds.

Similarly, as companies in many sectors grow larger, they often need a more formalised corporate governance structure in order to function properly. Becoming a publicly listed company and adhering to the MSM’s corporate governance standards should help provide structure and discipline to family owned companies.

Nevertheless, many family businesses have balked at the prospect of raising funds through IPOs. The current 40 percent capital dilution requirement has meant that any firm listing shares has had to give up a substantial ownership stake to public investors. Given that family control has been a central driver of success for many companies, few family businesses have been willing to relinquish that much ownership and such a degree of control. Further, bringing in outside investors and managers has been thought to risk disrupting the company’s culture and shifting focus from long-term development to short-term profits. Consequently, only eight percent of family businesses in the Middle East are publicly traded.

By lowering the minimum capital dilution percentage, the authorities’ objective is to enable family owned companies to bring in outside investors without giving up as much control. This change should enable more family owned businesses in Oman to partake of the advantages of public flotation, while mitigating its risks.