Prepare your company for the unthinkable: What happened when my spouse and business partner died suddenly

When Steve van Schouwen died suddenly at age 49, good planning made it possible for his wife, Michelle, to carry on their business.  (Photo courtesy of The Republican, Springfield, MA)

When Steve van Schouwen died suddenly at age 49, good planning made it possible for his wife, Michelle, to carry on their business. (Photo courtesy of The Republican, Springfield, MA)

Often we live in a bubble of sorts. We hear about terrible things happening to other people and we feel awful for them. At the same time, we may assume that (somehow) those are the things that happen only to others – not to us.

So when presumably healthy Steve van Schouwen, who had been my husband for 26 years and my business partner for 20, died without warning of cardiac arrest at age 49, my bubble broke.

Now that time has passed since the heartbreak of Steve’s 2006 death, I speak to business groups about the experience of navigating our company through the aftermath of losing its co-founder. This article will outline some of the major points I discuss in those (still difficult) speaking engagements. Many of the suggestions are valid in transitional and management situations different than the one I faced, so I invite you to find value where you can.

When Steve died, I was driven by my determination not to compound my personal loss with any weakening of the company we had built together. Odd as it sounds, I was lucky in some ways, as Steve and I had planned intensively for any contingency we could face, thanks both to some Type A personality characteristics we shared, and to having read an excellent article in Inc. Seeing where we fell short, we made changes. As it turned out, we did this right on time, since Steve’s unexpected death occurred less than a year later.

Here’s what we learned and did, and what helped my business in the most difficult of times:

• Plan for the unthinkable. Do you have a will and other estate planning documents? Is everything up to date? Have you expressed your intentions for the future of your business after your passing? Be sure to pick your executor carefully; it can be a particularly tough job when there is a business involved.

• Decide if you have adequate life insurance. We wanted enough to help pay for our sons’ college educations in the absence of either parent’s earnings, and to help with short-term funding for any staff replacements required. (Don’t forget disability insurance either, since death is not the only misfortune that might occur.)

• Institutionalize your company where you can. Assuming that you have employees, don’t make your company dependent on you alone. At van Schouwen Associates (vSA), employees have the background and the authority to make many decisions. In addition, Steve had shared much of his knowledge and work process with the staff, so they were able readily to assume new responsibilities when he could no longer be there. In fact, we promoted two staff members to reorganize in the face of losing Steve’s contributions.

• Put your business in writing. We have operational guides, employee handbooks, a project tracking system, and a range of other tools that larger companies have and smaller ones often lack. They helped preserve us!

• Share information with your trusted partner or executor of your will! Sorry for the capital letters, but there are many business PASSWORDS you absolutely must share (or put in a safe deposit box at the very least). The same goes for information about bank accounts, investments, and much more.

• Be honest about any looming problems. Are there any lawsuits or troubles brewing? Any major debts your partner or executor should know about? Contracts, leases or other agreements?

• Communicate. Immediately after Steve died, our company communicated with everyone who needed to know what had happened and what would happen next, providing assurance that we remained committed to serving our clients well. We continued (and continue still) to communicate frequently about our company and its work, value and mission.

Eight years later, we’re at a “new normal” at vSA. We often mention Steve, remembering his talent, his wonderful quotes about business and his legendary sense of humor. (And I sometimes think how he would have loved advances in digital technology, many of which he predicted.) Our company makes annual charitable donations in Steve’s memory, because he deserves a great legacy. We’re glad to have remained strong, and I’m thankful to our staff, our clients, our communities, and, still, to the monumental work Steve did while he was with us.

______

Michelle van Schouwen is president of van Schouwen Associates, LLC (vSA), a B2B marketing company based in Longmeadow, MA. The company is known for vSALaunch, its proprietary, modular and scalable system for B2B marketing launches, as well as its expertise in integrated marketing for B2B. Michelle has had the good fortune to manage vSA for 30 years. She is grateful for the ongoing love and support of her family, friends, business associates, and her beloved second husband, Don.

Contact Michelle at michelle@vsamarketing.com

1 comment

  1. Nicolene says:

    I believe it is necessary to be prepared for anything anytime. With all the crime and unhealthy living today you can't take any chances and you must always be prepared to look after your family after you're gone.

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