RICH PICKINGS: Let me drive, dad

For older entreprenuers like Frank Lowy, Rupert Murdoch and Harry Triguboff, strong succession plans are essential. However, sometimes stepping down from you beloved empire isn't that easy.

During his recent royal tour of Australia, News Corp executive chairman Rupert Murdoch, who is aged 78, made a few telling admissions on the issue of succession.

In an interview with Sky News, he revealed that a special committee of the News Corp board meets every three or four months to discuss the topic of who might follow Murdoch in the top job.

But exactly what goes on at those meetings isn't clear – it appears the special committee isn't very close to settling on a name.

While Murdoch also told Sky that he would like one of his children to take over when he departs the scene – his son James and daughter Elisabeth currently work in the News Corp empire – exactly who is the front runner is a mystery.

"I am sure one of them will emerge," Murdoch said . "It would be nice. Every parent likes to see that."

Investors in News Corp will be pleased to hear Rupert is at least considering the idea of succession – a far cry from two years ago, when he (half) joked that he would like to live forever.

Of course, Murdoch is not the only wealthy entrepreneur for who the question of succession looms large. Of the 200 people on BRW's Rich 200, 22 are over the age of 75, including Frank Lowy, Harry Tribugoff and Bruce Gordon.

But contrast Murdoch's vague plans with that of Richard Pratt, who died earlier this year after a long battle with cancer.

Pratt's succession plan was drawn up some five years before his death and clearly articulated to family members and (through the media) to customers, suppliers and other stakeholders. From the outside at least, it appears the Visy empire hasn't missed a beat since Pratt passed away.

It seems most of our older entrepreneurs have followed Pratt's lead rather than that of Murdoch, and have solid succession plans in place (all ages and wealth figures are taken from the Rich 200):

Frank Lowy
Wealth: $4.2 billion
Age: 78

Frank Lowy remains executive chairman of Westfield and shows no signs of slowing down, as shown by his passionate support for Australian soccer. Lowy is one with a clear succession plan in place involving his three sons: Steven Lowy is managing director of Westfield, while Peter runs Westfield's US business and David Lowy operates the family's private
investment vehicle, Lowy Group Holdings.

Harry Triguboff
Wealth: $3.66 billion
Age: 76

Apartment king Harry Triguboff has two children, but his thoughts on succession are simple – he has no intention of retiring and no firm succession plans. Who might run the business on his departure remains a mystery at this stage.

David Hains
Wealth: $2.01 billion
Age: 78

The reclusive hedge fund doyen David Hains has all but handed control of his business to his sons Stephen, Richard and Michael.

Stan Perron
Wealth: $1.7 billion
Age: 86

Perth-based entrepreneur Stan Perron remains actively involved in the running of his company Perron Group, although day-to-day control rests with chief executive Ian Armstrong and chief financial officer Ross Robertson. Two years ago Armstrong told Forbes the Perron Group board was "ensuring that the group continues in perpetuity for the benefit of the Perron family."

Bruce Gordon
Wealth: $1.27 billion
Age: 80

Bruce Gordon, owner of the regional television company WIN Corporation remains heavily involved in his business, although his son Andrew Gordon is official executive chairman and the natural person to take over the business.

Bob Oatley
Wealth: $1.25 billion
Age: 80

Oatley, best known as the founder of the Rosemount wine label, spends a good part of the year racing his yacht, Wild Oats. He does, however, run a wine business with his sons Sandy and Ian.

While the overwhelming majority of entrepreneurs on the above list appear to have solid, well-though-out succession plans, those who are still active in the day-to-day operations of their business must still answer one question: When is the right time step away from their beloved empire?

It appears to be a question private company owners are grappling with around Australia. Separate surveys of private business owners (who are also generally in the high-net-worth individual category) from accounting firms KPMG and PricewaterhouseCoopers show that the vast majority of business owners have postponed succession for at least the next two years.

Anecdotally at least, it seems the GFC has forced many business owners to reconsider whether or not the next generation is really ready to fully take over. And anyway, why should they step down from the business they built, nurtured and grew?

The danger is what Andrew Kesik, partner with accounting firm PKF, calls the "Prince Charles effect" – that is, where the heir to the throne is forced to wait and wait and wait while the founder delays their succession indefinitely. The longer the wait, the more leadership tensions and even resentment can build.

That's a situation that most billionaires – including Murdoch – would be very keen to avoid.

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