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  • Writer's pictureBirkdale Transition Partners

Gates Divorce – The Split Heard Around the World & Key Takeaways for Family-Owned Business

The news of the Bill and Melinda Gates divorce sent shockwaves around the world for several reasons -- the implications to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and its extensive charitable endeavors, the impact on their investments as they split their $170 Billion fortune, and the fact that Bill is joining Jeff Bezos in the Billionaire Bachelor Club. If there is a silver lining to this sad news, perhaps it is that the negative buzz surrounding bizarre unfounded conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 vaccine and Bill Gates plotting to implant devices in our brains will go away. (Editorial note – Nonsense – get the vaccine!).

Photo by Bill Pierre Villard/Shutterstock

As an expert in transition planning for family-owned business and privately owned companies, I find this news fascinating on a business level. Although Bill and Melinda have been married for decades, Bill was clearly the driving force behind Microsoft. However, Bill and Melinda’s passion project with their Foundation and investments clearly put them in the category of a business owning family. Beyond their stock in Microsoft and establishment of the Foundation, they reportedly have deep stakes in dozens of businesses (big, small, public, and private). There is a lot to untangle from a financial standpoint, as well as questions to address from an operational one. Early reports indicate that both Bill and Melinda will continue their joint efforts in the Foundation. However, how the rest of the investments and involvement is divvyed up remains unclear.

What is clear is the shock value of this news is also an opportunity for family-owned businesses or business-owning families to also glean some key takeaways. One key takeaway is that before this news was announced to shareholders and the world, the Gates’ already addressed key continuity issues surrounding their Foundation. They came out with a strong statement of unity around their core values. The Gates’ also sought to keep their personal acrimony with each other out of the media and public knowledge for the sake of their family and their business interests (although there is the National Enquirer, but regular folks need not worry about that).

Another key takeaway emerging this week is the resignation of key board member and influencer, Warren Buffet, from the Foundation board. The timing of this resignation could easily look like commentary on Buffet’s opinion on the future of the Foundation. However, it has come to light that his was planned well in advance, and perhaps the news was even timed to happen months after the divorce for purposes of optics. Buffet is transitioning many of his board positions to a trusted new executive as he reflects on his age and tenure, the billionaire shared he is “past the fourth quarter and into overtime.”

While the Gates family is an extreme example of the importance of transition planning, whatever the transition may be, their thoughtful approach to consideration of stakeholders, timing, unity, and values is a model for others. I wish them the best.

Want to learn more?

H. Barry Goodman, Birkdale Transition Partners, helps businesses prepare to eventually transition the business and move onto the next stage in their life. Facilitating goals, planning and Transition-Readiness can have a huge impact on the outcome.

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