Ask for an indemnity.

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Commercial contracts are packed with risks. In fact the contract itself is one big risk. However, ironically, contracts are the safest way to conduct business; we need them! So, since we cannot avoid contracting with each other we have to ensure that we protect our interests in every contract that we sign. A key way to do this, is to ask for an indemnity clause.  An indemnity clause is a contractual transfer of risk between two contractual parties to prevent loss (you are not liable if X happens) or to ensure compensation for a loss (the other party reimburses you for any loss suffered if Y happens) which may occur as a result of a specified event (X or Y event). Let’s take a look at some examples of indemnity clauses:

  1. Basic Indemnities – Party A indemnifies Party B for all liabilities or losses incurred in connection with specified events or circumstances. For example, if you are contracting with a construction company to build your new store, you will want a basic indemnity saying that the construction company will compensate you for all losses if one of its subcontractors fails to do the job to the specification set out in the contract. If a subcontractor tiles the roof poorly, the construction company is liable for all losses ensuing from that subcontractor’s poor job. Pretty good right? However, basic indemnities can be troublesome as they do not set out any specific limitations on the indemnity. They are silent as to whether they indemnify losses arising out of YOUR own acts and/or omissions that cause the subcontractor to tile the roof poorly. What if you give the sub-contractor the wrong instructions or you don’t give the subcontractor access to the site on time?  This basic indemnity operates so that the construction company indemnifies you for the poor job of the subcontractor, even if the poor job was your fault. You may be thinking well, that’s great, but it’s only great if you are the party receiving such an indemnity. That’s why basic indemnities should be avoided where possible.
  2. Proportionate or Limited Indemnities – These indemnities rectify the potential unfairness of a basic indemnity (explained above) as they limit the indemnity. Sticking with the example above, say you obtain an indemnity from the construction company to the effect that the construction company is liable for all losses ensuing from a subcontractor’s poor job – a limited indemnity will go on to state “except those losses incurred as a result of [your] own acts and/or omissions”. If the subcontractor’s poor job is your fault you don’t get compensated. Seems fair.
  3. Third Party Indemnities – If third parties are involved in the operation of the contract, as in the example above, you may not want anything to do with them since you are contracting with them. Following on from the above example, what happens if a subcontractor isn’t paid for their work? You wouldn’t want to be liable for that. You can protect against this by asking the construction company to indemnify you for all liabilities relating to its subcontractors so that the subcontractors are always the construction company’s issue and not yours.

These are very high level examples which would make most lawyers (if they’re good) chuckle. Indemnities can be very complex and they should at the very least always be more than a basic indemnity. Here are some of the things your lawyer should consider when drafting an indemnity clause for you:

  1. Scope – The scope of the indemnity must be clear so that the intended protection is given.
  2. Context – An indemnity clause should always be drafted in consideration of the wider commercial context of the agreement. Is it applicable?
  3. Extent – Who does the indemnity cover and are there any limitations to the indemnity? If the indemnity is given by the other side but not its contractors or representatives, then the extent to which this offers protection will be limited.
  4. Insurance: There is no point in having an indemnity if the indemnifier cannot pay out in an event of breach. An obligation to insure to a level consistent with the indemnity obligation will provide comfort that the indemnifier has the means to back up the indemnity given.
  5. Caps: Indemnities can be capped but any such cap should be subject to careful consideration. Where an indemnity has a financial cap, the indemnified party may, depending on any other limitation clauses, still have an uncapped claim in contract law for any breach of contract.

As with many of my posts, this is a very simplified overview. You really need a lawyer to draft indemnity clauses because they are essentially financial obligations with very serious consequences. The aim of this post is to make you aware of them so that you can ask your lawyer about them. You may want receive indemnities as added protection or you may want to offer indemnities to show the other side that you mean business (they can be great for negotiation)!  So go ahead and ask your lawyer about them. Pick up one of your contracts and check to see if you have a few in there already.

I must also emphasise that an indemnity is a distinct right from the right to claim damages for breach of contract. If the construction company breaches a clause in the contract you still have your common law right to sue for damages. Any limitations under an indemnity will be for that indemnity only. This is important because limited indemnities often exclude any loss ensuing from your own negligence whereas a claim for breach of contract can be brought even where you too have been negligent. Ask your lawyer, they’ll break it down for you!

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The bigger picture – selling your business.

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Ok, so it’s great that you’ve got your own business and that you’re doing so well. BUT, the question is do you want to be doing this forever? I don’t think so. If your business isn’t getting passed on to another generation then you’re probably looking to, one day, sell it and make a hefty profit! This post is a heads up about the things you need to be doing NOW, in order to build a product (yes, your business is your product) that sells quickly and at the best price possible. Here are my top tips!

Keep it clean – Your business must not have skeletons in its closet. I’ve said this before. Either you eradicate those skeletons or you confess to them, preferably the former. If you have unpaid bills, taxes or ongoing litigation, your business will not sell or it may sell BUT at a DISCOUNTED price. This is because instead of purchasing a nice shiny product, the buyer is purchasing a whole lot of risk. Risk is financial uncertainty and in business we despise financial uncertainty. We are constantly mitigating against it. So, clean up your business and keep it clean. Carry out your due diligence REGULARLY. Do not neglect complaints from clients or scary regulatory letters. The buyer of your business will carry out its own due diligence and it will be thorough. Would you buy a car without a test drive or seeing under the bonnet? Nope, I didn’t think so.

Show them the money – If you want to sell your business you have to be super transparent with your numbers. Start planning now to make sure that your business has a financial record to attract a good buyer. Maintain a healthy working capital, renegotiate supply contracts and make sure that you are getting the best deals for your business. Also, get on top of your debt. Pay off as many of your loans as possible. Think about what is actually costing your business money. If your business requires a lot of machinery, are you using all of that machinery? Can you sell some of it? Don’t forget your forecasts – get them ready and back them up with evidence.

Create and implement a business manual – It is amazing how many of my clients do not have systems and procedures for the simplest of things to do with the day to day operation of their business. If you sell products worldwide, you should not be selling those products on ad hoc procedures. You should have a clear process that the buyer of your business can step into tomorrow and operate. You should have systems in place for every aspect of your business. You should have formalised documents. Get your lawyer to draft standard form employee contracts, terms and conditions, disclaimers, policies etc. Also, is the structure and ownership of the company clear? Make the ownership as clear and as transparent as possible.

Show them your A team – Behind every great business is a strong and passionate management team. Your management team is a big part of your business’ valuation. It is therefore crucial that you consider if your business can retain good employees – this may require considered incentives. The buyer of your business will want all your key people to be a part of the sale. It will also want the assurance that your business is not a DIY job; show off your professional support. Your lawyer, your accountant, your consultant all make an impression. Those relationships matter because they instil confidence in the buyer that everything to do with your business has been done properly. Also seek advice from your A team. What do they think? Get your lawyer to review your business structure and advise you as to whether you need to change it in order for it to be an attractive purchase. Your lawyer will take you through the whole process and organise all of the legal paperwork to ensure that there are no unnecessary complications before and after the sale. You really need everyone on board advising. I have worked on an international acquisition where the whole deal was restructured because of tax. It was cheaper to do it another way! Three days before closing we had to change everything!

You may be far off from selling your business at this point in time, but if you want a big pay out someday, you should start doing all of the above now!

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How to… speed sign low value contracts.

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Right, this goes against my lawyer instincts because in my opinion you should always read everything you sign, in as much detail as possible. However, if you genuinely do not have the time and it is a considerably low risk document (so not worth a million pounds/dollars), then here are three things to do before you sign which will alert you of any potential risks and give you some protection going forwards.

  1. Exclusion and limitation clauses – Look for these types of clauses or ask outright if there is such a clause in what you are signing (get them to refer you to it so you can check their honesty). This will list or summarise everything that the contract/document does not include and what the other party is not liable for. The best example of a document riddled with such clauses, is an insurance policy. When you sign an insurance policy, it is important that it covers what you want and one of the quickest ways to confirm this, is to take a quick look at what is excluded. For example Billy asks Janet for an insurance policy for his car. Janet gives him an insurance policy for his car. Billy is in a hurry for a meeting and trusts that he has been given a policy to insure his car, HOWEVER he flicks to the exclusion clause and sees that the policy does not cover RED cars. Billy’s car is maroon, so, arguably red. Billy takes this up with Janet. Janet amends the policy for Billy so that the operative clause clearly states that Billy’s maroon (and therefore not red) car is covered. Always check what a contract expressly excludes.  If it excludes accidental damage and you need it to cover all damage then obviously you are not signing. Another example would be a limitation of liability clause, often found in services contracts. Say for example you hire a professional polisher to polish your silver worth £3,000 but the contract of hire states that liability for any damage arising out of the contract at the fault of the professional polisher, is limited to £500 only. Obviously, you are not going to sign. Who’s going to pay for the remaining £2,500 worth of damage? Always check how liability of the other party is limited. If you sign a contract with a rubbish liability clause, that’s your fault.
  2. Payment provisions – Always check that the numbers are what you agreed. An extra zero here, a missing discount there is BAD for business. If you have agreed a specific discount just take that second to double check that it is expressly in the contract. DO NOT worry if the other party finds it offensive that you are checking, they will respect you for it. Even if my best friend gave me a contract to sign, I would check it right before their very eyes! Also, what happens if you pay late or you have a dispute with a charge? What does the contract say about that? Checking this clause or asking directly about this clause (then getting them to refer you to it specifically) will ensure that the most important thing of all, money, is properly accounted for!
  3. Termination – Imagine your face when you try to switch suppliers and you find that you have signed an indefinite contract! That’s a worst case, silly scenario but hopefully it highlights how important it is to know how to get out of a contract before you sign it (I’ve said this before). Business is unpredictable and you may need to get out of a contract really fast – knowing the termination provisions at the outset can help you to consider all possible scenarios in which you may want to terminate the contract early and therefore judge whether the contract in question is one you want to sign or amend.

I have to also add the obvious cautions, check who you are contracting with. If you are doing business with Joe Blogs Plc make sure it says Joe Bloggs Plc and not Joe Bloggs Ltd. Also, don’t forget the dates, it will take no time at all to make sure the document is dated correctly. Again, these are just TIPS for those of you ALREADY signing standard contracts without checking ANYTHING. If you are one of these people, at least check the above three things or else suffer the consequences. Once you sign a commercial contract, there is very little anyone can do for you if it turns out to be a bad deal. The Courts have no sympathy for business to business contracts because both parties are considered sophisticated.

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