A corporation (sometimes called a regular or C-corporation) differs from a sole proprietorship and a partnership because it’s a legal entity that is entirely separate from the parties who own it. It can enter into binding contracts, buy and sell property, sue and be sued, be held responsible for its actions, and be taxed. Once businesses reach any substantial size, it is advantageous to organize as a corporation so that its owners can limit their liability. Corporations, then, tend to be far larger, on average, than businesses using other forms of ownership. Most large well-known businesses are corporations, but so are many of the smaller firms with which you likely do business.
Ownership and Stock
Corporations are owned by shareholders who invest money in the business by buying shares of stock. The portion of the corporation they own depends on the percentage of stock they hold. For example, if a corporation has issued 100 shares of stock, and you own 30 shares, you own 30 percent of the company. The shareholders elect a board of directors, a group of people (primarily from outside the corporation) who are legally responsible for governing the corporation. The board oversees the major policies and decisions made by the corporation, sets goals and holds management accountable for achieving them, and hires and evaluates the top executive, generally called the CEO (chief executive officer). The board also approves the distribution of income to shareholders in the form of cash payments called dividends.
Benefits of Incorporation
The corporate form of organization offers several advantages, including limited liability for shareholders, greater access to financial resources, specialized management, and continuity.
The most important benefit of incorporation is the limited liability to which shareholders are exposed: they are not responsible for the obligations of the corporation, and they can lose no more than the amount that they have personally invested in the company. Limited liability would have been a big plus for the unfortunate individual whose business partner burned down their dry-cleaning establishment. Had they been incorporated; the corporation would have been liable for the debts incurred by the fire. If the corporation didn’t have enough money to pay the debt, the individual shareholders would not have been obligated to pay anything. They would have lost all the money that they’d invested in the business, but no more.
Incorporation also makes it possible for businesses to raise funds by selling stock. This is a big advantage as a company grows and needs more funds to operate and compete. Depending on its size and financial strength, the corporation also has an advantage over other forms of business in getting bank loans. An established corporation can borrow its own funds, but when a small business needs a loan, the bank usually requires that it be guaranteed by its owners.
Because of their size and ability to pay high sales commissions and benefits, corporations are generally able to attract more skilled and talented employees than proprietorships and partnerships.
Continuity and Transferability
Another advantage of incorporation is continuity. Because the corporation has a legal life separate from the lives of its owners, it can (at least in theory) exist forever.
Transferring ownership of a corporation is easy: shareholders simply sell their stock to others. Some founders, however, want to restrict the transferability of their stock and so choose to operate as a privately-held corporation. The stock in these corporations is held by only a few individuals, who are not allowed to sell it to the general public.
Companies with no such restrictions on stock sales are called public corporations; stock is available for sale to the general public.
Drawbacks to Incorporation
Like sole proprietorships and partnerships, corporations have both positive and negative aspects. In sole proprietorships and partnerships, for instance, the individuals who own and manage a business are the same people. Corporate managers, however, don’t necessarily own stock, and shareholders don’t necessarily work for the company. This situation can be troublesome if the goals of the two groups differ significantly.
Managers, for example, are often more interested in career advancement than the overall profitability of the company. Stockholders might care more about profits without regard for the well-being of employees. This situation is known as the agency problem, a conflict of interest inherent in a relationship in which one party is supposed to act in the best interest of the other. It is often quite difficult to prevent self-interest from entering into these situations.
Another drawback to incorporation—one that often discourages small businesses from incorporating—is the fact that corporations are more costly to set up. When you combine filing and licensing fees with accounting and attorney fees, incorporating a business could set you back by $1,000 to $6,000, or more depending on the size and scope of your business. Additionally, corporations are subject to levels of regulation and government oversight that can place a burden on small businesses. Finally, corporations are subject to what’s generally called “double taxation.” Corporations are taxed by the federal and provincial governments on their earnings. When these earnings are distributed as dividends, shareholders pay taxes on these dividends. Corporate profits are thus taxed twice—the corporation pays the taxes the first time and the shareholders pay the taxes the second time.