Succession planning: Attorney relishes helping family owned businesses


By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Ralph Castelli developed a curiosity and passion for the law at a young age, fascinated by TV shows with legal themes. Fiction became “real life” when then-Oakland County Prosecutor Thomas Plunkett visited his school on career day to share life experiences, from the classroom to the courtroom.

“I never forgot his inspiring presentation and I reminded him of the impact it had on me every time I saw him for decades thereafter,” Castelli says of Plunkett, who died of cancer last month at the age of 78. “Tom was a great lawyer and a great man.”

Castelli realized a law career would provide a great platform to exercise and hone his skills effectively and efficiently solving problems, while benefiting others.

He took only three years to wrap up an undergrad degree in business and economics, with honors, from Michigan State University. With an end goal of integrating business with the practice of law, he built knowledge in areas that would support his ability to protect businesses and move them forward. He went on to graduate magna cum laude from Wayne State University Law School, where he was a member of the Law Review and of the Phi Eta Sigma honorary legal fraternity.

“Wayne is an outstanding law school with an exceptional faculty, and I felt challenged there,” he says. “Between the great and inspiring instructors and my time on Law Review, I could not imagine being at another school.

“Another substantial benefit was that most of my classmates remained in the market practicing at local firms or in-house with local businesses, sustaining an outstanding personal and professional peer network. You cannot underestimate the value of having direct access to such a strong and influential group of leaders.”

Practicing business law early in his career, Castelli developed an expertise in transactions involving business expansion or reduction, loan transactions, acquisitions and sales, and reorganizations.
And since estate planning was a natural entry point for most new clients, he became highly involved in that aspect of the law.

“There’s a great inter-relationship between estate and business planning, and that became a natural area of concentration for me,” he says.

After merging his firm, Umphrey and Castelli, with Kemp Klein in 1987, Castelli became chairman and CEO 9 years later and has served in that role ever since, spearheading a team of 35 attorneys that provide a full range of commercial and financial law services for a diverse client base of families, individuals and entrepreneurs, investors, governmental entities, corporations and other businesses that engage in transactions regionally and nationally.

Castelli’s concentration on business and estate planning is a natural fit for working with family owned businesses, and he finds that niche extremely rewarding.

“It’s both complex and nuanced, and allows you to immerse yourself into both the personal and strategic dynamics of a business,” he says. “Succession planning is always a priority when we have clients that are evolving and transitioning through generational ownership and leadership.”

One interesting case involved a family business that had gone through several generational transitions. While working on what would have been the next generational transition, it became apparent to the majority shareholder that the sustainability of the business long term was, at best, questionable, given intense competition from larger businesses entering his market.

“We developed a way to test his belief, which confirmed the concern,” Castelli says. “With exit as the goal, a strategic business plan was created and deployed to increase both the volume and value of his business. The business was acquired and the family continues to thrive today because of long-range planning and strategic execution.”

Castelli, who maintains an “AV” peer review rating with Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory, has been listed as one of the top 5 percent of attorneys in Michigan by Michigan Super Lawyers magazine since its inception in 2006, in the Corporate Counsel Edition Super Lawyers 2009 and the Business Edition Super Lawyers 2011-15. He has been listed in Who’s Who in American Law since 2005 and been selected by his peers for inclusion in The Best Lawyers in America in the field of Corporate Law.

An elected or appointed official for the city of Pleasant Ridge for 32 of his 64 years, Castelli became involved in local politics to help address the challenge of I-696 construction along the city’s northern border, resulting in the loss of 10 percent of the tax base and condemnation of substantial city property. Initially he served on the planning commission, eventually becoming chairman. During pendency of the last litigation involving the construction of I-696, he was elected to the city commission and five years later, in 1993, became mayor.

“It was a pivotal time in the history of Pleasant Ridge, and the fortunes of the city could have gone either way, depending upon how the condemnation litigation ended up and how other financial challenges facing the city were handled,” he says.

During Castelli’s initial terms as mayor, Pleasant Ridge was successful in settling the I-696 condemnation litigation for a substantial amount that created a form of an “endowment fund” for the city, and also was successful in privatizing DPW services and enacting a 20-year millage to re-build infrastructure.

Although Castelli retired in 2013 after two decades as mayor, he continues to serve on the city’s investment committee. He and his wife also have been active in fund-raising through the Pleasant Ridge Foundation.

“Throughout my 32-year tenure as an appointed or elected Pleasant Ridge public official, I’ve worked with many outside lawyers representing the city on a variety of matters,” he says. “Through that experience of being the representative of a client, I became a better lawyer.”

Pleasant Ridge has been home to Castelli and Debbie, his wife of 38 years, since 1979, and it is where they raised their three sons, all now married. Castelli and his wife enjoy spending time with their five grandchildren, and travel. He also enjoys golf and skiing, and holds a black belt in karate.

Castelli was born in Royal Oak Hospital, the precursor to Beaumont, located in what is now the Washington Square Building in downtown Royal Oak.

“If you were to draw a circle of a three-mile radius around that building, and throw out my time in East Lansing and law school, I’ve never lived outside that three-mile radius,”’ he says. “We’ve always loved living in an area that has four truly different seasons, and relish the winter and outdoor winter activities.”