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Different types of business
Different types of business

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4 Ownership structures and legal forms

Businesses not only vary in size and industry but also in their ownership. Some are owned by just one person or a small group of people, some are owned by large numbers of shareholders, some are owned by charitable foundations or trusts, and some are even owned by the state. Different ownership structures overlap with different legal forms that a business can take. A business’s legal and ownership structure determines many of its legal responsibilities, including the paperwork that the owners need to complete in order to set up the business, the taxes the business has to pay, how profits from the business are distributed, and the owners’ personal responsibilities if the business makes a loss or goes bankrupt.

It is not necessary to go into great detail on legal forms and ownership structures here but a short overview will help you to appreciate the diversity of businesses. At the broadest level it is possible to distinguish between organisations that are owned and run by private owners, those that are owned and run by the state and those that are run by voluntary organisations. Here we will first look at different types of privately owned businesses.

Legal forms and ownership structures of businesses are different from country to country. In the United Kingdom the majority of businesses (but not all) are sole traders, limited companies or business partnerships (UK Government, n.d.).

  • Sole trader – a person who is running a business as an individual. Sole traders can keep all the business’s profits after paying tax on them but they are personally responsible for any losses the business makes (i.e. they would have to cover them out of their private money if necessary), paying the bills incurred by the business (e.g. stock or equipment), and keeping a record of all sales and expenditures. Sole traders can take on employees – the term implies that they own the business on their own, not that they must work there alone.
  • Limited company – an organisation set up by its owners to run their business. A limited company is a legal person. Of course, a company is not a person in the sense we commonly understand it. What the term means is that the law regards a limited company as having the same legal standing as a person, i.e. it has legal rights and obligations in itself, which are independent from the rights and obligations of its owners as individuals. For example, a limited company can own property. A limited company’s finances are separate from the finances of its owners. Any profit made after taxes belongs to the company. The company can then share its profits, most commonly among all the owners. Limited companies have ‘members’, i.e. the people who own the shares. A limited company also has ‘directors’. Directors may be share owners but they don’t have to be. Shareholders’ and directors’ responsibilities for the company’s financial liabilities (such as losses or debts) are limited to the value of their shareholdings. This means that they do not have to pay out of their personal income or assets if the company runs into financial difficulties. There are two main types of limited company: private limited companies and public limited companies. The shares of public limited companies (PLCs) are traded in the stock market, where anybody can buy shares in the company if they wish to do so. Private limited companies are not traded in the stock market and other people can only buy shares in them with the approval of the current owners (for example, if they are invited to invest in the company by the current owners).
  • Business partnerships – an arrangement where two or more individuals share the ownership of a business. There are two main types of partnership: general partnerships and limited partnerships. In a general partnership all partners are personally responsible for the business, meaning they are liable for any losses or debts with their personal income or wealth if necessary. In a limited partnership partners are not personally liable if the business incurs any losses or debts. Profits from a partnership are shared between the partners and each partner then pays taxes on their share. There are a lot of fine details and several possible permutations in the structure of business partnerships, which are important when setting one up but need not concern us any further here.

There are some other legal ownership structures for businesses in the UK (including some different laws relating to partnerships in Scotland) but the three introduced above are the most common. Similar business ownership structures exist in many other countries although the precise legal implications can differ in important ways.

Legal and ownership structures, business size and industry sector are not entirely independent of each other. For example, most sole traders tend to be small businesses, not least because a single individual rarely has the financial capacity to finance a very large business, nor the desire to be personally liable with all that they own if a large business were to run into financial troubles. Certain industry sectors require large businesses. For example, it is not viable to run a small steel works because the physical and financial investment required are so large. In other cases, industry sector and legal form are closely related. For example, law firms and some other professional service firms with more than one professional working in them in the United Kingdom are legally required to be set up as partnerships and no other ownership or legal structure is permitted.