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An unlimited company or private unlimited company is a hybrid company (corporation) incorporated with or without a share capital (and similar to its limited company counterpart) but where the legal liability of the members or shareholders is not limited: that is, its members or shareholders have a joint, several and non-limited obligation to meet any insufficiency in the assets of the company to enable settlement of any outstanding financial liability in the event of the company's formal liquidation.
The joint, several and non-limited liability of the members or shareholders of such an unlimited company to meet any insufficiency in the assets of the company (to settle its outstanding liabilities if any exist) applies only upon the formal liquidation of the company. Therefore, prior to any such formal liquidation of the company, any creditors or security holders of the company may have recourse only to the assets of the company, not those of its members or shareholders.
Until such an event occurs (formal liquidation), an unlimited company is similar to its counterpart, the limited company, in which its members or shareholders have no direct liability to the creditors or security holders of the company during its normal course of business or existence.
Unlimited companies are found in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Hong Kong, Pakistan, Nigeria, India, Australia, New Zealand and other jurisdictions where the company law is derived from English law. They can also be found in Germany, France, Macao, Czech Republic and in three jurisdictions in Canada (Alberta, British Columbia, and Nova Scotia), where they are called unlimited liability corporations. In the United Kingdom, the "private unlimited company" is formed or incorporated by registration under the Companies Act 2006, of which there are a few thousand such companies on the register, similar in volume to the public limited company, both corresponding in stark contrast to the few million of private limited companies registered.
An unlimited company has the benefit and status of incorporation, the same as its limited company counterpart. Situations for which an unlimited company will be preferred to an alternative business model or its limited company counterpart include these:
- secrecy concerning financial affairs is desired, effectively shielding and protecting its financial affairs from public, media and competitor analysis, making them non-public information, including shareholder dividend payments: a United Kingdom unlimited company, unlike its limited company counterpart, is by the very nature of its legal liability generally not required to publish or make public its company financial statements (file its annual financial accounts at Companies House).
- the company is active or trading in an area where limited liability is not acceptable, vital or practical, but perpetual succession is important.
- extending, in general, a greater assurance and confidence to creditors and trade financial transactions, in contrast to its limited company counterpart.
- there is a low risk of insolvency.
- the company or its trading activities has or generates sufficient capital, funds or financing without need to approach general lenders such as high-street retail banks.
- developing more advantageous company and business capital strategies in an ever-increasing irreversible trend of bank disintermediation by companies and their management.
- a focused higher standard of board of directors and executive management behaviour (or probity) and business model for risk management.
- a flow-through entity is required for United States federal tax purposes, under the entity classification rules.
Once formed or incorporated, an unlimited company can, in some jurisdictions, also re-register and designate itself to limited company status at any time with few formalities, the same also extending to a limited company, which may at any time re-register and designate itself to unlimited company status.
Notable unlimited company examples
The unlimited company is not a very common or well-known or promoted form of company incorporation (due to the narrow focus of generic company formation registration agents) and is not always required under company law to add or state the word Unlimited or its abbreviations (Unltd., or Ultd.) at the ending of its legal company name, making it not easily recognisable without first reviewing its certificate of incorporation or government registry status. Notable examples in the United Kingdom include these:
- the UK subsidiary of the international retail clothing group C&A (UK company number 00524665),
- Land Rover (UK company number 04019301), formerly an unlimited company until 4 October 2013,
- GlaxoSmithKline Services Unlimited (UK company number 01047315) part of GlaxoSmithKline plc,
- The Equitable Life Assurance Society (UK company number 00037038),
- Credit Suisse International (UK company number 02500199), the United Kingdom investment banking arm of Credit Suisse,
- the publishing company of British author Ian McEwan (UK company number 07473219), and
- C. Hoare & Co (UK company number 00240822), England's oldest privately owned bank.
- Coutts & Co (UK company number 00036695), a private banking subsidiary of the Royal Bank of Scotland.
Republic of Ireland
In the Republic of Ireland, local subsidiaries of a number of American companies have registered as private unlimited companies, enabling them to shield their finances from public disclosure, media and competitor analysis. Janssen Pharmaceutical, a subsidiary of its US parent company Johnson & Johnson, re-registered as an unlimited company to avoid the requirement to file annual financial accounts at the Companies Registration Office (CRO) of Ireland, thereby effectively also protecting a portion of Johnson & Johnson's financial information. A number of Irish European Union subsidiaries of Apple Inc. did the same, such as Apple Sales International and Apple Retail Europe, as have a number of other Irish European Union subsidiaries of American companies, such as Etsy, Google, Dropbox and LinkedIn.
Other notable global trading companies such as Mobil Producing Nigeria Unlimited (a subsidiary of Exxon Mobil) and Texaco Overseas (Nigeria) Petroleum Company Unlimited (part of the merged Chevron and Texaco petroleum conglomerates) exist in Nigeria, amongst others. In the USA, another notable example is the American Express Company, which once was a publicly traded unlimited liability company, re-incorporating itself with limited liability company status only in 1965.
- Section 3, restating section 1(2) of the Companies Act 1985: "Where there is no limit on the liability of the company's members, a company is an "unlimited company".
- Companies House (United Kingdom). Yearly statistics on company incorporations and dissolutions, and the total size of the register: Companies register activities 2016-17 spreadsheet.
- Companies House website: Companies Act 2006 Guidance. Chapter 5 - Accounts for Companies House
- As of 4 October 2013 re-registered to "private limited company" status, and the company name changed to Jaguar Land Rover Holdings Limited
- Carswell, Simon (16 August 2008). "Janssen move keeps financial affairs private". The Irish Times. Archived from the original on 2008-10-03. Retrieved 28 November 2016.
- "Artisan goods marketplace Etsy taps secret Irish tax haven". The Irish Times. 2015-08-14. Retrieved 2017-09-30.
- "Apple firm re-registers as unlimited company". ThePost.ie. The Sunday Business Post. 2006-07-16. Archived from the original on 2008-10-03. Retrieved 2008-10-03.
- "Apple paid $36m tax on $7.11bn profits at Irish unit". The Irish Times. 2014-03-07. Retrieved 2017-09-30.