When to Create an Exit Strategy

There is the old saying that the time to develop an exit strategy is the day you open for business. Sounds good, but it’s not very realistic. Further, it also isn’t very optimistic. On the day you open for business, thoughts about how you get out of it aren’t pleasant, or helpful, thoughts. However, as you get the business to a place where you have a bit of extra time to plan, you will find that the things you need to do to improve your business are some of the very things you will need to work on to plan an exit strategy.

You can’t predict misfortune, but you can plan for it. One never knows when an accident or illness will force one to sell. When the drive to your business becomes filled with dread, maybe it’s time to consider selling. The following ideas will improve your business, even if you’re not currently considering selling. Dealing with these areas will also supply the information a buyer will most likely be looking at when the time does come to sell.

Buyers want cash flow.

This, at least on the surface, is the thing a potential buyer will want to look at.

Appearances are important.

You may think everything about the business looks fine, but the two letters on the neon sign that don’t work indicate to a possible buyer that the seller may have lost interest in the business, causing them to also wonder what else doesn’t work or has been neglected.

There is probably more value than you think.

Business owners often don’t look at things that do create real value such as: customer lists, secret recipes, specialized computer systems, programs, customer loyalty programs, etc.

Eliminate the surprises.

Make sure the lease is transferable and that your landlord is willing to cooperate.  Resolve that issue with town hall.  Resolve the problem with that angry customer. Minor problems and issues will often raise their ugly heads during sensitive times, spooking a possible buyer. So, the time to resolve them is before going to market.

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Five Kinds of Buyers

Buyers are generally categorized as belonging to one of the following groups although, in reality, most buyers fit into more than one.

The Individual Buyer

This is typically an individual with substantial financial resources, and with the type of background or experience necessary for leading a particular operation.

The individual buyer usually seeks a business that is financially healthy, indicating a sound return on the investment of both money and time.

The Strategic Buyer

This buyer is almost always a company with a specific goal in mind — entry into new markets, increasing market share, gaining new technology, or eliminating some element of competition.

The Synergistic Buyer

The synergistic category of buyer, like the strategic type, is usually a company. Synergy means that the joining of the two companies will produce more, or be worth more, than just the sum of their parts.

The Industry Buyer

Sometimes known as “the buyer of last resort,” this type is often a competitor or a highly similar operation. This buyer already knows the industry well, and therefore does not want to pay for the expertise and knowledge of the seller.

The Financial Buyer

Most in evidence of all the buyer types, financial buyers are influenced by a demonstrated return on investment, coupled with their ability to get financing on as large a portion of the purchase price as possible.

Almost all the purchasers of the smaller businesses fall into the individual buyer category. But most buyers, as mentioned above actually fit into more than just one category.

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© Copyright 2013 Business Brokerage Press, Inc.

Why Deals Don’t Close

Sellers

  • Don’t have a valid reason for selling.
  • Are testing the waters to check the market and the price. (They are similar to the buyer who is “just shopping.”)
  • Are completely unrealistic about the price and the market for their business.
  • Are not honest about their business or their situation. The reason they want to sell is that the business is not viable, it has environmental problems or some other serious issues that the seller has not revealed, or new competition is entering the market.
  • Don’t disclose that there is more than one owner and they are not all in agreement.
  • Have not checked with their outside advisors about possible financial, tax or legal implications of selling their business.
  • Are unprepared to accept seller financing or now unwilling to accept it.

Buyers

  • Don’t have a valid reason to buy a business, or the reason is not strong enough to overcome the fear.
  • Have unrealistic expectations regarding price, the business buying process, and/or small business in general.
  • Aren’t willing (many of them) to do the work necessary to own and operate a small business.
  • Are influenced by a spouse (or someone else) who is opposed to the purchase of a business.

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Rating Today’s Business Buyers

Once the decision to sell has been made, the business owner should be aware of the variety of possible business buyers. Just as small business itself has become more sophisticated, the people interested in buying them have also become more divergent and complex. The following are some of today’s most active categories of business buyers:

Family Members

Members of the seller’s own family form a traditional category of business buyer: tried but not always “true.” The notion of a family member taking over is amenable to many of the parties involved because they envision continuity, seeing that as a prime advantage. And it can be, given that the family member treats the role as something akin to a hierarchical responsibility. This can mean years of planning and diligent preparation, involving all or many members of the family in deciding who will be the “heir to the throne.” If this has been done, the family member may be the best type of buyer.

Too often, however, the difficulty with the family buyer category lies in the conflicts that may develop. For example, does the family member have sufficient cash to purchase the business? Can the selling family member really leave the business? In too many cases, these and other conflicts result in serious disruption to the business or to the sales transaction. The result, too often, is an “I-told-you-so” situation, where there are too many opinions, but no one is really ever the wiser. An outside buyer eliminates these often insoluble problems.

The key to deciding on a family member as a buyer is threefold: ability, family agreement, and financial worthiness.

Business Competitors

This is a category often overlooked as a source of prospective purchasers. The obvious concern is that competitors will take advantage of the knowledge that the business is for sale by attempting to lure away customers or clients. However, if the business is compatible, a competitor may be willing to “pay the price” to acquire a ready-made means to expand. A business brokerage professional can be of tremendous assistance in dealing with the competitor. They will use confidentiality agreements and will reveal the name of the business only after contacting the seller and qualifying the competitor.

The Foreign Buyer

Many foreigners arrive in the United States with ample funds and a great desire to share in the American Dream. Many also have difficulty obtaining jobs in their previous professions, because of language barriers, licensing, and specific experience. As owners of their own businesses, at least some of these problems can be short-circuited.

These buyers work hard and long and usually are very successful small business owners. However, their business acumen does not necessarily coincide with that of the seller (as would be the case with any inexperienced owner). Again, a business broker professional knows best how to approach these potential problems.

Important to note is that many small business owners think that foreign companies and independent buyers are willing to pay top dollar for the business. In fact, foreign companies are usually interested only in businesses or companies with sales in the millions.

Synergistic Buyers

These are buyers who feel that a particular business would compliment theirs and that combining the two would result in lower costs, new customers, and other advantages. Synergistic buyers are more likely to pay more than other types of buyers, because they can see the results of the purchase. Again, as with the foreign buyer, synergistic buyers seldom look at the small business, but they may find many mid-sized companies that meet their requirements.

Financial Buyers

This category of buyer comes with perhaps the longest list of criteria–and demands. These buyers want maximum leverage, but they also are the right category for the seller who wants to continue to manage his company after it is sold. Most financial buyers offer a lower purchase price than other types, but they do often make provision for what may be important to the seller other than the money–such as selection of key employees, location, and other issues.

For a business to be of interest to a financial buyer, the profits must be sufficient not only to support existing management, but also to provide a return to the owner.

Individual Buyer

When it comes time to sell, most owners of the small to mid-sized business gravitate toward this buyer. Many of these buyers are mature (aged 40 to 60) and have been well-seasoned in the corporate marketplace. Owning a business is a dream, and one many of them can well afford. The key to approaching this kind of buyer is to find out what it is they are really looking for.

The buyer who needs to replace a job is can be an excellent prospect. Although owning a business is more than a job, and the risks involved can frighten this kind of buyer, they do have the “hunger”–and the need. A further advantage is that this category of buyer comes with fewer “strings” and complications than many of the other types.

A Final Note

Sorting out the “right” buyer is best left to the professionals who have the experience necessary to decide who are the best prospects.

Today’s Business Buyer: A Profile

Today’s independent business marketplace attracts a wide variety of buyers eager for a piece of ownership action. Buyers of small businesses are most likely replacing lost jobs or searching for a happier alternative to corporate life. Buyers of mid-sized and large operations are, typically, private investment companies seeking businesses to build and eventually sell for a profit. This is the broadest possible look at the types of buyers out there. Business owners considering putting their business on the market should be aware of the finer “distinctions” among buyers, as well as what they are looking to buy, and why.

1. Individual Buyer
This is typically an individual with substantial financial resources and with the type of background or experience necessary for leading a particular operation. The individual buyer usually seeks a business that is financially healthy, indicating a sound return on the investment of both time and money. If these buyers do not have the amount of personal equity required for acquisition, they most likely will turn to family members or venture capital sources for financing. (Buyers and sellers should be aware that, in many cases, seller financing will be an essential element, benefitting both parties in the long run.)

Even when such sources are available, the individual buyer will hit a strong bottom line when it comes to price. Therefore, these buyers will usually limit themselves to transactions involving less than $1 million, cash.

2. Strategic Buyer
This buyer is almost always a company, having as its goal to enter new markets, to increase market share, to gain new technology, or to eliminate some element of competition. In essence, it is part of this buyer’s “strategy” (hence the name) to acquire other businesses as part of a long-term plan. Strategic buyers can be either in the same business as the company under consideration, or a competitor. Example: a bank in one part of a state purchases or merges with one in another part of the same state. The acquiring bank enters a new market and “eliminates” competition at the same time.

Strategic buyers will be looking chiefly at businesses with sales over $20 million, with a proprietary product and/or unique market share, and effective management both in place and willing to remain.

3. Synergistic Buyer
The synergistic category of buyer, like the strategic type, is usually a company. The difference is that, with this buyer, the acquisition or merger flows from the complementary nature of the purchasing company and the company for sale.

Synergy means that the joining of the two companies will produce more, or be worth more than just the sum of their parts. Example: a large real estate company purchases a mortgage company. It can now use its existing customers (those who buy homes) and offer them the mortgage funds to finance their purchases. The benefits of this type of acquisition help both companies be more competitive and profitable.

4. Industry Buyer
Sometimes known as “the buyer of last resort,” this type is often a competitor or a highly similar operation. This buyer already knows the industry well and, therefore, does not want to pay for the expertise and knowledge of the seller. The industry buyer is interested mainly in combining manufacturing facilities, consolidating overhead, and utilizing the combined sales forces. These buyers will pay for assets (but probably not what the seller thinks they are worth); they will not pay for goodwill, covenants not to compete, or consulting agreements with the seller. There can be some cases in which the industry buyer is also a strategic buyer, with the price determined by motivation.

5. Financial Buyer
Of all the buyer types, financial buyers are most influenced by a demonstrated return on investment, coupled with their ability to get financing on as large a portion of the purchase price as possible. Working on the theory that debt is the lowest cost of capital, these buyers purchase businesses with the sole purpose of making the maximum amount of money with the least amount of their capital invested.

Each type of buyer has distinctive characteristics that correlate to the motivation behind the purchase of a particular company. In addition, the price each is willing to pay for a company is directly proportional to the motive. The relative sizes of acquisitions by different buyer types (compressed into their broader categories), is shown in the accompanying chart (keep in mind that all figures are approximate):

 
Type of Buyer (Less than $3 million) ($3 to 10 million) ($10 million):

 

Sole Proprietors (45%) (25%) (5%)

Public Companies (30%) (20%) (20%)

Private Companies (10%) (15%) (15%)

Investment Groups (20%) (30%) (20%)

Why Do Deals Fall Apart?

In many cases, the buyer and seller reach a tentative agreement on the sale of the business, only to have it fall apart. There are reasons this happens, and, once understood, many of the worst deal-smashers can be avoided. Understanding is the key word. Both the buyer and the seller must develop an awareness of what the sale involves–and such an awareness should include facing potential problems before they swell into floodwaters and “sink” the sale.

What keeps a sale from closing successfully? In a survey of business brokers across the United States, similar reasons were cited so often that a pattern of causality began to emerge. The following is a compilation of situations and factors affecting the sale of a business.

The Seller Fails To Reveal Problems 
When a seller is not up-front about problems of the business, this does not mean the problems will go away. They are bound to turn up later, usually sometime after a tentative agreement has been reached. The buyer then gets cold feet–hardly anyone in this situation likes surprises–and the deal promptly falls apart. Even though this may seem a tall order, sellers must be as open about the minuses of their business as they are about the pluses. Again and again, business brokers surveyed said: “We can handle most problems . . . if we know about them at the start of the selling process.

The Buyer Has Second Thoughts About the Price 
In some cases, the buyer agrees on a price, only to discover that the business will not, in his or her opinion, support that price. Whether this “discovery” is based on gut reaction or a second look at the figures, it impacts seriously on the transaction at hand. The deal is in serious jeopardy when the seller wants more than the buyer feels the business is worth. It is of prime importance that the business be fairly priced. Once that price has been established, the documentation must support the seller’s claims so that buyers can see the “real” facts for themselves.

Both the Buyer and the Seller Grow Impatient 
During the course of the selling process, it’s easy–in the case of both parties–for impatience to set in. Buyers continue to want increasing varieties and volumes of information, and sellers grow weary of it all. Both sides need to understand that the closing process takes time. However, it shouldn’t take so much time that the deal is endangered. It is important that both parties, if they are using outside professionals, should use only those knowledgeable in the business closing process. Most are not. A business broker is aware of most of the competent outside professionals in a given business area, and these should be given strong consideration in putting together the “team.” Seller and buyer may be inclined to use an attorney or accountant with whom they are familiar, but these people may not have the experience to bring the sale to a successful conclusion.

The Buyer and the Seller Are Not (Never Were) in Agreement 
How does this situation happen? Unfortunately, there are business sale transactions wherein the buyer and the seller realize belatedly that they have not been in agreement all along–they just thought they were. Cases of communications failure are often fatal to the successful closing. A professional business broker is skilled in making sure that both sides know exactly what the deal entails, and can reduce the chance that such misunderstandings will occur.

The Seller Doesn’t Really Want To Sell 
In all too many instances, the seller does not really want to sell the business. The idea had sounded so good at the outset, but now that things have come down to the wire, the fire to sell has all but gone out. Selling a business has many emotional ramifications; a business often represents the seller’s life work. Therefore, it is key that prospective sellers make a firm decision to sell prior to going to market with the business. If there are doubts, these should quelled or resolved. Some sellers enter the marketplace just to test the waters; to see if they could get their “price,” should they ever get really serious. This type of seller is the bane of business brokers and buyers alike. Business brokers generally can tell when they encounter the casual (as opposed to serious) category of seller. However, an inexperienced buyer may not recognize the difference until it’s too late. Most business brokers will agree that a willing seller is a good seller.

Or…the Buyer Doesn’t Really Want To Buy 
What’s true for the mixed-emotion seller can be turned right around and applied to the buyer as well. Buyers can enter the sale process full of excitement and optimism, and then begin to drag their feet as they draw closer to the “altar.” This is especially true today, with many displaced corporate executives entering the market. Buying and owning a business is still the American dream–and for many it becomes a profitable reality. However, the entrepreneurial reality also includes risk, a lot of hard work, and long intense hours. Sometimes this is too much reality for a prospective buyer to handle.

And None of the Above 
The situations detailed above are the main reasons why deals fall apart. However, there can be problems beyond anyone’s control, such as Acts of God, and unforeseen environmental problems. However, many potential deal-breakers can be handled or dealt with prior to the marketing of the business, to help ensure that the sale will close successfully.

A Final Note 
Remember these components in working toward the success of the business sale:

  • Good chemistry between the parties involved.
  • A mutual understanding of the agreement.
  • A mutual understanding of the emotions of both buyer and seller.
  • The belief, on the part of both buyer and seller, that they are involved in a good deal

Buying (or Selling) a Business

The following is some basic information for anyone considering purchasing a business. Is may also be of interest to anyone thinking of selling their business. The more information and knowledge both sides have about buying and selling a business, the easier the process will become.

A Buyer Profile

Here is a look at the make-up of the average individual buyer looking to replace a lost job or wanting to get out of an uncomfortable job situation. The chances are he is a male (however, more women are going into business for themselves, so this is rapidly changing). Almost 50 percent will have less than $100,000 in which to invest in the purchase of a business. More than 70 percent will have less than $250,000 to invest. In many cases the funds, or part of them, will come from personal savings followed by financial assistance from family members. He, or she, will never have owned a business before. Despite what he thinks he wants in the way of a business, he will most likely buy a business that he never considered until it was introduced, perhaps by a business broker.

His, or her primary reason for going into business is to get out of his or her present situation, be it unemployment, job disagreement, or dissatisfaction. The potential buyers now want to do their own thing, be in charge of their own destiny, and they don’t want to work for anyone. Money is important, but it’s not at the top of the list, in fact, it is probably fourth or fifth on their priority list. In order to pursue the dream of owning one’s own business, the buyer must be able to make that “leap of faith” necessary to take the plunge. Once that has been made, the buyer should review the following tips.

Importance of Information 

Understand that in looking at small businesses, you will have to dig up a lot of information. Small business owners are not known for their record-keeping. You want to make sure you don’t overlook a “gem” of a business because you don’t or won’t take the time it takes to find the information you need to make an informed decision. Try to get an understanding of the real earning power of the business. Once you have found a business that interests you, learn as much as you can about that particular industry.

Negotiating the Deal 

Understand, going into the deal, that your friendly banker will tell you his bank is interested in making small business loans; however, his “story” may change when it comes time to put his words into action. The seller finances the vast majority of small business transactions. If your credit is good, supply a copy of your credit report with the offer. The seller may be impressed enough to accept a lower-than-desired down payment.

Since you can’t expect the seller to cut both the down payment and the full price, decide which is more important to you. If you are attempting to buy the business with as little cash as possible, don’t try to substantially lower the full price. On the other hand, if cash is not a problem (this is very seldom the case), you can attempt to reduce the full price significantly. Make sure you can afford the debt structure–don’t obligate yourself to making payments to the seller that will not allow you to build the business and still provide a living for you and your family.

Furthermore, don’t try to push the seller to the wall. You want to have a good relationship with him or her. The seller will be teaching you the business and acting as a consultant, at least for a while. It’s all right to negotiate on areas that are important to you, but don’t negotiate over a detail that really isn’t key. Many sales fall apart because either the buyer or the seller becomes stubborn, usually over some minor detail, and refuses to bend.

Due Diligence 

The responsibility of investigating the business belongs to the buyer. Don’t depend on anyone else to do the work for you. You are the one who will be working in the business and must ultimately take responsibility for the decision to buy it. There is not much point in undertaking due diligence until and unless you and the seller have reached at least a tentative agreement on price and terms. Also, there usually isn’t reason to bring in your outside advisors, if you are using them, until you reach the due diligence stage. This is another part of the “leap of faith” necessary to achieve business ownership. Outside professionals normally won’t tell you that you should buy the business, nor should you expect them to. They aren’t going to go out on a limb and tell you that you should buy a particular business. In fact, if pressed for an answer, they will give you what they consider to be the safest one: “no.” You will want to get your own answers–an important step for anyone serious about entering the world of independent business ownership.

A Buyer’s Quandary

Statistics reveal that out of about 15 would-be business buyers, only one will actually buy a business. It is important that potential sellers be knowledgeable on what buyers go through to actually become business owners. This is especially true for those who have started their own business or have forgotten what they went thorough prior to buying their business.

If a prospective business buyer is employed, he or she has to make the decision to leave that job and go into business for and by himself. There is also the financial commitment necessary to actually invest in a business and any subsequent loans that are a result of the purchase. The new owner will likely need to execute a lease or assume an existing one, which is another financial commitment. These financial obligations are almost always guaranteed personally by the new owner.

The prospective business owner must also be willing to make that “leap of faith” that is so necessary to becoming a business owner. There is also the matter of family and personal responsibilities. Business ownership, aside from being a large financial consideration, is very time consuming, especially for the new business owner.

All of these factors have to be weighed very carefully by anyone that is considering business ownership. Buyers should think carefully about the risks – and the rewards. Sellers should also put themselves in a buyer’s position. The services of a professional business broker or intermediary can help determine the relative pros and cons of the transaction.