Family-Owned Businesses Do Have Choices

Family-owned businesses do have some options when it comes time to sell. Selling the entire business may not be the best choice when there are no other family members involved. Here are some choices to be considered:

Internal Transactions

  • Hire a CEO – This approach is a management exit strategy in which the owner retires, lives off the company’s dividends and possibly sells the company many years later.
  • Transition ownership within the family – Keeping the business in the family is a noble endeavor, but the parent seldom liquefies his investment in the short-term, and the son or daughter may run the company into the ground.
  • Recapitalization – By recapitalizing the company by increasing the debt to as much as 70 percent of the capitalization, the owner(s) is/are able to liquefy most of their investment now with the intent to pay down the debt and sell the company later on.
  • Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) – Many types of companies such as construction, engineering, and architectural are difficult to sell to a third party, because the employees are the major asset. ESOPs are a useful vehicle in this regard, but are usually sold in stages over a time period as long as ten years.

External Transactions

  • Third party sale – The process could take six months to a year to complete. This method should produce a high valuation, sometimes all cash at closing and often the ability of the owner to walk away right after the closing.
  • Complete sale over time – The owner can sell a minority interest now with the balance sold after maybe five years. Such an approach allows the owner to liquefy some of his investment now, continue to run the company, and hopefully receive a higher valuation for the company years later.
  • Management buy-outs (MBOs) – Selling to the owners’ key employee(s) is an easy transaction and a way to reward them for years of hard work. Often the owner does not maximize the selling price, and usually the owner participates in the financing.
  • Initial public offering (IPO) – In today’s marketplace, a company should have revenues of $100+ million to become a viable candidate. IPOs receive the highest valuation, but management must remain to run the company.

Source: “Buying & Selling Companies,” a presentation by Russ Robb, Editor, M&A Today

Copyright: Business Brokerage Press, Inc.

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Who Is Today’s Buyer?

It has always been the American Dream to be independent and in control of one’s own destiny. Owning your own business is the best way to meet that goal. Many people dream about owning their own business, but when it gets right down to it, they just can’t make that leap of faith that is necessary to actually own one’s own business. Business brokers know from their experience that out of fifteen or so people who inquire about buying a business, only one will become an owner of a business.

Today’s buyer is most likely from the corporate world and well-educated, but not experienced in the business-buying process. These buyers are very number-conscious and detail-oriented. They require supporting documents for almost everything and will either use outside advisors or will do the verification themselves, but verify they will. A person who is realistic and understands that he or she can’t buy a business with a profit of millions for $10 down is probably serious. They must be able to make decisions and not depend on outside parties to do it for them. They must also have the financial resources available, have an open mind, and understand that owning one’s own business means being the proverbial chief cook and bottle washer.

Today’s buyers are usually what might be termed “event” driven. This means that the desire to own their own business is coupled with a need or reason. Maybe they have been downsized out of a job, they don’t want to be transferred, they travel too much, they see no future in their current position, etc. Many people have the desire, but not the reason. Most people don’t have the courage to quit a job and the paycheck to venture out on their own.

There are the perennial lookers. Those people who dream about owning their own business, are constantly looking, but will never leave the job to fulfill the dream. In fact, perspective business buyers who have been looking for over six months would probably fit into this category.

Business brokers spend a lot of time interviewing buyers. Here are just a few of the questions they will ask. The answers they receive will determine whether or not the prospective buyer is serious and qualified.

  • Why is the person considering buying a business?
  • Has the person ever owned their own business?
  • How long has the person been looking?
  • Is the person currently employed?
  • What kind of business is the person looking for?
  • Is he or she flexible in the kind of business?
  • What are the most important considerations?
  • How much money is available?
  • What is the person’s timeframe?
  • Does the person’s experience match the type of business under consideration?
  • Who else is involved in the purchase decision?
  • Is the person’s spouse positive about owning a business?

There are other questions and considerations, but those cited above reveal the depth of a buyer interview. Business brokers want to work only with buyers who are serious about purchasing a business. They don’t want to show a business to anyone who is not qualified, which is simply a waste of their time and the seller’s time.

Copyright: Business Brokerage Press, Inc.

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Why Deals Fall Apart — Loss of Momentum

Deals fall apart for many reasons – some reasonable, others unreasonable.

For example:

• The seller doesn’t have all his financials up to date.
• The seller doesn’t have his legal/environmental/administrative affairs up to date.
• The buyer can’t come up with the necessary financing.
• The well known “surprise” surfaces causing the deal to fall apart.

The list could go on and on and this subject has been covered many times. However, there are more hidden reasons that threaten to end a deal usually half to three-quarters of the way to closing. These hidden reasons silently lead to a lack of or loss of momentum.

This essentially means a lack of forward progress. No one notices at first. Even the advisors who are busy doing the necessary due diligence and paperwork don’t notice the waning or missing momentum. Even though a slow-down in momentum may not be noticeable at first, an experienced business intermediary will catch it.

Let’s say a buyer can’t get through to the seller. The buyer leaves repeated messages, but the calls are not returned. (The reverse can also happen, but for our example we’ll assume the seller is unresponsive.) The buyer then calls the intermediary. The intermediary assures the buyer that he or she will call the seller and have him or her get in touch. The intermediary calls the seller and receives the same response. Calls are not returned. Even if calls are returned the seller may fail to provide documents, financial information, etc.

To the experienced intermediary the “red flag” goes up. Something is wrong. If not resolved immediately, the deal will lose its momentum and things can fall apart quite rapidly. What is this hidden element that causes a loss of momentum? It is generally not price or anything concrete.

It often boils down to an emotional issue. The buyer or seller gets what we call “cold feet.” Often it is the seller who has decided that he really doesn’t want to sell and doesn’t know what to do. It may also be that the buyer has discovered something that is quite concerning and doesn’t know how to handle it. Maybe the chemistry between buyer and seller is just not there for one or the other of them. Whatever the reason, the reluctant party just tries to ignore the proceedings and lack of momentum occurs.

The sooner this loss of momentum is addressed, the better the chance for the deal to continue to closing. Because the root of the problem is often an emotional issue, it has to be faced directly. An advisor, the intermediary or someone close to the person should immediately make a personal visit. Another suggestion is to get the buyer and seller together for lunch or dinner, preferably the latter. Regardless of how it happens, the loss of momentum should be addressed if the sale has any chance of closing.

Copyright: Business Brokerage Press, Inc.

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Personal Goodwill: Who Owns It?

Personal Goodwill has always been a fascinating subject, impacting the sale of many small to medium-sized businesses – and possibly even larger companies. How is personal goodwill developed? An individual starts a business and, during the process, builds one or more of the following:

• A positive personal reputation
• A personal relationship with many of the largest customers and/or suppliers
• Company products, publications, etc., as the sole author, designer, or inventor

The creation of personal goodwill occurs far beyond just customers and suppliers. Over the years, personal goodwill has been established through relationships with tax advisors, doctors, dentists, attorneys, and other personal service providers. While these relationships are wonderful benefits, they are, unfortunately, non-transferable. There is an old saying: In businesses built around personal goodwill, the goodwill goes home at night.

It can be difficult to sell a business, regardless of size, where personal goodwill plays an integral role in the business’ success. The larger the business, the less likely that one person holds the key to its profitability. In small to medium-sized businesses, personal goodwill can be a crucial ingredient. A buyer certainly has to consider it when considering whether to buy such a business.

In the case of the sale of a medical, accounting, or legal practice, existing clients/patients may visit a new owner of the same practice; they are used to coming to that location, they have an immediate problem, or they have some other practical reason for staying with the same practice. However, if existing clients or patients don’t like the new owner, or they don’t feel that their needs were handled the way the old owner cared for them, they may look for a new provider. The new owner might be as competent as, or more competent than, his predecessor, but chemistry, or the lack of it, can supersede competency in the eyes of a customer.

Businesses centered on the goodwill of the owner can certainly be sold, but usually the buyer will want some protection in case business is lost with the departure of the seller. One simple method requires the seller to stay for a sufficient period after the sale to allow him or her to work with the new owner and slowly transfer the goodwill. No doubt, some goodwill will be lost, but that expectation should be built into the price.

Another approach uses some form of “earnout.” At the end of the year, the lost business that can be attributed to the goodwill of the seller is tallied. A percentage is then subtracted from monies owed to the seller, or funds from the down payment are placed in escrow, and adjustments are made from that source.

In some cases, the sale of goodwill may offer some favorable tax benefits for the seller. If the seller of the business is also the owner of the personal goodwill, the sale can essentially be two taxable events. The tax courts have ruled that the business doesn’t own the goodwill, the owner of the business does. The seller thus sells the business and then also sells his or her personal goodwill. The seller’s tax professional will be able to give further advice on this matter.

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Copyright:Business Brokerage Press, Inc.

The Pre-Sale Business Tune-Up

Owners are often asked, “do you think you will ever sell your business?” The answer varies from, “when I can get my price” to “never” to “I don’t really know” to everything in between. Most sellers may think to themselves when asked this question, “I’ll sell when the time is right.” Obviously, misfortune can force the decision to sell. Despite the questions, most business owners just go merrily along their way conducting business as usual. They seem to believe in the old expression that basically states, “it is a good idea to sell your horse before it dies.”

Four Ways to Leave Your Business

There are really only four ways to leave your business. (1) Transfer ownership to your children or other family members. Unfortunately, many children do not want to become involved in the family business, or may not have the capability to operate it successfully. (2) Sell the business to an employee or key manager. Usually, they don’t have enough cash, or interest, to purchase the business. And, like offspring, they may not be able to manage the entire business. (3) Selling the business to an outsider is always a possibility. Get the highest price and the most cash possible and go on your way. (4) Liquidate the business – this is usually the worst option and the last resort.

When to Start Working on Your Exit Plan

There is another old adage that says, “you should start planning to exit the business the day you start it or buy it.” You certainly don’t want to plan on misfortune, but it’s never to early to plan on how to leave the business. If you have no children or other relative that has any interest in going into the business, your options are now down to three. Most small and mid-size businesses don’t have the management depth that would provide a successor. Furthermore liquidating doesn’t seem attractive. That leaves attempting to find an outsider to purchase the business as the exit plan.

The time to plan for succession is indeed, the day you begin operations. You can’t predict misfortune, but you can plan for it. Unfortunately, most sellers wait until they wake up one morning, don’t want to go to their business, drive around the block several times, working up the courage to begin the day. It is often called “burn-out” and if it is an on-going problem, it probably means it’s time to exit. Other reasons for wanting to leave is that they face family pressure to start “taking it easy” or to move closer to the grandkids.

Every business owner wants as much money as possible when the decision to sell is made. If you haven’t even thought of exiting your business, or selling it, now is the time to begin a pre-exit or pre-sale strategy.
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Considering Selling? Some Things to Consider

  • Know what your business is worth. Don’t even think about selling until you know what your business should sell for. Are you prepared to lower your price if necessary?
  • Prepare now. There is an often-quoted statement in the business world: “The time to prepare your business to sell is the day you buy it or start it.” Easy to say, but very seldom adhered to. Now really is the time to think about the day you will sell and to prepare for that day.
  • Sell when business is good. The old quote: “The time to sell your business is when it is doing well” should also be adhered to. It very seldom is – most sellers wait until things are not going well.
  • Know the tax implications. Ask your accountant about the tax impact of selling your business. Do this on an annual basis just in case. However, the tax impact is only one area to consider and a sale should not be predicated on this issue alone.
  • Keep up the business. Continuing to manage the business is a full-time job. Retaining the best outside professionals is almost a must. Utilizing a professional business intermediary will allow you to spend most of your time running your business.
  • Finally, in the words of many sage experts, “Keep it simple.” Don’t let what looks like a complicated deal go by the boards. Have your outside professionals ready at hand to see if it is really as complicated as it may look.

 

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Can You Really Afford to Sell?

In many cases, the sale of a small company is “event” driven. That is, the reason for sale is often an event such as a health decline or illness, divorce, partnership issues, or even a decline in business.

A much more difficult reason for selling is one in which the owners simply want to retire and live happily ever after. Here is the problem:

Suppose the owners have a very prosperous distribution business. They each draw about $200,000 annually from the business plus cars and other benefits. If the company sold for $2 million, let’s say after debt, taxes and closing expenses, the net proceeds would be $1.5 million. Sounds good, until you realize that the net proceeds only represent about 3 1/2 years of income for each (and that doesn’t include the cars, health insurance, etc.). Then what?

The above scenario is not atypical, especially in small companies. These are solid companies that provide a very comfortable living for two owners. In the above example, the owners obviously decided they couldn’t sell because it didn’t make economic sense to them. The business was worth much more to the owners than to any outside buyer. Perhaps they thought that an intermediary could produce a buyer who would be willing to pay far more than the business was worth. But, the M&A market is a fairly efficient one.

So, what should they do?

The downside is that competition could enter the fray and their business would not bring in the same cash flow.

The business could also suffer because the owners are not continuing to build it. They apparently want to retire and take life easy, and this mind-set could dramatically undermine the business.

If the owners are forced to sell the business because it is declining, they, most likely, won’t even receive the $2 million they might have received earlier.

On the other hand, the owners, ready to begin their happily ever after, could bring in a professional manager. This addition would cut their earnings slightly to pay for the new manager, but it would also reduce their responsibilities and give the business a chance to grow with new energy and ideas.

 

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Surprises CEOs Face When Selling Their Companies

Surprise #1: Substantial Time Commitment

In the real estate business, once the owner engages the broker there is very little for the owner to do until the broker presents the various offers from the potential buyers.  In the M&A business, there is a substantial time commitment required of the CEO/Owner in order to complete the sale properly, professionally and thoroughly. The following examples are worth noting:

Offering Memorandum:

This 30 + page document is the cornerstone of the selling process because most business intermediaries expect the potential acquirers to submit their initial price range based on the information presented in this memorandum.  The intermediary will heavily depend on the CEO/Owner to supply him or her with all the necessary facts.

Suggestions of Potential Acquirers:

Chances are that the sales manager is the only person who knows the best companies to contact and those not to contact (competitors).  Arguably, this information should be mostly supplied by the intermediary, but as a thorough team effort, the CEO/Owner should play a major role in this endeavor.

Management Presentations:

Assuming the intermediary conducts the normal process of boiling down the bidders to 4 or 5 potential acquirers, it is then customary to have management presentations before the final bids are submitted.  In order to help extract the best offers, it is advisable that the CEO show the benefits of combining the acquirer and seller and/or the future upside for the selling company.

Surprise #2: The Need to Enjoin Other Employees in the Process

A number of owners selling their company are paranoid about a confidentiality leak regarding the sale of their company.  In fact, some owners prefer that no other person in the organization is aware of the pending sale of the company.  At a bare minimum, the CFO and Sales Manager should be informed.  The CFO will be asked to pull all the financials together, to supply projections, to articulate reconstructed earnings (add-backs) and to supply monthly statements…all of which suggest that the company is being sold.  The Sales Manager will be asked to supply the names of synergistic companies in or around the particular industry.  And, perhaps, the CEO’s secretary will be asked to set up a “war room” where all legal and contractual information is assembled for the buyer’s due diligence team.  In order to protect the company from confidentiality leaks and assure retention of key employees, the CEO/Owner should implement “stay agreements” for these key employees.

Surprise #3: The Need to Maintain, or Accelerate, Sales

The tendency for some owners is to become so distracted with the M&A process that they take their “eye off the ball” in running the business on a daily basis.  Potential acquirers will be watching the monthly sales reports like a hawk to see if there is a turn-down in business.  Acquirers become very apprehensive when they see a recent downward trend in the company they are about to acquire and may, as a result, want to negotiate a lower price.

Surprise #4: A Confidentiality Leak

Naturally, most CEOs expect the M&A process to go smoothly and usually it does.  However, there should be a contingency plan in place for such occurrences as confidentiality leaks.  The degree of damage determines what action should be implemented.  On one occasion the draft of the Offering Memorandum was e-mailed to the CEO/Owner for his corrections; however, the sender from the brokerage firm used one incorrect letter in the CEO’s e-mail address.  As a result of this misstep, the e-mail was rejected by the CEO’s computer and ended up in the company’s general mailbox which was administered by the employee in charge of IT.  The employee was told by the quick-thinking CEO that the Offering Memorandum was being used to raise growth capital.  Luckily, the incident went no further.  Much more serious confidentiality leaks can occur, and it is wise to discuss ahead of time how the matter is going to be handled with those concerned.

Surprise #5: Unexpected Low Bids

Ultimately, the M&A market sets the price of the company. However, rarely does a seller go to market without having certain expectations of price.  Let’s use a hypothetical case in which a company is growing at 15% annually.  The CEO/Owner believes that it is worth $6 million based on $1 million of EBITDA.  However, the top bid is $5 million cash or, obviously, 5 times EBITDA.  Assuming the business intermediary has exhausted the universe of acquirers, the seller has two choices to reach his desired $6 million selling price.  Either he can take the company off the market and return several years later when either the company’s earnings have improved or when the M&A market has heated up.  Alternatively, the CEO can negotiate further with the top bidder by selling 80% of the company now and the remaining 20% in three years on a pre-arranged formula on the expectation that business will improve.  Or, the CEO can sell the company now for $5 million with an earnout formula that might give him the additional $1 million.

Surprise #6: The P&S Agreement is Not What the CEO Expected

Numerous CEOs drive the M&A process to the letter of intent and then turn over the deal to their attorney to iron out the details of the purchase and sale agreement.  While the CEO should not micro-manage his designated professional advisors in the transaction, he should be involved throughout the process, or otherwise the CEO will invariably object to the final wording of the document at the signing state.  The area most likely to be overlooked by the CEO/Owner is the critical section of reps and warranties.

Surprise #7: Agreement of Other Stakeholders

While the CEO can negotiate the entire transaction, the sale is not authorized until certain stakeholders agree in writing, namely the Board of Directors, majority of the shareholders, financial institutions which have a lien on certain assets, etc.

Conclusion

For many CEOs, selling their company is a once in a lifetime experience.  They may be very experienced, very talented executives, but they can also be blind sided by surprises when selling their company.

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Company Weaknesses

Take two seemingly identical companies with very similar financials, but one of the companies was worth substantially more than the other company.  One company will sell for $10 million “as is” or some changes can be made and the same company can be sold for $15 million. Following is a partial list of potential company weaknesses to consider in order to assess a company’s vulnerability.

Customer Concentration:  First, one has to analyze the situation.  The U.S. Government might be considered one customer but from ten different purchasing agents.  Or, GM might have one purchasing agent but be directed to ten different plants.  One office product manufacturer with $20 million in sales had 75% of its business with one customer…Staples.  They had three choices: 1. Cross their fingers and remain the same; 2. Acquire another company with a different customer base; or 3. Sell out to another company.  They selected the third choice and took their chips off the table.  The acquirer was a $125 million competitor which was unable to sell to Staples, so after absorbing the smaller company, the customer concentration to Staples was only about 10% ($125m + $20m=$145m of which $15 million was sold to Staples or 10+%).

Single Product: Perhaps the most famous example of a single product acquisition is when General Motors overtook Ford’s single product, the Model A, with Alfred Sloan’s brilliant concept of a different model for people with different financial thresholds.  Henry Ford’s stubbornness to stay with one product (Model A) almost cost the company its existence.

Regional Sales/Limited Marketing:  Companies with parochial focus have limited capabilities to grow other than within their own domain.  A widget company with national and international sales has substantially greater prospects to grow than one limited to its own region.

Aging Workforce/Decaying Culture:  Skilled workers in certain trades, such as tool and die shops, are not being replaced by the younger generation.  This is a sign that the next generation will not provide the companies with a skilled workforce in certain industries.

Declining Industry:  Some companies are agile enough to completely change their industry, such as Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway and Fashion Neckwear Company which completely changed from neckties to polo shirts.

Pricing Constraints/Rising Costs: Companies who sell a commodity product often lack pricing elasticity and are unable to pass on their increased costs to their customers.  For a while, the steel industry was in this predicament, but through massive industry consolidation and a booming demand from China, the situation changed.

CEO Dependency/No Succession Plan: Many middle market companies have successfully been built up by the founder/entrepreneur/owner and some critics call these individuals a “one-man-band” for good reason.  These superman types tend to dominate most aspects of the company, but this is no way to build a sustainable business long term.  Furthermore, these CEOs usually have not created a succession plan.

Maximizing Value

If the owners of a company, many of whom may be outsiders, want to increase the value of their investment, they should, through the Board of Directors, try to overcome the company’s weaknesses.  On the other hand, the CEO may not be either capable or motivated to do so.  The alternative is to implement a CEO succession plan, preferably with the cooperation of the current CEO.  Kenneth Freeman’s thesis in “The CEO’s Real Legacy” (Harvard Business Review, Nov 2004) is that the CEO’s real legacy is implementing a succession plan.

Freeman advises:

“Your true legacy as a CEO is what happens to the company after you leave the corner office.

“Begin early, look first inside your company for exceptional talent, see that candidates gain experience in all aspects of the business, help them develop the skills they’ll need in the top job…

“During good times, most boards simply don’t want to talk about CEO succession…During bad times when the board is ready to fire the CEO, it’s too late to talk about a plan for smoothly passing the baton…Succession planning is one of the best ways for you to ensure the long-term health of your company.”

Both buyers and sellers should assess the company’s weaknesses.  While some weaknesses are difficult to overcome, especially in the short term, one potential weakness that is very easy to overcome is to implement a succession plan…especially during the company’s good times before things go bad and it’s too late.

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Buying or Selling a Business: The External View

There is the oft-told story about Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonalds. Before he approached the McDonald brothers at their California hamburger restaurant, he spent quite a few days sitting in his car watching the business. Only when he was convinced that the business and the concept worked, did he make an offer that the brothers could not refuse. The rest, as they say, is history.

The point, however, for both buyer and seller, is that it is important for both to sit across the proverbial street and watch the business. Buyers will get a lot of important information. For example, the buyer will learn about the customer base. How many customers does the business serve? How often? When are customers served? What is the make-up of the customer base? What are the busy days and times?

The owner, as well, can sometimes gain new insights on his or her business by taking a look at the business from the perspective of a potential seller, by taking an “across the street look.”

Both owners and potential buyers can learn about the customer service, etc., by having a family member or close friend patronize the business.

Interestingly, these methods are now being used by business owners, franchisors and others. When used by these people, they are called mystery shoppers. They are increasingly being used by franchisors to check their franchisees on customer service and other operations of the business. Potential sellers might also want to have this service performed prior to putting their business up for sale.