A “Pig in a Poke"

Once a buyer has negotiated a deal and secured the necessary financing, he or she is ready for the due diligence phase of the sale. The serious buyer will have retained an accounting firm to verify inventory, accounts receivable and payables; and retained a law firm to deal with the legalities of the sale. What’s left for the buyer to do is to make sure that there are no “skeletons in the closet,” so he or she is not buying the proverbial “pig in a poke.”

The four main areas of concern are: business’ finances, management, buyer’s finances, and marketing. Buyers are usually at a disadvantage as they may not know the real reason the business is for sale. This is especially true for buyers purchasing a business in an industry they are not familiar with. The seller, because of his or her experience in a specific industry, has probably developed a “sixth sense” of when the business has peaked or is “heading south.” The buyer has to perform the due diligence necessary to smoke out the real reasons for sale.

Business’ Finances: The following areas should be investigated thoroughly. Does the firm have good cash management? Do they have solid banking relations? Are the financial statements current? Are they audited? Is the company profitable? How do the expenses compare to industry benchmarks?

Management: For a good quick read on management, the buyer should observe if management is constantly interrupted by emergency telephone calls or requests for immediate decisions by subordinates? Is there a lot of change or turn-over in key positions? On the other hand, no change in senior management may indicate stagnation. Are the employees upbeat and positive?

Buyer’s Finances: Buyers should make sure that the “money is there.” Too many sellers take for granted that the buyer has the necessary backing. Sellers have a perfect right to ask the buyer to “show me the money.”

Marketing: Price increases may increase dollar sales, but the real key is unit sales. How does the business stack up against the competition? Market share is important. Does the firm have new products being introduced on a regular basis.

By doing one’s homework and asking for the right information – and then verifying it, buying a “pig in the poke” can be avoided.

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.

 

Burnout: An Ever-Present Threat

Burnout is an often-used reason for an owner selling his or her business. Potential buyers may have trouble accepting this as a valid reason for sale. However, burnout is a valid reason for selling one’s business.

A business owner can experience burnout even with a business that’s successful and growing. Many independent business owners feel they’ve worked hard, made their money, and now is a good time to cash out and move on, before burnout endangers the health of the business.

The following warning signs should remind a business owner that cashing out beats burning out:

You are overwhelmed on a daily basis.

When a business owner is a one-man show, even small tasks and minor decisions can seem bigger than Mount Everest. These owners have been shouldering the burden alone for too long, and the isolation has taken its toll.

You sense a failure of imagination.

Burnt-out owners are so close to their work that they lose perspective. Prioritizing becomes a major daily challenge, and problem solving sometimes goes no further than the application of business Band-Aids that cost money in the long run rather than increasing profits.

The joy is gone.

Although owning a business is hard work, it should also provide a good measure of enjoyment. When the work day begins with dread or boredom, the owner probably needs a change of scenery and a new challenge.

You are simply exhausted.

Being “just too tired” is a complaint heard just as often from the owner of the successful business as from the business that’s struggling to survive. In fact, a business that is growing will create increased demands of time and energy.

No matter what the status of the operation, the sheer work of keeping a business going day after day, year after year, is enough to encourage a business owner to make a change. This kind of schedule is not for everyone; in fact, statistics show that it’s hardly for anyone on a long-term basis.

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How Long Does It Take to Sell a Business?

Recent studies indicate that it now takes, on average, about eight to ten months to sell a small business. This figure seems to increase yearly. Why does it take so long to sell a business?

Price and terms are the biggest reasons!  It is very important not to overprice the business at the beginning of the sales process. A business will also sell more quickly if there is a reasonable down payment with the seller carrying the balance.  Having all of the necessary information right from the beginning can also greatly reduce the time period.  Finally, being prepared for the information a buyer may want to review or having the answers available for the questions a buyer may want answered is another key.

Here is the basic information a prospective acquirer will want to review and a seller should have prepared to help facilitate a quicker sale:

Copies of the financials for the past three years.

A copy of the lease and any assignments of the lease from previous sales.

A list of the fixtures and equipment that will be included in the sale. Note: If something is not included in the sale, it is best to remove it from the premises prior to the sale or at least have a list that specifies which items are not included.

A copy of the franchise agreement, if applicable, or any agreements with suppliers or vendors.

Copies of any other documentation pertaining to the business.

Supporting documents for patents, copyrights, trademarks, etc.

Sales brochures, press releases, advertisements, menus or other sales materials.

In addition, here are some key questions that buyers may likely ask.  A prepared seller should have ready answers and information to support those answers.

Is the seller willing to train a new owner at no charge?

Are there any zoning or local restrictions that would impact the business?

Is there any pending litigation?

Are any license issues involved?

Are there any federal or state requirements, or environmental OSHA issues that could affect the business?

What about the employee situation? Are there key employees?

Are there any copyrights, secret recipes, mailing lists, etc?

What about major suppliers or vendors?

A prepared seller is a willing seller, and having the answers to the above items can significantly reduce the time it takes to sell a business.

Using the services of a professional business broker can also greatly reduce the time period.  Business brokers are knowledgeable about the current market, they know how to market a business, and they can advise a seller on price and terms.  They can also recommend professional advisors if a seller doesn’t have them already.  Using advisors who are transaction experienced can also shorten the time it takes to close the sale.

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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.