Family-Owned Businesses Do Have Choices

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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?

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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

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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?

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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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The Three Ways to Negotiate

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Basically, there are three major negotiation methods.

1. Take it or leave it. A buyer makes an offer or a seller makes a counter-offer – both sides can let the “chips fall where they may.”

2. Split the difference. The buyer and seller, one or the other, or both, decide to split the difference between what the buyer is willing to offer and what the seller is willing to accept. A real oversimplification, but often used.

3. This for that. Both buyer and seller have to find out what is important to each.  So many of these important areas are non-monetary and involve personal things such as allowing the owner’s son to continue employment with the firm.  The buyer may want to move the business.

There is an old adage that advises, “Never negotiate your own deal!”

The first thing both sides have to decide on is who will represent them.  Will they have their attorney, their intermediary or will they go it alone?  Intermediaries are a good choice for a seller.  They have done it before, are good advocates for their side and they understand the company and the seller.

How do the parties get together in a win-win negotiation?  The first step is for both sides to work with their advisors to settle on the price and deal structure positions.  Both sides should be able to present their side of these issues.  Which is more important – price or terms, or non-monetary items?

Information is vital to a buyer.  Buyers should keep in mind that the seller knows more about the business than he or she does.  Both buyer and seller need to anticipate what is important to the other and keep that in mind when discussing the deal.  Buyer and seller should do due diligence on each other. Both buyer and seller must be able to walk away from a deal that is just not going to work.

Bob Woolf, the famous sports agent said in his book, Friendly Persuasion: My Life as a Negotiator, “I never think of negotiating against anyone.  I work with people to come to an agreement.  Deals are put together.”

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Copyright: Business Brokerage Press, Inc.

Due Diligence — Do It Now!

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Due diligence is generally considered an activity that takes place as part of the selling process. It might be wise to take a look at the business from a buyer’s perspective in performing due diligence as part of an annual review of the business.  Performing due diligence does two things: (1) It provides a valuable assessment of the business by company management, and (2) It offers the company an accurate profile of itself, just in case the decision is made to sell, or an acquirer suddenly appears at the door.

This process, when performed by a serious acquirer, is generally broken down into five basic areas:

• Marketing due diligence
• Financial due diligence
• Legal due diligence
• Environmental due diligence
• Management/Employee due diligence

Marketing Issues
It has been said that many company officers/CEOs have never taken a look at the broad picture of their industry; in other words, they know their customers, but not their industry.  For example, here are just a few questions concerning the market that due diligence will help answer:

• What is the size of the market?
• Who are the industry leaders?
• Does the product or service have a life cycle?
• Who are the customers/clients, and what is the relationship?
• What’s the downside and the upside of the product/service?  What is the risk and potential?

Financial Issues
Two important questions have to be answered before getting down to the basics of the financials: (1) Do the numbers really work? and (2) Are the seller’s claims supported by the figures?  If the answer to both is yes, the following should be carefully reviewed:

• The accounts receivables
• The accounts payable
• The inventory

Legal Issues
Are contracts and agreements current? Are products patented, if necessary?  How about copyrights and trademarks?  What is the current status of any litigation?  Are there any possible law suits on the horizon? What would an astute attorney representing a buyer want to see and would it be acceptable?

Environmental Issues
Not too long ago this area would have been a non-issue.  Not any more!   Current governmental guidelines can levy responsibility regarding environmental issues that existed prior to the current occupancy or ownership of the real estate.  Possible acquirers – and lenders – are really “gun-shy” about these types of problems.

Management/Employee Issues
What employment agreements are in force?  What family members are on the payroll? Who are the key people?  In other words, who does what, why, and how much are they paid?

Operational Issues
The company should have a clear program covering how their products are handled from raw material to “out the door.” Service companies should also have a program covering how services are delivered from initial customer contact through delivery of the services.

The question is, do you give your company a “physical” now, or do you wait until someone else does it for you – with a lot riding on the line?

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Copyright: Business Brokerage Press, Inc.

Considerations When Selling…Or Buying

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Important questions to ask when looking at a business…or preparing to have your business looked at by prospective buyers.

• What’s for sale?  What’s not for sale?  Does it include real estate? Are some of the machines leased instead of owned?

• What assets are not earning money? Perhaps these assets should be sold off.

• What is proprietary? Formulations, patents, software, etc.?

• What is their competitive advantage? A certain niche, superior marketing or better manufacturing.

• What is the barrier of entry? Capital, low labor, tight relationships.

• What about employment agreements/non-competes? Has the seller failed to secure these agreements from key employees?

• How does one grow the business? Maybe it can’t be grown.

• How much working capital does one need to run the business?

• What is the depth of management and how dependent is the business on the owner/manager?

• How is the financial reporting undertaken and recorded and how does management adjust the business accordingly?

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Keys to a Successful Closing

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The closing is the formal transfer of a business. It usually also represents the successful culmination of many months of hard work, extensive negotiations, lots of give and take, and ultimately a satisfactory meeting of the minds.  The document governing the closing is the Purchase and Sale Agreement.  It generally covers the following:

• A description of the transaction – Is it a stock or asset sale?

• Terms of the agreement – This covers the price and terms and how it is to be paid.  It should also include the status of any management that will remain with the business.

• Representations and Warranties – These are usually negotiated after the Letter of Intent is agreed upon.  Both buyer and seller want protection from any misrepresentations.  The warranties provide assurances that everything is as represented.

•  Conditions and Covenants – These include non-competes and agreements to do or not to do certain things.

There are four key steps that must be undertaken before the sale of a business can close:

1. The seller must show satisfactory evidence that he or she has the legal right to act on behalf of the selling company and the legal authority to sell the business.

2. The buyer’s representatives must have completed the due diligence process, and claims and representations made by the seller must have been substantiated.

3. The necessary financing must have been secured, and the proper paperwork and appropriate liens must be in place so funds can be released.

4. All representations and warranties must be in place, with remedies made available to the buyer in case of seller’s breech.

There are two major elements of the closing that take place simultaneously:

• Corporate Closing: The actual transfer of the corporate stock or assets based on the provisions of the Purchase and Sale Agreement.  Stockholder approvals are in, litigation and environmental issues satisfied, representations and warranties signed, leases transferred, employee and board member resignations, etc. completed, and necessary covenants and conditions performed.  In other words, all of the paperwork outlined in the Purchase and Sale Agreement has been completed.

• Financial Closing: The paperwork and legal documentation necessary to provide funding has been executed. Once all of the conditions of funding have been met, titles and assets are transferred to the purchaser, and the funds delivered to the seller.

It is best if a pre-closing is held a week or so prior to the actual closing.  Documents can be reviewed and agreed upon, loose ends tied up, and any open matters closed.  By doing a pre-closing, the actual closing becomes a mere formality, rather than requiring more negotiation and discussion.

The closing is not a time to cut costs – or corners.  Since mistakes can be very expensive, both sides require expert advice.  Hopefully, both sides are in complete agreement and any disagreements were resolved at the pre-closing meeting.  A closing should be a time for celebration!

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“Red Flags” in the Sunset

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Unlike that poetic title of an old-time standard song, Red Sails in the Sunset, red flags are not a pretty sight. They can cause a deal to crater. Sellers have to learn to recognize situations indicating there might be a problem in their attempt to sell their business. Very, very seldom does a white knight in shining armor riding a white horse gallop up, write a large check and take over the business – no questions asked. And, if he did, it probably should raise the red flag – because that only happens in fairy tales. Now, if the check clears – then fairy tales can come true.

Sellers need to step back and examine every element of the transaction to make sure something isn’t happening that might sink the deal. For example, if a company appears interested in your business, and you can’t get through to the CEO, President, or, even the CFO, there most likely is a problem. Perhaps the interest level is not what you have been led to believe. A seller does not want to waste time on buyers that really aren’t buyers. In the example cited, the red flag should certainly be raised.

A red flag should be raised if an individual buyer shows a great deal of interest in the company, but has no experience in acquisitions and has no prior experience in the same industry. Even if this buyer appears very interested, the chances are that as the deal progresses, he or she will be tentative, cautious and will probably have a problem overcoming any of the business’s shortcomings. Retaining an intermediary generally eliminates this problem, since every buyer is screened and only those that are really qualified are even introduced to the business.

Both of the above examples are early-stage red flags. Sellers have to be focused so they don’t waste their time on buyers that are undesirable. If a buyer appears to be weak, does not have a good reason to need the deal, or is otherwise unqualified, the red flag should be raised because the chances of a successful transaction are diminished. The seller might seriously consider moving on to other prospects.

Red flags do not necessarily mean the end of the deal or that it should be aborted immediately. It simply means that the seller should pay close attention to what is happening. Sellers should keep their antenna up during the entire transaction. Problems can develop right up to closing. Here is an example of a middle-stage red flag: The seller has received a term sheet from a prospective buyer and is then denied access to the buyer’s financial statements in order to verify their ability to make the acquisition. As a reminder, a term sheet is a written range of value for the purchase price plus an indication of how the transaction would be structured. It is normally prepared by the would-be purchaser and presented to the seller and is non-binding. A buyer who is not willing to divulge financial information about his or her company, or, himself, in the case of an individual, may have something to hide. Due diligence on the buyer is equally as important as due diligence on the business.

If a proposed deal has entered the final stages, it doesn’t mean that there won’t be any red flags, or any additional ones, if there have been some along the way. If there have been several red flags, perhaps the transaction shouldn’t have gone on any further. It is these latter stages where the red flags become more serious. However, at this point, it makes sense to try to work through them since problems or issues early-on apparently have been resolved.

One red flag at this juncture might be an apparent loss of momentum. This might mean a problem at the buyer’s end. Don’t let it linger. As mentioned earlier, at this juncture all stops should be pulled out to try to overcome any problems. If a seller, or a buyer, for that matter, suspects a problem, there might very well be one. Ignoring it will not rectify the situation. When a red flag is recognized, it is best that it be confronted head-on. It is only by acting proactively that red flags in the deal can become red sails in the sunset – a harbinger of smooth sailing ahead.

 

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The Confidentiality Myth

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When it comes time to sell the company, a seller’s prime concern is one of confidentiality. Owners are afraid that “if the word gets out” they will lose employees, customers and suppliers. Not to downplay confidentiality, but these incidents seldom happen if the process is properly managed. There is always the chance that a “leak” will occur, but when handled correctly, serious damage is unlikely. Nevertheless, a seller should still be very careful about maintaining confidentiality since avoiding problems is always better than dealing with them. Here are some suggestions:

  • Understand that there is a “Catch 22” involved. The seller wants the highest price and the best deal, and this usually means contacting numerous potential buyers. Obviously, the more prospective buyers that are contacted, the greater the opportunity for a breach of confidentiality to occur. Business intermediaries understand that buyers have to be contacted, but they also realize the importance of confidentiality and have the procedures in place to reduce the risk of a breach. Another alternative is to work with just a few buyers. This, however, does reduce the chances of obtaining the best price.
  • Another way to avoid this breach is to try to keep a short timetable between going to market and a closing. The shorter the timetable, the less the chance for the word to get out. One way to keep a short timetable is to gather all of the information necessary for the buyer’s due diligence ahead of time. Create a place where all of this material can be consolidated. This can be as simple as a set of secured file drawers. Such documentation as: customer and vendor contracts, leases and real estate records, financial statements and supporting schedules (assets, receivables, payables), conditions of employment agreements, organization charts and pay schedules, summary of benefit programs, patents, etc. should be gathered. It is not unusual for due diligence examinations to look back 3 to 5 years, so there could be a lot of records.
  • The above means that the seller has to get organized. Selling one’s business is fraught with paperwork. Set up some three-ring binders so all of the relevant paperwork and resulting documentation has a place. These binders should be kept in a secure location.
  • The seller’s employees should be conditioned to having strange people (potential buyers) walk through the facility. One way to avoid suspicion is to arrange to have unrelated people, for example – customers, suppliers, advisors – tour the company facilities prior to placing the business on the market.
  • If sellers have not prepared their employees for strangers walking through the facilities as suggested above, awkward situations can develop. A valued employee may question why tours are being conducted. The seller is then placed in the position of explaining what is happening or covering the question with a “smokescreen.” A seller could reply by saying that the strangers are possible investors in the company. If asked directly if the business is for sale, the seller could respond by saying that if General Electric wants to pay a bundle for it – anything is for sale. Once in the selling process, it is also important to minimize traffic by only allowing serious, qualified prospects to tour the operation.
  • Keep in mind that confidentiality leaks can emanate from many sources. For example, an errant email ends up on someone else’s email. A fax gets sent to the wrong fax machine or UPS or FedEx deliveries go to the wrong people. Establish methods ahead of time on how to communicate with potential buyers or an intermediary.
  • The key to handling confidentiality is for the seller to retain a third party intermediary. They will insist that all potential buyers sign a confidentiality agreement. They will also be able to advise the seller on how to handle the “company tours” and can insure that only qualified buyers are shown the facilities.
  • The “myth” is that confidentiality issues can make or break a deal, or cause serious damage to the seller’s business. The reality is that breaches seldom occur when an intermediary is involved, and if they do occur and are handled properly, there is little damage to the business or a potential transaction.

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