You understand the finer points and potential of your business better than anyone; however, that doesn’t mean that prospective buyers will instantly see your business’s various strengths. When you are looking to sell your business, you have two very important jobs. The first is to get your business ready to be sold. A second essential job is to showcase your business’s greatest strengths. At the end of the day, you must be the one to articulate why your business is worth buying. This effort, of course, will be supported by your Business Broker or M&A Advisor.
Understand Who Will Buy Your Business
Most people have never sold a business before and don’t fully understand what is involved in positioning one’s business for sale. The bottom line is that not every business is a good fit for every buyer. Finding the right buyer for your business will greatly expedite the process. This is yet another reason why it is critically important to work with experienced professionals. Business Brokers and M&A Advisors not only know what buyers are looking for, but also what sellers need to do to get their business ready to sell.
How to Navigate Roadblocks
Selling a business, especially if you attempt to do so without professional help, is a very time-consuming and often draining process. Successfully running a business requires attention to detail and focus. Unfortunately, these can both suffer when owners attempt to put on yet another hat and handle the sale of their business.
While you are attempting to sell your business, it is critically important that you maintain normal operations. The last thing you want is to weaken the finances of your business while you are waiting to find a buyer. Remember that it takes months, a year, or even longer to find a buyer for the typical business. Don’t let your business suffer damage in the interim.
Think Like a Buyer
Preparing your business to be sold isn’t as simple as making a few cosmetic changes and calling it day. Instead, you’ll want to think like a buyer.
What would you want to see if you were buying a business? You would want to know a great deal about that business and how it operates, who its key employees are, how likely those key employees are to stay, who the main customers and suppliers are, and the strength of the business location and competitors. Of course, you would also want a very detailed picture of the business’s financial situation.
In short, you would want to clearly understand what the business does and what it’s really worth, how financially healthy it has been in the past, what the business’ prospects are moving forward and, in general, how much effort the business will take to operate. These are exactly the kind of key facts that any serious buyer will want to know. It’s only to be expected that a buyer would expect to learn this information before making a decision.
At the end of the day, working with a Business Broker or M&A Advisor is one of the easiest ways to streamline the sales process. Thanks to years of experience, they already understand the pitfalls that you may experience as well as what is needed to position your business so that you can find the right buyer quickly and receive the best price possible.
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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.
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There are unique attributes of a company that make it more attractive to a possible acquirer and/or more valuable. Certainly, the numbers are important, but potential buyers will also look beyond them. Factors that make your company special or unique can often not only make the difference in a possible sale or merger, but also can dramatically increase value. Review the following to see if any of them apply to your company and if they are transferable to new ownership.
Brand name or identity
Do any of your products have a well recognizable name? It doesn’t have to be Kleenex or Coke, but a name that might be well known in a specific geographic region, or a name that is identified with a specific product. A product with a unique appearance, taste, or image is also a big plus. For example, Cape Cod Potato Chips have a unique regional identity, and also a distinctive taste. Both factors are big pluses when it comes time to sell.
Dominant market position
A company doesn’t have to be a Fortune 500 firm to have a dominant position in the market place. Being the major player in a niche market is a dominant position. Possible purchasers and acquirers, such as buy-out groups, look to the major players in a particular industry regardless of how small it is.
Newsletters and other publications have, over the years, built mailing lists and subscriber lists that create a unique loyalty base. Just as many personal services have created this base, a number of other factors have contributed to the building of it. The resulting loyalty may allow the company to charge a higher price for its product or service.
A long and favorable lease (assuming it can be transferred to a new owner) can be a big plus for a retail business. A recognizable franchise name can also be a big plus. Other examples of intangible assets that can create value are: customer lists, proprietary software, an effective advertising program, etc.
The ability to charge less for similar products is a unique factor. For example, Wal-Mart has built an empire on the ability to provide products at a very low price. Some companies do this by building alliances with designers or manufacturers. In some cases, these alliances develop into partnerships so that a lower price can be offered. Most companies are not in Wal-Mart’s category, but the same relationships can be built to create low costs and subsequent price advantages.
Difficulty of replication
A company that produces a product or service that cannot be easily replicated has an advantage over other firms. We all know that CPA and law firms have unique licensing attributes that prevent just anyone off of the street from creating competition. Some firms have government licensing or agreements that are granted on a very limited basis. Others provide tie-ins that limit others from competing. For example, a coffee company that provides free coffee makers with the use of their coffee.
Technology, trade secrets, specialized applications, confidentiality agreements protecting proprietary information – all of these can add value to a company. These factors may not be copyrighted or patented, but if a chain of confidentiality is built – then these items can be unique to the company.
There are certainly other unique factors that give a company a special appeal to a prospective purchaser and, at the same time, increase value. Many business owners have to go beyond the numbers and take an objective look at the factors that make their company unique.
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1. Build a solid management team. A business with sales of $5 million and up needs a full complement of officers and directors. Such a team might include: a COO, a CFO, a sales manager and, depending on the of type business, an IT director. It is also beneficial to create a Board of Directors with at least two outside members. This professionalization of management can remove the stigma of “the one man band.” Not only will this build a stronger company, it will increase the value to a possible acquirer. Smaller firms should also build a strong management team, and creating an outside advisor group is also a good idea.
2. Loyal employees. Happy and loyal employees make for a strong company. Top management should have non-compete and/or confidentiality agreements. Solid benefits plans for all employees should be in place. A company’s greatest asset is its employees and perhaps its biggest value-increaser.
3. Growth. Some smaller companies are kept small to maximize the owner’s benefits – the proverbial “cash cows.” However, if building value is the goal, then developing new products or services, building market share, expanding markets or opening new ones, is critical. This generally requires a financial investment, but building a strong growth rate also builds value.
4. Understanding your market. The value of a company may be contingent on its industry, its place in the industry and the direction of the industry itself. How big is the industry, is it headed up or down, who is the competition and how big is the company’s market share? Is it time to change direction or diversify?
5. Size counts. Companies with less than $5 million in sales and an EBITDA of less than $1 million can be perceived as small. Therefore, they may be dependent on continuing outside financing and lack the critical mass for both buying and selling power. These companies can be perceived as too small for acquisition or are penalized when it comes to value. However, over the past few years corporate buyers, as well as private equity firms, have seen the advantages of purchasing smaller firms. Obviously, companies with $10 million or more in sales and an EBITDA of $1 million or more are considered as solid and able to stand on their own.
6. Changing direction. Small companies can be very adept at changing course and implementing change. They have to be able to change and move quickly to take advantage of new markets, to fill voids in existing markets and even to add or change products or services.
7. Documentation. Business plans, financial plans and personnel plans should all be in writing – and kept current. Terms of employment agreements should be spelled out and in writing. Business planning and company objectives, etc., should also be in writing and reviewed periodically. Contracts should be reviewed and maintained on a current basis.
8. Diversification. A major problem with many small companies is that their business is concentrated on one or two major customers or clients. Ideally, no customer or client should represent more than 10 percent of sales. Expanding to new markets, introducing new products, and finding new customers must be considered without deviating too far from the company’s core business.
9. Name and brand identity. Nothing beats the name Walt Disney, or Kleenex® or the soft drink called Coke® – they are household names. Small firms may not have the brand or name recognition of these companies, but they can work at it. This recognition is especially powerful in the consumer product area. But franchising has expanded this name or brand recognition to many different types of businesses.
10. Taking advantage of proprietary and other assets. Patents, brand names, copyrights, alliances, and joint ventures are all examples of not only proprietary assets, but, in many cases, valuable ones. Even equipment can be used in several different ways. Large landscape companies in cold climates put snow plows on their trucks, utilize their existing workforce and become a snow plowing company for their regular landscaping customers — office complexes, apartment and condo developments, etc.
11. “Lean and Mean.” Many companies lease their real estate needs, outsource their payroll, have their manufacturing done offshore, or have UPS handle all of their logistical needs. Since all non-core requirements are done by someone else, the company can focus its efforts on what they do best.
12. Do it now! The owners of small firms, even large ones, have an attitude that says, “I don’t have time now, I’ll do it tomorrow” or “I’m too busy now putting out fires.” So the real challenges of building the business, and value, get sidetracked or put off indefinitely. Creating value is critical to the long-term (and short-term) success of the business.
Keep in mind that the best time to consider selling is when business is good, the business is running profitably, and many of the above “value-adders” are in place. By contacting your local professional intermediary you can explore which of the above will add the most value to your firm, so it will be ready to sell when you are.
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We work closely with our clients to preserve the integrity of deals so that they have the best chance of a successful closing. An often-overlooked aspect of the process is understanding and embracing human psychology. In this article, we will explore some of the most common ways that psychology comes into play.
The Element of Time
It is critical that both buyers and sellers feel well prepared at every stage of the process. It is also essential that a certain momentum is established through every stage of the deal. When too many delays happen, this can start to derail deals.
Think about the Buyer and the Seller
For both parties, the buying or selling of a business is a life-changing event. For this reason, it is important that you invest the time to think about the point of view of the other people involved. No doubt, buying and selling can be stressful, so it’s important to take other people’s thoughts and feelings into account. You are not the only one who may be experiencing a little stress.
The Issue of Non-Active Partners
In some deals, non-active partners can pose challenges to finalizing deals. They often have different motivations than the seller who is in the role of running the business. In a situation where two sellers have divergent goals, it can pose a challenge to a deal. The best thing to do is to try to understand the point of view of each seller and help them both reach their respective goals.
Influencers and recommenders can have a powerful sway over both buyers and sellers. By influencers, this could mean accountants, lawyers, relatives, etc. In order for a deal to go through successfully, often these influencers must be identified and their viewpoints must be addressed. On a practical level, there are also other people involved that can interfere with a deal, such as landlords. It’s important to make sure that these individuals feel as though they will benefit from the success of the deal as well.
There are many moving parts needed to get to the finishing line. Human psychology plays a huge role in what decisions get made. It’s vitally important to take the time to consider what others involved in the deal might be thinking or doing. Your Business Broker or M&A Advisor will benefit you by getting to know all parties involved and taking the appropriate actions to ensure things are done to the satisfaction of all parties.
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Both buyers and sellers have a lot of emotion wrapped up in their respective decisions. It’s completely natural to feel that way. Business Brokers and M&A Advisors can assist clients with their concerns and fears by giving them more information about how the sales process works and also discussing common pitfalls to avoid. In this article, we’ll go over some of the various issues impacting buyers. If you are able to anticipate potential issues that could interfere with the deal, you’ll be more likely to be able to overcome those issues.
The Initial Intake Process
Buyers should understand that they will need to sign an NDA and treat the non-disclosure process seriously. Brokers representing a seller will be requiring a good deal of information, including financial details, and often even your resume. So don’t be surprised when you’re asked for this information. It’s all a normal part of the process.
The Lending Process
It’s important to realize ahead of time that the lending process can be slow. It is also very common for lenders to ask for more and more information before the approval goes through. If this happens to you, don’t panic or worry. This too is a standard method of operation.
Working with Lawyers
While lawyers are obviously necessary in the process of buying and selling a business, they can also be a source of anxiety. In their efforts to protect their clients, they also can often kill a deal. Of course, get the facts and logistical information that you need from a lawyer, but always remember that lawyers and other business advisors are not the decision makers. If you’re buying a business, the decision is ultimately yours.
The Non-Binding Offer
A non-binding offer allows both the buyer and seller to walk away from a deal if terms cannot be agreed upon in a set amount of time. A non-binding offer shows the seller that the buyer is interested in acquiring the business, but this form of agreement isn’t legally binding. The benefit of the non-binding offer is that it allows discussions and negotiations to move forward.
The Due Diligence Process
The due diligence process is another aspect that allows the buyer to move forward, while simultaneously having protection. At this point, the buyer will receive confidential and sensitive information about a business, such as the financials, inventory, and legal matters. Buyers will also have the ability to conduct additional research and ask the sellers questions. Like the non-binding offer, the due diligence process also means that you have the right to walk away. It is important to have this step available so that buyers can make the most informed decisions possible.
Business brokers and M&A advisors are essential in order to help buyers find the best fit. We not only save our buyers time and energy, but we also help to ensure that the transaction goes as smoothly as possible.
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1. Not knowing what the business should sell for
One of the most costly errors a business owner can make is not knowing the approximate price of his or her business prior to entering the selling process. Although the marketplace ultimately determines the final price, an owner needs to know what the approximate price his or her business is prior to placing the business on the market. Before making the decision to sell, owners should work with someone qualified to place a price on their company.
An experienced business broker has both the technical ability and the market experience to produce the most realistic pricing opinion. The business broker will also be the only alternative for supporting his or her opinion by selling the business.
Fair Market Value
Asking Price is what the seller wants
Selling Price is what the seller gets
Fair Market Value is the highest price the buyer is willing to pay and the lowest price the seller is willing to accept.
2. Not preparing the business for sale
Determining the starting price point is only the first step. Prior to exposing the business to the marketplace, preparation is necessary. A business is certainly not a house, but the same attention to appearance prior to sale is necessary. Financial and legal affairs should be current. Anything a potential purchaser might want to see should be up-to-date, accurate and available for review.
Momentum is very important in business transactions and can make or break a deal. The constant need to develop information for a serious prospect will destroy momentum and with it, possibly, the deal. Demonstrating preparedness places the business in a favorable light and prospective buyers will feel comfortable that everything is in order. Being unprepared can delay a closing, create costly expenditures to play catch-up, and cause prospective purchasers to lose confidence in the deal itself. Too much time almost always works against the deal happening.
3. Not being able to see their business through the eyes of a buyer
This can be very difficult for any seller. It is only natural to see one’s own business in a most favorable light and overlook the blemishes or problems inherent in any business. Sellers have to approach their business realistically, knowing that a potential buyer will be doing the same. By recognizing the deficiencies of their business, sellers are in a much better position to deal with the concerns of the buyer. In fact, the best way to handle any potential problem areas is to bring them up in the very beginning.
4. Not really knowing the buyer
The better you know the buyer, the smoother the transaction. By knowing the buyers, their motives, their interests and their backgrounds, the better equipped a seller is to make informed decisions about whether they are the right people to operate the business. When final negotiations begin, knowing the buyers can help resolve some of the issues that will arise. Are their interests the same as yours? If you, as the seller, are financing the deal, do you feel confident that they can make the payments? The more you know about why a buyer wants to buy your business, the better position you are in to know when to be firm in the negotiations and when to be flexible.
5. Trying to sell the company to a buyer who doesn’t want to buy
There are usually many more potential buyers than there are businesses for sale. The question is — how serious are they? A buyer may indicate a great deal of interest but when it gets down to the wire, he or she may back out of the deal. Some buyers want to buy only on their terms and conditions, some may have too many decision-makers to please, and others only want to buy the “perfect” business. Wasting time on those who aren’t serious about purchasing a business takes away valuable time from those buyers who really want to buy.
6. Being your own worst enemy
Many business owners feel that no one knows their business like they do. They think they can do a deal by themselves. They don’t need, or want, any help. They think they are lawyers, accountants, business brokers and outside advisors all rolled up into one person. Then when the going gets tough, they become impatient and inflexible. They then blame others, usually the buyer, when the deal blows up. As the old saying goes: “The attorney who represents himself has a fool for a client.” The same could be said for the business owner who thinks he can sell his or her own business. Not using outside advisors, such as a professional business broker, is a serious mistake.
7. Not understanding the structure of the deal
Regardless of the size of the deal this could be the scenario: an offer is presented, the seller takes one look at the price, immediately says “no” and refuses to look any further. The price, within reason, is immaterial. The real crux of the deal is how it is structured. Consider the negotiating axiom “You can name the price if I can name the terms.” The terms and conditions are important. A seller may be ecstatic about price only to find that the devil is in the details.
8. Not being able to walk away from the deal
Too many sellers get so involved in trying to put a deal together that they don’t see the big picture. They don’t realize that the deal isn’t a good one. In other words, it’s time to walk away from the deal and go on to the next one. Many sellers don’t want to let the deal get away. Since they have invested a lot of time and effort, and probably expenses, it’s often difficult to just end it. However, in some cases that’s exactly what must be done. If the deal isn’t right, and can’t be fixed, there is no other choice. It’s much better not to do the deal than to do a bad one!
9. Waiting too long to sell
Too many owners wait until the last minute to decide to sell their business. They wait until business is down, or they are completely burned-out, or their business partnership has soured completely. The time to sell is before the emergency happens. The time to sell is when business is good. The time to sell is prior to when exasperation hits. The old adage is that a business owner should think about and plan the eventual sale of the business the day after it is started or purchased.
10. Changing your mind
The sale is progressing nicely, the buyer is happy and the seller well, the seller is contemplating life without the business. He or she realizes that when the business is gone, they will have nothing to do. The business has been a major part of their life for many years. Just before the closing, the seller decides that he or she can’t live without the business and the deal starts to unravel. Sometimes, seller’s remorse arises because a business acquaintance says the price was too low, or there isn’t enough cash involved or offers some other uninformed reason. If it was a good deal in the beginning, don’t let well-meaning outsiders influence the sale. And, if there is even a speck of doubt about selling the business, don’t begin the process. Wait until there is not one shred of doubt.
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If you are even thinking about selling your business, it’s important to know the questions that buyers generally want answers to. For example, the first question almost always asked by buyers is: If this is such a good business why is it for sale? How you answer this question can make or break a sale. A vague answer can discourage buyers from further consideration of your business, as they may assume the worst.
If you say you are “burned out” or just ready to try something new – that’s fine. If you’ve owned and operated the business for 10 to 15 years, buyers will most likely accept your reason for sale and continue their investigation. However, if you’ve only owned and operated the business for two years or less, a prospective buyer may find it concerning that you are already burned out or ready for something new.
If you’re sick, be open about what the problem is; otherwise buyers will think you are just sick of the business. The worst thing a seller can do is to fudge an answer or not provide a completely honest answer. Buyers will, most likely, see right through the given reason for sale and walk away. So, even if you really are tired of or just plain hate running your own business, be up front and explain why. Honesty is always the best policy.
It is also a good policy to engage the services of a professional business broker. Brokers have been through many transactions and can help a prospective seller deal with the reason for sale as well as the other questions a buyer may have. Here is a brief list of other questions buyers often ask and business brokers deal with all of the time:
• Why should I buy an existing business rather than start one myself?
• How are businesses priced?
• What should I look for?
• What does it take to be successful?
• What happens if I find a business I want to buy?
• Do I need outside advisors?
In addition, buyers often want answers to some more specific questions such as:
• How long has the business been in business?
• How long has the present owner owned the business
• How much money is the business making?
• Are the books and records readily available?
• Will the new owner help me learn the business?
These and many other questions are ones that business brokers deal with every day, equipping them to help you prepare honest and useful answers.
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When the owner of a business makes the decision to sell, he or she is taking a giant step that involves the emotions as well as the marketplace, each with its own set of complexities. Those sellers who are tempted to undertake the transaction on their own should understand both the process and the emotional environment that this process is set against. The steps outlined below are just some of the items for a successful sale. While these might seem daunting to the do-it-yourselfer, by engaging the help of a business intermediary, the seller can feel confident about what is often one of the major decisions of a lifetime.
1. Set the stage.
What kind of impression will the business make on prospective buyers? The seller may be happy with a weathered sign (the rustic look) or weeds poking up through the pavement (the natural look), but the buyer might only think, “What a mess!” Equally problematic can be improvements planned by the seller that appeal to his or her sense of aesthetics but that will, in fact, do nothing to benefit the sale. Instead of guessing what might make a difference and what might not, sellers would be wise to seek the advice of a business broker–a professional with experience in dealing regularly with buyers and with an eye experienced in properly setting the business scene.
2. Get the record(s) straight.
Although outward appearance does count, what’s inside the books is even more important. Ultimately, a business will sell according to the numbers. The business broker can offer the seller invaluable assistance in the presentation of the financials.
3. Weigh price against value.
All sellers naturally want to get the best possible price for their business. However, they also need to be realistic. To determine the best price, a business broker will use industry-tested pricing techniques that include ratios based on sales of similar businesses, as well as historical data on the type of business for sale.
4. Market professionally.
Engaging the services of a business broker is the key to the successful marketing of a business. The business broker will prepare a marketing strategy and offer advice about essential marketing tools–everything from a business description to media advertising. Through their professional networks and access to data on prospective buyers, business brokers can get the word out about the business far more effectively than any owner could manage on an individual basis.
Buyers, as part of their due diligence, usually employ accountants to check the numbers and attorneys to both look at legal issues and draft or review documents. Buyers may also bring in other professionals to look at the business’ operations. The prudent buyer is also looking behind the scenes to make sure there are not any “skeletons in the closet.” It makes sense for a seller to be just as prudent. Knowing what the prudent buyer may be checking can be a big help. A business intermediary professional is a good person to help a seller look at these issues. They are very familiar with what buyers are looking for when considering a company to purchase.
Here are some examples of things that a prudent buyer will be checking:
- Is the business taking all of the trade discounts available or is it late in paying its bills? This could indicate poor cash management policies.
- Checking the gross margins for the past several years might indicate a lack of control, price erosion or several other deficiencies.
- Has the business used all of its bank credit lines? Does the bank or any creditor have the company on any kind of credit watch?
- Does the company have monthly financial statements? Are the annual financials prepared on a timely basis?
- Is the owner constantly interrupted by telephone calls or demands that require immediate attention? This may indicate a business in crisis.
- Has the business experienced a lot of management turnover over the past few years?
- If there are any employees working in the business, do they take pride in what they do and in the business itself?
- What is the inventory turnover? Does the company have too many suppliers?
- Is the business in a stagnant or dying market, and can it shift gears rapidly to make changes or enter new markets?
- Is the business introducing new products or services?
- Is the business experiencing loss of market share, especially compared to the competition? Price increases may increase dollar sales, but the real measure is unit sales.
When business owners consider selling, it will pay big dividends for them to consider the areas listed above and make whatever changes are appropriate to deal with them. It makes good business sense to not only review them, but also to resolve as many of the issues outlined above as possible.
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