As a business owner, perhaps the most flattering event that may occur is an unsolicited call from a “buyer” who asks, “Would you like to sell your business?” Do you turn down that call? Certainly not! Someone is calling to pay you lots of money, perhaps top dollar, for your business that you have worked so hard to build.
So you take the call, and the buyer asks to set up an introductory meeting. The buyer could be a strategic or financial buyer that believes, “Your business is a great fit for our acquisition strategy.” That statement translates in the business owner’s mind to, “This buyer will pay top dollar for my business.” However, the business owner is about to begin an extremely complex and emotionally taxing process that will engage him/her in many, many hours of data gathering, meetings, information exchange, financial questions, legal questions, intense negotiation, and hopefully, a positive outcome. Although that outcome will more likely occur 6-9 months down the road, if at all.
So the real question the business owner needs to think about is, “Am I really ready to sell my business?”
Most of the time, the seller will not have really thought about the answer to that question, which is much more complex. Do you have the answers to each of the following questions?
- What is my business really worth?
- What will the net proceeds of a transaction total, after paying off the business debt and income taxes?
- What amount will I need to net from the transaction to maintain my current lifestyle, and achieve my financial goals?
- What will I really do after the sale (extremely important)?
- Are there issues in my business that may cause problems during due diligence (management team, customers, suppliers, legal, etc.)?
The problem with negotiating with only one buyer
However, the question that most sellers have not considered is this, “If I only negotiate with one buyer, will I ever know if I received the best price?” There is a very old saying in the M&A world, “If you only have one buyer, you don’t have a buyer, they have you!” The buyer controls the timeline, controls the information flow, and controls the process – they have all of the leverage. At a minimum, the business owner should engage an M&A professional to level the playing field. The best case would be for the seller to engage an M&A professional to run a “limited process” in parallel with the unsolicited offer. The investment banker prepares a brief outline of the business, and contacts 6-10 of the best possible buyers, and will usually find other interested parties. This strategy shifts the leverage back to the seller, and allows the business owner to “keep the buyer honest.”
One of the strategies of a buyer who is in an exclusive process with a seller is to stretch out the process, which is emotionally taxing to the business owner, emotionally draining over time, and results in “deal fatigue.” The buyer may keep asking for pieces of information, delay in actually putting a written offer together, or ask for concessions after the offer is made. Without any leverage, the seller’s only option is to walk away from the table and terminate the process, which is very difficult after significant time, energy, and emotions have been invested over 6-9 months. Most of the time the seller has invested so much time, energy, and resources in the transaction that they agree to concessions just to get to closing.
The worst result can be a transaction that does not meet the seller’s financial needs, falls apart at the eleventh hour after the buyer has obtained sensitive information, or the seller does not have any real plans for life after closing.
We met with the owners of an excellent business about 15 months ago, who had been approached by a strategic buyer. The owners are at retirement age, and very open to a transaction. Almost 50% of the consideration for the business in the buyer’s current offer was in the form of an “earnout”, however, and that was a real concern. We suggested engaging our firm to work with that buyer to improve the terms of that offer, while also contacting 6-8 other possible buyers to solicit additional offers, for two important reasons. First, to gain leverage with the one buyer, and keep that process moving, and second, to let the seller know what other buyers might offer for the business. The seller chose to “go it alone” with the one buyer. Their CPA called us 10 months later and said that the deal never closed, and the seller is back to square one, weighing their options. The seller has now invested significant time, energy, and emotions into a process that did not produce a result, and will probably be starting all over again.
Selling a business is a significant event in the life of a business owner, and must be planned well in advance to achieve the best result. While it’s very flattering to receive “the call” from a buyer wanting to discuss buying your business, the reality is that a business owner should not begin the exit process without:
- Clearly establishing their exit goals (including timeline) and financial needs
- Knowing what their business is really worth
- Knowing what they will net from a transaction
- Having a team of top-flight advisors
- Possessing a clear understanding of what they want to do after closing.
Our firm is routinely contacted two or three times a year by attorneys and CPA’s introducing us to business owners that received “the call,” and the transaction did not happen. They are now ready to engage in a well-planned, well-executed, competitive process designed to close a transaction at a fair price in the open market.