“Whatever the reason, there should be something other than dollars that motivates you to explore a sale. After all, if it weren’t more valuable to own the business than to sell it, no one would ever buy it.”
Mike Sharp, M&A Today, November 2002
The owner of a successful company is considering selling, thinking now may be a good time. However, he is told by an outside advisor that business is good and that if he holds on to it for several more years he will get a much higher price. On the surface, this makes a lot of sense. After all, when an advisor tells the owner that if he keeps it for three more years the price will double, that’s a terrific incentive to keep plugging away. However, there is another side to what would appear to be sound advice.
The most dramatic downside would be that the business could go downhill rather than uphill as the advisor predicted. Although no one can predict what the economy will do, there are a couple of possible scenarios. The industry itself might be impacted by some new technology or other companies might enter the field. It is also possible that the owner, having considered selling, is just worn out and can’t or won’t maintain the zeal necessary to keep the business competitive. After all, after many years of running the business, the owner may be tired, “burnt out,” or just plain ready to slow down.
There are other areas to consider as well. For example, equipment may need upgrading or replacement, products or services may be aging and need revitalizing. Additional capital may be necessary to keep the company up-to-date and competitive. Leases may be expiring and long obligations required to renew them. In short, what originally looked like a good strategy to increase the selling price, has backfired. The costs of continuing to operate the business have increased dramatically, the owner has lost interest – and now the company is offered for sale.
The right time to sell may be when the company’s industry, product line or service is at or near the height, of its success. There comes a point when the business or its industry is peaking and everyone wants “in” – and that is the time to sell. There is the old story that the time to sell the buggy whip business was just before Ford started producing the Model-T. As they say, “timing is everything.”
The right time might be when the company is at the top of its game. Sales are robust and growing, the balance sheet is squeaky clean, and the employees are productive and happy. Another good time to sell is when there is a solid buyer who is seriously interested in purchasing the company, or perhaps, when a manager within the company is ready to take over in a buy-out of some form.
So, when is the right time to sell? Perhaps when the owner first decided it might be time. However, there is really no best time to sell. No one can tell the owner when it is the time to sell. Outside advisors are well intended, but no one knows when it is time except the owner. And, when it’s time – it’s time!
One of the most important steps is to hire the right advisors. This begins with the right professional business broker/ M&A specialist. The right attorney should be added to the team. The right one is an attorney who has been through the sales process many times – one who is a deal maker seeking solutions, not a deal breaker seeking “why not to” reasons. The accountants must be deal oriented, and if they are the firm’s outside advisor, they should be aware that they may not be retained by the buyer, and must still be willing to work in the best interest of putting the deal together.
Getting through due diligence
One of the three or four times a deal can fall apart is half-way into the due diligence phase, when the buyer finds something he or she did not expect. No one likes surprises, and they can’t all be anticipated. An experienced buyer will probably work his way through it, but a novice may walk away. Although sellers too often hope a potential problem doesn’t surface, it always does. Avoid the surprises by putting everything on the table even if it seems inconsequential. It’s much better to expose all the warts up front than to have them surface later.
Where is all the money going?
Prior to offering their business for sale, sellers should figure out what the net proceeds will be after paying off any debt not being assumed, current payables, closing costs and tax obligations. The middle of due diligence is no time for the seller to realize that the proceeds from the sale aren’t what he or she anticipated. On the buyer’s side, there are times when current sales and profits are suddenly going south. If the seller anticipates this happening, the buyer should be told up front the reason for the rapid decline. Otherwise, if it comes as a surprise to the buyer, it might cause some restructuring of the deal.
No chemistry between the buyer and the seller
If everything goes smoothly (a rare occurrence), the buyer and the seller don’t have to be good buddies. However, if problems or surprises develop, good chemistry can save the day. Sometimes a golf outing or a good dinner can bring the parties together. If both parties want the deal to work, having them get together socially – and privately – can, many times, overcome a stubborn legal or financial issue.
Obviously, not all deals work. However, the odds of the deal closing are greatly improved if both the buyer and the seller consider the areas discussed above. Surprises can work both ways, and the buyers too should place their cards on the table. However, when all else fails, it is the desire of both parties wanting the transaction to work that will ultimately close the deal!
Mistakes that Sellers Make
- Not being flexible in structuring the deal
- Not checking out the prospective buyer
- Not believing that time is of the essence
- Negotiating to win everything
- Nit-picking every item
- Not maintaining confidentiality – and failing to insist that the buyer proceed on a confidential basis
- Not retaining competent advisors
- Not meeting the buyer halfway