Selling Your Business How to Get Ready and What to Expect

At some point, every business owner considers selling their company. Most that don’t go out of business are sold at some time in their history. But between considering it and selling are a host of issues, surprises, conundrums, and general confusions for the business owner who has never been through the process before. I have spoken with or heard of sellers who are minimizing the chances of making a good deal by

·         Requiring that the buyer make an offer before seeing the seller’s financial statements
·         Stating prices that are so unrealistic as to make any further discussion futile
·         Hoping to close a sale without using appropriate professional advisors.
 
If you’re going to sell your business, let’s make sure you do it right and for the right reasons. You can maximize your chances of success, and minimize wasted time, by focusing on what I call the five “Gets.” Get real, get a goal, get ready, get agreement, get help. 
 
Get Real
 
It’s as predictable as the sun coming up in the morning. The owner believes in his business. He believes in it so much that his perception of what it is worth to a buyer is, in my experience, almost always out of line. 
A sophisticated buyer won’t ignore your projections, but he will discount them very heavily. He will recognize the growth potential of your business, but balance that with a realistic assessment of the competition. He will want to know very specifically why you have been or will be successful. He will base his offer to you on the potential return he objectively thinks he can earn compared with other investment opportunities he has. In determining his maximum purchase price, he will value your business in ways that are standard for valuing companies in this or similar industries.
 
He will recognize that your growth depends on increasing working capital investment in the business and that he, not you, is the one who is going to have to take that risk. He will admit that there are some synergies in combining the two companies, but will believe (probably correctly) that his organization will be more responsible for achieving them than yours. Accordingly, he will be reluctant to pay you for them. He will understand that the business is dependent on you and perhaps a few key managers, and will be concerned with your motivation once the deal is closed. So if you expect to receive the value you perceive in your business you should expect to do it in an earn out.
 
He will look closely at your historical financial statements. They will frequently be the single most important (though not the only) factor in determining the price he is willing to offer and no amount of explaining, rationalizing, projecting or shucking and jiving will change that.
 
So, to begin, make a realistic estimate of the value of your company. There are many ways to value a company. None of them give a right or wrong answer. But when you are done, and you may need help to do it, you will have a reasonable range of value for your company. You may also want to value it under different scenarios. For example, your company may be worth more as part of a larger organization because your sales will no longer have to support, on a stand alone basis, all the overhead expense you currently have.   Value it, in other words, as the potential buyer would to get insight into his thought process.
 
This knowledge is a powerful negotiating tool. Make sure you have it.
 
Get A Goal
 
What do you want to accomplish by selling (besides get money)? What do you want to sell; assets or equity? How do you want to get paid? Will you take stock? Cash at closing only? Is an earn out acceptable? What will be your role be in the business after the deal closes? For how long? How hard do you want to work following the sale? What is the minimum price you will accept? 
 
There is no way to know if an offer is a good one or a bad one unless you know what you are trying to accomplish by selling the business. You always want the other side to put the first offer on the table, but you never want them to be able to control the negotiating process because you haven’t thought long and hard about what a good offer looks like. You can be successful in your negotiations if you know specifically what you want to accomplish and why.
 
The converse is that you must also know when to walk away. If you are desperate for a deal, you’ll get a bad one.
 
Get Ready
 
From the time the first contact with a serious purchaser begin, it you can generally expect it to take six months or longer to close a deal. But preparations may begin literally years earlier, when the owner concludes, based on the kind of valuation and goal setting described above, that her best long term strategy is a sale of the business.
 
Try and increase awareness of your company among potential buyers. You can do this, for example, by being active in the appropriate professional associations. Get articles about your company published in trade journals. You may be better positioned to negotiate if the buyer comes to you. 
 
Have systems that prepare consistent, accurate financial statements and information that can be easily verified or audited. It’s a critical element in determining a purchase price and an important indication that you are a competent business person the buyer can rely on to operate the acquired business.
 
Clean up your balance sheet. Get rid of old inventory and write off uncollectable receivables. It’s never a good idea to fool yourself about the value of assets, and you won’t fool a potential buyer. But by not making these adjustments you may find your own competence and credibility questioned during the acquisition process. “What other surprises are hidden here?” wonders the potential buyer.
 
Have a current business plan that validates your strategy. Make sure the warehouse is brightly lit and painted. If there’s any tax issues, litigation or disputes with employees out there, settle them.
You can’t put your best foot forward if it’s stuck in the mud.
 
Get Agreement
 
This may seem a little obvious, but it’s a good idea if all the shareholders agree with the decision to sell the business and have a common understanding of what constitutes an acceptable deal before the negotiations begin. Legally, it’s possible to sell a business with the approval of less than 100% of the ownership. But in a private company, with only a few shareholders, it can be difficult. A buyer may be concerned about litigation by a minority shareholder. If a dissenting shareholder is expected to continue to work for the acquired company, an uncomfortable operating situation can result.
 
While you can’t please all of the people all of the time, it’s usually a good idea to try and get acceptance (enthusiasm would be nice) from other key stakeholders. These may include customers, suppliers and key employees. At the very least, make sure they have good information about what is going on as negotiations reach their final stages.   They will all be asking “How is this going to affect my relationship with this company?” and you need to have an honest and accurate answer.
 
Get Help
 
Sale of a company demands an accelerating time commitment from the owner. My experience is that as the deal gains momentum, you can either manage your business or work on the deal. There’s often not enough hours in the day to do both well.
 
Let’s look at a typical scenario. You’re selling the business you built. It’s your baby. You’re proud of it, and are far from objective. To make it more interesting, you’re entering into a process with which you have little or no experience. And this deal is potentially the most important and lucrative transaction you have ever entered into.
 
Let’s say that on the other side of the table is the representative of a larger company. He’s been through this before and knows what to expect. At the end of the day, whether or not there’s a deal, he gets paid the same and goes on to work on the next deal. He’s completely dispassionate and may not have any stake in the outcome.
 
Somewhere in the course of the negotiations he looks at you and says, “I assume you’re willing to warrant that there are no outstanding disputes with any federal, state or local tax authorities except as disclosed in appendix A of the agreement?”
 
Now, a good response, assuming it’s true, is something like “I’m willing to warrant it to the best of my knowledge,” but if you’ve never done this before, you might not know that. Happily, you’ve got an attorney sitting by your side to handle those kind of issues.
 
But if he’s the attorney who drafted your will, helps you collect from delinquent creditors, or kept you out of jail after the IRS audit, he may be waiting for you to speak up. Your attorney must be experienced in representing sellers of business.
 
The same is true of the other professionals who may work with you; your financial advisor, tax accountant, business valuation advisor and possibly others. Get help. Do it right. You may only get one chance.