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Globe Investor Millennials step into boomers’ business-owner shoes

Quinten Griffiths, 28, is not looking to start a company. Rather, he wants to buy one from someone who is ready to retire. He wants to ‘take a mousetrap and make it better.’

JENNIFER ROBERTS/The Globe and Mail

After earning a degree in chemical engineering, Quinten Griffiths spent several years managing refinery operations at a large oil company. Anyone would have considered that a great job, but the Calgary native felt something was missing.

He embraced his keen interest in entrepreneurship and got an MBA overseas. Now the Toronto resident has embarked on a business venture – which is where his story takes a different turn than most.

Mr. Griffiths, 28, is not looking to start a company. Rather, he wants to buy one from someone who is ready to retire.

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"I am not an idea-starter; I'm more of an executor, someone who can take a mousetrap and make it better," says Mr. Griffiths, who is also founder of Chinook Capital Group. "I'm looking to take a great business that's doing well and grow it. Maybe there are people out there looking to sell their business to someone like me."

There must be. Of the 2.3 million small businesses in Canada, most were founded and are still run by baby boomers nearing retirement, according to Deloitte. But for every two retiring senior executives, only one suitable successor is waiting in the wings, the Conference Board of Canada has found, and that ratio is even bigger for small businesses.

Here's where people like Mr. Griffiths come in. Many of those potential successors are millennials, a generation that's often overlooked by boomers. A small but apparently growing pool of them are looking to buy established businesses and carry them forward through to their own retirement.

Mr. Griffiths, who, because of his engineering background is looking for a company in a technical industry, admits that when he embarked on his search he felt somewhat self-conscious of his age.

"A lot of entrepreneurs I speak with, when I ask them, 'When did you start your company?', they say 28. I don't think age really has anything really to do it. From their perspective, I would look at it as nice to have a guy who's going to run their company for the next 20 years.

"If I'm 50, I'm going to start to look for an exit within five years."

Sean Foran, managing director of business transition planning at CIBC Wealth Advisory Services in Toronto, says he is seeing many business owners grapple with determining whom to hand over their company to.

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The decision needs to be made rationally, he says, which can be challenging when family members are involved or want to take over, especially if they aren't what the business needs.

Boomers may also be reluctant to hand over the keys to a much younger person. "Preparation and communication are the areas where successions and transitions either succeed or fail," Mr. Foran says. "How effective are boomers and millennials at communicating with each other?"

Most business owners tend to sell to private equity firms or public companies, Mr. Foran says. However, that doesn't mean there won't be a future shift in who's buying.

"Transitioning a business is all about unlocking its true value," Mr. Foran says. "Perhaps what millennials bring is their energy, ideas and way of looking at the world. Millennials bring an entirely new perspective as to what's possible. Those are not insignificant.

"But typically, millennials don't have capital; typically they don't have managerial experience. They may have enthusiasm and energy, but 99 per cent of the time we're dealing with a business owner who wants to exit to someone who has more resources than them, more emotional energy and drive to take the business to the next level."

Toronto resident Steve Frenkiel is looking to acquire and take over a medium-sized business from a retiring owner. The 37-year-old president of LionRose Capital caught the entrepreneurial bug from his father, who ran a range of companies, from restaurants to retail shops, in his hometown of Montreal.

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"It's in my DNA," Mr. Frenkiel says. "I spent lots of time buying businesses for my previous employer and knew eventually I was going to go out and do it on my own. I now spend all my time looking for a good business with an honest owner who's looking to retire and that's his motivation for selling, not because he has problem with the business."

Mr. Frenkiel is drawn to the idea of ownership. "Owning a business is all-encompassing. It's not for people who like a 9 to 5 job; it's for someone who likes to get immersed in something and be a real part of it. I like that dynamic of taking something and building on it."

He says he's aware of many millennials looking to acquire an established company, an approach to succession planning that he thinks could have far-reaching benefits.

"It's very natural for an owner who's thinking of retiring not be focused on growth. So here's a young guy with energy, and having paid for the business, someone who's going to be highly motivated. In my mind, it's a very good way to help the economy, this transition of businesses to the next generation who's going to push that much harder to generate business."

As for financial backing, Mr. Frenkiel will say that anyone who is driven and resourceful enough to acquire and expand a business is also driven and resourceful enough to find sources of capital.

"A lot of business owners started out young themselves," he says. "It's not so much that they doubt the [younger generation's] experience; I think they want to make sure the commitment is there."

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