Building a business is seldom easy; selling, transferring or breaking one up can be even harder. So when it’s time to say goodbye to your company, who are you gonna call?
You could start with a business valuator. Steve Skrlac, a valuator and principal at Keystone Business Advisors Inc., based in Burlington, Ont., and his three colleagues work with companies worth as much as $50-million. They put price tags on a range of firms as well as medical, dental and law practices.
We asked Mr. Skrlac about his work.
Why do businesses need valuators?
Usually something triggers a change. The shareholders might be ready to sell to a third party, or one shareholder wants to sell to another one or to the employees. There are also corporate reorganizations.
But sometimes it’s because of disputes – sometimes these transitions don’t go as smoothly as everyone had hoped.
The ‘grey divorce’ is becoming a bigger part of our business. Baby boomers and people a bit older are divorcing; they’ve accumulated a lot of wealth in their businesses and need to put a value on it when they’re splitting up.
Tell us about a particularly complicated valuation you performed.
Even the ones we think will be easy tend to come at us with curve balls. We had a recent one in the tech sector that involved a shareholder dispute – there were five partners, two major ones and three junior ones. The business had been growing.
At the time of the breakup, it wasn’t clear exactly when one of the partners had exited the company. So we had to value the company at multiple points in time. The problem is that this business had grown so rapidly there was a huge difference in value in just 18 months. If we had used the earlier valuation date it wouldn’t have been clear that the business would even survive. Then it took off.
Do you have to be a bit of a therapist as well?
I have taken first- and second-level courses in Collaborative Divorce training [offered by the Toronto affiliate of the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals].
In situations where the business is being transferred because of a family breakdown, often a family therapist is called in to help. It’s important to keep in mind that in these situations, both partners were managers of the business.
We had a situation where we had to interview the two partners, but in separate rooms. We got different stories – you have to be a bit of a detective sometimes and look for information that would substantiate one person’s story over the other’s.
Do you see recurring patterns in businesses you are asked to appraise?
Businesses that are run by their founders tend to think that their businesses are worth more than they actually are. It’s because they have strong emotional connections to the company. It’s especially true for mid-sized companies and smaller.
Do you encounter a lot of second guessing?
It can happen. I find half of my job can be explaining how we come up with our valuations. Owners sometimes don’t have a good background in valuation, or they rely on additional advisors who aren’t trained in this field. For example, they might bring in a CPA who doesn’t have valuation experience, or a lawyer who is experienced in share transactions but doesn’t necessarily understand what goes into valuations.
What happens after you do your work?
I usually refer the company I have valuated to a broker or an M&A [mergers and acquisitions] expert who looks for potential buyers to put together a deal. I often work with a Toronto-area broker who specializes in what he calls BABOs – boomer-aged business owners.
How did you get into this line of work?
I started off as a consultant, working in executive compensation packages, stock options and so on for major Canadian companies. That required measuring the value of different types of businesses. Then I worked as an M&A advisor, negotiating between buyers and sellers. After that I got my CBV [chartered business valuator] designation.
Business valuation is both an art and a science. You can get your CBV designation, but it’s also critical to gain experience dealing with actual transactions.
Any final words?
It’s hard for people to let go of their businesses. It’s not like selling a stock or a bond – those are sterile, impersonal transactions.
It’s different when you’re selling a business that you inherited, or that you started from nothing, just an idea. It can cloud peoples’ thinking – that’s where we come in, to provide clarity.
This interview has been edited and condensed.