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Sabbatical by the boss leads to attempted takeover

Recently I read about a guy who flew around France in a solar-powered plane for 26 hours without using a drop of fuel. The planning and plotting apparently took years, with a team of engineers thinking through every aspect of getting a plane aloft on the power of the sun and then storing enough battery power to keep it airborne throughout the night. After years of planning on land, someone actually had to get inside the plane and take a test flight.

Likewise, preparing a business to be sold is a complicated, time-consuming process that may also need a test run. Taking a sabbatical is a good way to see how ready your business is to go on the market, but it can be a dangerous experiment.

Just ask Wayne Vanwyck, owner of Callright Marketing Services, a firm with 70 employees, and author of The Business Transition Crisis : Plan Your Succession Now to Beat the Biggest Business Selloff in History.

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In 2007, Mr. Vanwyck decided to take a three-month sabbatical and drive around North America in an RV, in part as a test to see how well his business would run without him. He installed a management team and hit the road.

Things went well enough to start, and Mr. Vanwyck went longer and longer without calling the office - first a few days, then a week, then two. He was reconnecting with his wife and seeing the world while his employees back in Kitchener, Ont., were making him money.

Or so he thought.

Mr. Vanwyck was blissfully ignorant to the time bomb about to blow back at his office. While enjoying the desert sun in Arizona, he got a phone call from his controller asking for a $30,000 cash injection to cover payroll.

Mr. Vanwyck couldn't believe it. His management team had convinced him all was well back at the ranch, so he was gob-smacked to find out what was actually going on. "One of my managers was attempting a hostile takeover by driving up expenses, falsifying sales and increasing employee wages without consent. It seemed to me like his goal was to quickly dissolve our financial resources and lines of credit to force me to sell him the business for a fraction of its worth."

Mr. Vanwyck ended up returning early from his sabbatical to fire the rogue manager and six of his co-conspirators.

I asked Mr. Vanwyck, also the co-owner of the Achievement Centre, what he will do differently the next time he takes a sabbatical. Here's his response:

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"I will plan longer to make sure I have the right management team in place. I will also be more honest with myself; I knew what I was doing was risky because of some red flags I had seen but chose to ignore them and go anyway. I will tighten my processes and procedures; had they been tighter, I would have been able to take the bad guy to court. As it was, he was able to do things that were unethical at worst and bad business decisions at best."

Even still, Mr. Vanwyck says he believes sabbaticals are an important tool for business owners and he doesn't regret the experience. "In spite of the challenges we came home to, I wouldn't have missed the experience for anything. I learned where the cracks were, and now my businesses are in better shape than when I left. If I hadn't done it, I would still have those cracks and would have missed out on one of the best experiences of my life."

I too have found sabbaticals to be a high-stakes way to pressure-test your business. I took a three-week vacation without any communication with the office, and our business made out just fine. I then upped the ante and attempted a three-month sabbatical, and that's when things went horribly wrong.

Come back to Your Business on July 21 for that story.

Special to The Globe and Mail

John Warrillow is the author of Built To Sell: Turn Your Business Into One You Can Sell . Throughout his career as an entrepreneur, Mr. Warrillow has started and exited four companies. Most recently he transformed Warrillow & Co. from a boutique consultancy into a recurring revenue model subscription business, which he sold to The Corporate Executive Board in 2008. He is the author of Drilling for Gold and in 2008 was recognized by BtoB Magazine's "Who's Who" list as one of America's most influential business-to-business marketers.

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