The dismal financial results for 2009 no longer need to be included in a company's books. For any business looking to sell, this significant milestone allows for a marked improvement when potential buyers look at the performance of the past three years. The conversation doesn't have to start with: "We looked at your financial statements. What happened in '09? Want to talk about that first?"
That said, there is still a noticeable gap in valuation expectations between buyers and sellers. "The market downturn stripped out the profits for private companies and the survivors reduced and reinvented their businesses to add to their top line," says Bob Gorrie, owner of Gorrie Marketing Services. "These owners have put a great deal of sweat equity into their businesses, and unfortunately that extra hard work and planning is not reflected in their financial results."
But as the markets improve, profits are returning and owners interested in selling are watching their industry cycles like hawks for the upswing, waiting to get the timing right. A more relevant question for these owners is "where is my own business in its life cycle?"
For any business owner contemplating a sale in the next few years, here are a few ways to add to the valuation:
Does your business have solid management?
The owner may be leaving but buyers want to know whether there's a team in place with big goals to drive the business forward with equal determination. Having a succession plan is critical, but when Crosbie & Co. recently conducted an owners' survey, it revealed that fewer than 5 per cent have a written document with a strong operator or family member ready to take over. Owner-operators have built their lives around running their businesses and they do not want to let that go. This reluctance may prevent them from seeing the importance of planning for their own exit and they will get dinged on their company sale price for this omission.
Are your key processes institutionalized?
"There is the risk that the company incurs a fatal loss of knowledge and connections upon the exit of the owner," the president of a manufacturing business told me. "The earn-out helps, but two to three years does not make up for 30 years experience in a company. One way to mitigate this risk is to bring in a guy like me." Paying a high-quality CEO for a few years will help the owner of a windows manufacturer convert "in the head" knowledge to written processes. "We preserved the knowledge and demonstrated the existence of a reliable management team to a potential buyer," the president added.
Do you know good buyers?
The sale price of a business is what buyers offer and when a company is in the growth part of its business cycle, there will be multiple offers and phone calls from all sorts of interested parties. "I know the 'I'm comfortable with my business' owners where the offers to buy have made great sense," says succession planning coach Janice Lahiti. "The owners don't do it because they think their ability to influence a variety of broader agendas will diminish." As the business hits the mature stage of its life cycle, which often occurs in tandem with the owner's life cycle, suddenly the pool of multiple bidders dries up and as Janice says: "The owner can no longer command the multiples they want."
The owner may also miss the opportunity to sell to a buyer who will structure the sale so that the majority of the company is purchased but the owner can keep 20 per cent to 30 per cent with a fixed medium-term buyout schedule. They can also have limited management or board involvement. This structure keeps the owner involved mentally and financially in his or her 'baby' while taking some money off the table to free up time to pursue other interests.
What is your opportunity cost, really?
Melanie Kau exited her successful family business, Mobilia, to take on the challenge of running Le Naturiste. "The 'what next' after you have worked for 15 to 20 years in a business prevents people from asking themselves the cost of staying where they are because they are comfortable. I know what that feels like because I have just been through it. Therein lies a great deal of value with the experience the entrepreneur has built up: sometimes the business is more like a cage than a platform."
Jacoline Loewen is a director at Crosbie, which focuses on succession advice for family businesses and closely held small to medium-sized enterprises. Crosbie develops customized strategies, particularly in relation to M&A, financing and corporate strategy matters. Ms. Loewen is also the author of Money Magnet: How to Attract Investors to Your Business. You can follow her on Twitter @jacolineloewen.
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