Let’s assume you are selling for reasons other than a catastrophic event. You may be retiring, getting burned out, or just ready to seek your next great adventure in life. You must pay attention to the “softer” issues. They are much more important than the hard facts of having an exit plan or actually selling your business. These issues aren’t usually involved in a sale forced by a catastrophic event.
Selling your business is an emotional rollercoaster. Don’t ignore this, or it will hit you upside the head like a linebacker at full speed colliding with a wide receiver. Realize that the 800-pound gorilla in the room is the question, “Are you ready to sell?” Seller remorse hits when you realize you got caught up in the moment and can’t fathom not going into the business (your baby) every day. If you’re coasting because you can’t bear the thought of leaving, realize:
Value decreases as the owner gets burned out.
I tell business buyers to approach an acquisition with the understanding that it’s a five-to-ten-year engagement and investment. If you end up falling in love with it, great. But don’t look for the perfect business you’ll be married to forever. Understand that at some time you will leave the business, and it’s your decision if you leave by dying at your desk at age 90 or selling when the time is right.
I do a lot of handholding as we glide through this life-changing event, which is the largest financial transaction of sellers’ lives, much larger than the value of their home. It’s important to take time to think and talk through these issues. You must make the effort to understand and deal with it, so you make the right decision for your family and you.
First question: If the big question is “Are you ready to sell?” then an even bigger question might be, “Is your spouse ready to sell?” Here’s an example: My client was two months or more into the selling process. He’d had a valuation done on the business. We had packaged information about the company and had received an outline of an offer. He then said, “I guess I’d better talk to my wife about this.” Boom! The process came to a screeching halt, and his wife felt betrayed that he hadn’t discussed selling with her. (The buyer and I had both heard from the seller that all was OK with his wife regarding selling.)
Once she calmed down, her next issue was that she didn’t want him around the house all the time. That issue was (somewhat) solved when he reminded her that he hadn’t been going into the business every day for quite a while, and with a new general manager on board he would be around more than ever. (“So get used to it, honey.”)
No matter what the size of your company, no matter what your age or situation—consult with your spouse first and make him or her part of the process.
Second question: How much money is enough? Your financial planner is a valuable member of your team. Know what you need financially. If you’re retiring, do you need money from the sale to supplement your other assets and income? Do you need enough money to buy or start another business?
In any event, work with your investment advisor so you have a clear picture of your goals and capacities. The only thing worse than finding out during the selling process that the proceeds aren’t enough for what you want to do is finding out post-sale that you are short the necessary funds. Get detailed projections, including the probability of your assets lasting well past your spouse’s and your life expectancy based on various investment strategies.
And remember, projections are only estimates based on a series of assumptions. They are not a guarantee and need to be monitored. Evaluating your personal situation well in advance allows you to get a business valuation and prepare the business to meet your financial requirements.
Third question: What will you do, and if it’s retirement you want, does your spouse want you around the house 24/7? The seller who has a plan of varied activities post-sale comes across as a lot more serious about selling compared to the owner with no plan. Take some time to think about this, discuss it with family, and know what you’re going to do. There used to be a story (true or not, I don’t know) about all of the Boeing people who retired at 65 and died at 67 or 68 because their lives had changed so dramatically. Social Security was designed with a retirement age of 65, because in the 1930s life expectancy for men at 65 was about 68.
Don’t let your business be your life. It should be a component of your life that gives your life meaning and provides you with a lifestyle.
Do you care about your children and employees and what will happen to them post-sale? If one or more of your children are active in the business, you need to decide what happens to them if you sell to an outside buyer. You might want to consider selling to your children. It can’t be a sentimental decision; your children must be qualified to run the business and pay you for it.
An owner told me he was upset because neither his son nor his daughter wanted to take over his business. I asked what his children did, and he replied that one was a lawyer and the other was a doctor. You’d think he’d be proud, not disappointed.
The same goes for your loyal employees, especially your management. Do they have the guts to buy the business? Do they have the money? Are they willing to sign a personal guarantee and put up personal collateral to the bank?
One final word on this: Work with your attorney, family, and life insurance agent in advance if you have one or more children active in the business and one or more not active there. It can be done, but it takes planning to make sure all are treated fairly. Those active in the business won’t want to work hard to have dividends go to their siblings, and those not active will feel slighted if you favor those children working in the business (especially if the business is the vast majority of your net worth).