- Prepare for new management. As soon as you make the decision to sell, begin doing what you can to help the business run “on its own.” The business should not, especially now, be just you!
- Accept the financing facts. You’ll likely be financing the sale of your business, since banks are traditionally unenthusiastic about loans for the purchase of most businesses.
- Make sure your own financials are accurate, detailed, and up-to-date. Get professional help, if necessary, to present yourself well “on paper.” Remember – this means seeing yourself in the same light as a prospective buyer, so rethink all those “perks” and hidden assets.
- Spruce up and pare down. Sell unused equipment and inventory. Nobody will want to pay for it – but they might worry it will get tacked on if they see it lying around. This is a good time to see what else needs a bit of spit and polish to make the best possible impression.
- Establish a realistic price for your business.
- Keep your selling plans to yourself, at least at the outset. Employees might react poorly to your “news,” and you need their stability more than ever at this crucial time.
Selling your business is a major decision! You have devoted your time, money and energy to building, running and operating your business. It may well represent your life’s work. You have decided that now is the right time to sell, and you want the very best professional guidance available. This is when working in tandem with a professional business broker can make the difference between just getting rid of the business and selling it for the very best price and terms.
Below are some of the most common questions asked by sellers. The responses are based on both experience and knowledge. If you have questions of your own, ask your business broker professional.
What can business brokers do — and what can’t they do?
Business brokers are the professionals who can facilitate the successful sale of your business. It is important that you understand just what a professional business broker can do — as well as what they can’t. Business brokers can help sellers decide how to price a business and how to structure the sale so it makes sense for everyone – seller and buyer. They can find the right buyer for your business, work with you and the buyer in negotiating, and at every step of the way until the transaction is successfully closed. They can also assist the buyer in all the details of the business buying process.
A business broker professional is not, however, a magician who can sell an overpriced business. Most businesses are saleable if priced and structured properly. Sellers have to understand that only the marketplace can determine what a business will sell for. The amount of the down payment a seller is willing to accept, along with the terms of the seller financing, can greatly influence not only the ultimate selling price, but also the success of the sale itself.
How long does it take to sell my business?
It generally takes, on average, between five and six months to sell most businesses. Keep in mind that an average is just that. Some businesses will take longer to sell, while others will sell in a shorter period of time. The sooner the business brokerage firm has all the information needed to begin the marketing process, the shorter the time period should be. It is also important that the business be priced properly right from the start. Some sellers, operating under the premise that they can always come down in price, overprice their business. This theory often backfires, because buyers often will refuse to look at an overpriced business.
It has been shown that the amount of the down payment may be the key ingredient to a quick sale. The lower the down payment, generally 40 percent of the asking price or less, the shorter the time to a successful sale. A reasonable down payment also tells a potential buyer that the seller has confidence in the business’s ability to make the payments – and support the buyer and his or her family.
Why is seller financing so important to the sale of a business?
Surveys have shown that a seller, who asks for all cash, receives on average only about 70 percent of the asking price, while sellers who accept terms receive on average 86 percent of their asking price. In many cases, businesses that are listed for all cash just don’t sell. With reasonable terms, however, the chances of a business selling increase dramatically and the time period from listing to sale greatly decreases. Most sellers are unaware of how much interest they can receive by financing the sale of their business. In some cases it can greatly increase the amount received. And, again, it tells the buyer that the seller has enough confidence that the business can, indeed, pay for itself.
What happens when there is a buyer for my business?
When a buyer is sufficiently interested in your business, the business broker professional can help in the preparation of an offer or proposal. This offer or proposal may have one or more contingencies. Usually, they concern a detailed review of your financial records and may also include a review of your lease arrangements, franchise agreement (if there is one) or other pertinent details of the business. The buyer’s proposal will be presented to you for your consideration. You may accept the terms of the offer or you may make a counter-proposal. You should understand, however, that if you do not accept the buyer’s proposal, the buyer could withdraw it at any time.
Your business broker professional will submit all offers to you for your consideration. At first review, you may not pleased with a particular offer; however, it is important to look at it carefully. It may be lacking in some areas, but it might also have some pluses to seriously consider. There is an old adage that says, “The first offer is generally the best one the seller will receive.” This does not mean that you should accept the first, or any offer — just that all offers should be looked at carefully.
When you and the buyer are in agreement, the business broker will work with both of you to satisfy and remove the contingencies in the offer. It is important that you cooperate fully in this process. You don’t want the buyer to think that you are hiding anything. The buyer may, at this point, bring in outside advisors to help them review the information. When all the conditions have been met, final papers will be drawn and signed. Once the closing has been completed, money will be distributed and the new owner will take possession of the business. Your business broker professional will work with you throughout the entire sales process.
What can I do to help sell my business?
You can cooperate fully with your business broker professional and any other advisors that you are using. A buyer will want up-to-date financial information. If you use accountants, you can work with them to make current information available. If you are using an attorney, make sure he or she is familiar with the business closing process. You might also ask if their schedule will allow them to participate in the closing on very short notice. If you and the buyer want to close the sale quickly, usually within a few weeks, (unless there is an alcohol or other license involved that might delay things), you don’t want to wait until the attorney can make the time to prepare the documents or attend the closing. Time is of the essence in any business sale transaction. The failure to close on schedule permits the buyer to reconsider or make changes in the original proposal.
And, finally, your team of advisors must all be working towards the common goal of selling your business for the best price and terms available in the marketplace, and closing the sale as quickly as possible. Only by being as cooperative as possible with everyone involved can your business interests best be served.
If you’re considering selling your business, and you are employing a professional business broker or intermediary, it’s imperative to be absolutely open with him or her. This is not the time for secrecy — or even for subtlety, especially when it comes to problems. If you’ve been having trouble with your lease, one of your best customers or your fixtures and equipment, spell it out! Any one of these “sleeping dogs” is bound to wake up sometime during the process. After the first growl comes the bite. The sale will get buried deeper than last year’s bone. And the buyer, scared off by the ruckus, will have long since disappeared.
Tell your broker all there is to know prior to the beginning of the marketing effort. Your broker and the buyer are aware that there is no such thing as a perfect business, and buyers are much more likely to deal with the problems of your business during the decision-making process rather than after they have decided to buy.
And it’s not just the sale that’s at stake. Concealing a problem or defect that adversely affects the business can lead to litigation and years in court. It’s not worth it. Problems and defects don’t mean your business won’t command an attractive price. Your professional business broker is prepared to deal with these issues and give you competent advice.
Some sellers try to hide the problems of their business and hope the sleeping dog never wakes up. You’d be well-advised to get him on a good, strong leash instead of letting him “lie.”
The Lease – Buyer and Seller Beware!
The lease is an important issue in many cases, a major issue. Whether you are buying or selling a business, it’s important to understand that if the real estate is not included, the lease is a critical element of the sale process. Other than owning the real estate, there are only three ways the transfer of the business can be handled:
- A new lease – A new lease can be entered into by the lessor and the new tenant, the buyer.
- A sub-lease – This can be negotiated between the seller and the buyer. In a sub-lease, the seller of the business becomes the landlord
- The existing landlord, who most likely is also the owner of the property, must always approve a sub-lease. In a few cases, the existing lease provides that the tenant has the right to sub-lease.
- The assignment of lease – This is the most common method of transferring the lease. The seller simply assigns the existing lease to the buyer. The buyer assumes responsibility for the lease, and in most cases, the landlord must approve the assignment. Sellers should be aware, however, that in most cases, they are still responsible for the terms of the lease.
Sellers should take a look at the lease at their business and ask themselves the following questions:
- Is the lease long enough and the rent low enough to make the business attractive to a potential buyer?
- Is the rent consistent with similar businesses in the area?
- Are there any terms or conditions of the lease that might be unfavorable in the eyes of a possible buyer?
- Most importantly, are you on good terms with the landlord – and can the lease be transferred without any hitches?
- If there could be any problems with the lease, or the landlord, it’s best to resolve them prior to selling the business. Your business broker professional is a good source to review the lease and its terms from a business sale perspective.
1. Not knowing what the business should sell for
One of the most costly errors a business owner can make is not knowing the approximate price of his or her business prior to entering the selling process. Although the marketplace ultimately determines the final price, an owner needs to know what the approximate price his or her business is prior to placing the business on the market. Before making the decision to sell, owners should work with someone qualified to place a price on their company.
An experienced business broker has both the technical ability and the market experience to produce the most realistic pricing opinion. The business broker will also be the only alternative for supporting his or her opinion by selling the business.
Fair Market Value
Asking Price is what the seller wants
Selling Price is what the seller gets
Fair Market Value is the highest price the buyer is willing to pay and the lowest price the seller is willing to accept.
2. Not preparing the business for sale
Determining the starting price point is only the first step. Prior to exposing the business to the marketplace, preparation is necessary. A business is certainly not a house, but the same attention to appearance prior to sale is necessary. Financial and legal affairs should be current. Anything a potential purchaser might want to see should be up-to-date, accurate and available for review.
Momentum is very important in business transactions and can make or break a deal. The constant need to develop information for a serious prospect will destroy momentum and with it, possibly, the deal. Demonstrating preparedness places the business in a favorable light and prospective buyers will feel comfortable that everything is in order. Being unprepared can delay a closing, create costly expenditures to play catch-up, and cause prospective purchasers to lose confidence in the deal itself. Too much time almost always works against the deal happening.
3. Not being able to see their business through the eyes of a buyer
This can be very difficult for any seller. It is only natural to see one’s own business in a most favorable light and overlook the blemishes or problems inherent in any business. Sellers have to approach their business realistically, knowing that a potential buyer will be doing the same. By recognizing the deficiencies of their business, sellers are in a much better position to deal with the concerns of the buyer. In fact, the best way to handle any potential problem areas is to bring them up in the very beginning.
4. Not really knowing the buyer
The better you know the buyer, the smoother the transaction. By knowing the buyers, their motives, their interests and their backgrounds, the better equipped a seller is to make informed decisions about whether they are the right people to operate the business. When final negotiations begin, knowing the buyers can help resolve some of the issues that will arise. Are their interests the same as yours? If you, as the seller, are financing the deal, do you feel confident that they can make the payments? The more you know about why a buyer wants to buy your business, the better position you are in to know when to be firm in the negotiations and when to be flexible.
5. Trying to sell the company to a buyer who doesn’t want to buy
There are usually many more potential buyers than there are businesses for sale. The question is — how serious are they? A buyer may indicate a great deal of interest but when it gets down to the wire, he or she may back out of the deal. Some buyers want to buy only on their terms and conditions, some may have too many decision-makers to please, and others only want to buy the “perfect” business. Wasting time on those who aren’t serious about purchasing a business takes away valuable time from those buyers who really want to buy.
6. Being your own worst enemy
Many business owners feel that no one knows their business like they do. They think they can do a deal by themselves. They don’t need, or want, any help. They think they are lawyers, accountants, business brokers and outside advisors all rolled up into one person. Then when the going gets tough, they become impatient and inflexible. They then blame others, usually the buyer, when the deal blows up. As the old saying goes: “The attorney who represents himself has a fool for a client.” The same could be said for the business owner who thinks he can sell his or her own business. Not using outside advisors, such as a professional business broker, is a serious mistake.
7. Not understanding the structure of the deal
Regardless of the size of the deal this could be the scenario: an offer is presented, the seller takes one look at the price, immediately says “no” and refuses to look any further. The price, within reason, is immaterial. The real crux of the deal is how it is structured. Consider the negotiating axiom “You can name the price if I can name the terms.” The terms and conditions are important. A seller may be ecstatic about price only to find that the devil is in the details.
8. Not being able to walk away from the deal
Too many sellers get so involved in trying to put a deal together that they don’t see the big picture. They don’t realize that the deal isn’t a good one. In other words, it’s time to walk away from the deal and go on to the next one. Many sellers don’t want to let the deal get away. Since they have invested a lot of time and effort, and probably expenses, it’s often difficult to just end it. However, in some cases that’s exactly what must be done. If the deal isn’t right, and can’t be fixed, there is no other choice. It’s much better not to do the deal than to do a bad one!
9. Waiting too long to sell
Too many owners wait until the last minute to decide to sell their business. They wait until business is down, or they are completely burned-out, or their business partnership has soured completely. The time to sell is before the emergency happens. The time to sell is when business is good. The time to sell is prior to when exasperation hits. The old adage is that a business owner should think about and plan the eventual sale of the business the day after it is started or purchased.
10. Changing your mind
The sale is progressing nicely, the buyer is happy and the seller well, the seller is contemplating life without the business. He or she realizes that when the business is gone, they will have nothing to do. The business has been a major part of their life for many years. Just before the closing, the seller decides that he or she can’t live without the business and the deal starts to unravel. Sometimes, seller’s remorse arises because a business acquaintance says the price was too low, or there isn’t enough cash involved or offers some other uninformed reason. If it was a good deal in the beginning, don’t let well-meaning outsiders influence the sale. And, if there is even a speck of doubt about selling the business, don’t begin the process. Wait until there is not one shred of doubt.
Buyers Want Cash Flow
The first thing to keep in mind is that the vast majority of buyers want to buy cash flow. Sit down with your accountant or bookkeeper and begin to get your financial statements in order with cash flow the order of business. Cash flow is not the same thing as profit. Most buyers look at the profit and loss statement or tax return, and look at owners or family compensation. They will consider any excess compensation to employees and family members. Buyers will also look at large one-time expenses such as a new computer system, or remodeling. They will consider non-cash items like depreciation and amortization. Interest expenses will be reviewed, as will owner perquisites. These are items that a professional business broker considers when advising a selling client on a suggested selling price.
Appearances Do Count
The time to replace that old worn-out piece of equipment is before you decide to sell. Don’t assume that a new owner will want to do it or that the price will be slightly lower because you haven’t replaced it. The time to “spiff up” the business is now, even if you aren’t selling. Fix the sign, replace the carpet, paint the place – make it look good. Even if you’re not selling, it’s just plain good for business, and you never know when the time to sell occurs. Keep-in-mind that anything that increases sales also increases profits and the all-important cash flow!
Everything has Value
There are other things that add value to your business. Don’t discount the value of customer lists, proprietary products and/or techniques, well-maintained equipment, secret recipes, customized software programs, or good employees. These are termed “off-balance sheet items,” and although not used in most pricing models, they add to value. Look at your business very carefully so you don’t overlook those items that make your business more attractive to the buyer.
Eliminate the Surprises
Long before you put your business on the market — eliminate the surprises! Review every facet of the business and remedy any problems that could appear during the sale process. No one likes surprises — most of all potential buyers. Whether legal, accounting, environmental, or anything else – solve it now.
Professional business brokers can assist you in the planning process. They know what buyers are looking for and are familiar with current market conditions.
Do have all of your business documentation ready. Everything starts with it.
Don’t underestimate the value of your business. Owners of privately held businesses usually minimize profits to lower taxes. The financial statements may not reflect the real value of the business.
Don’t overprice your business. The right buyer who is willing to pay the right price may not even want to consider your business because the price is way out of line.
Do offer as favorable terms as you can. Buyers, even good ones, want to leverage the sale as much as possible.
Don’t use a “magic” formula to value your business. Your business is unique, different from every other business out there.
Don’t wait too long to sell. The best time to sell is when business is good.
Don’t wait until poor health or a downturn occurs – sell from strength!
Do allow at least six months to sell your business. The larger the business, the more time you should allow.
Do use a business broker. They can take the mystery out of determining the selling price, prepare a marketing plan of action to maximize the selling price, handle all of the details, and leave you to do what you do best — continue to run your business.
Some of you might remember the commercial for one of the major airlines in which a business lost a major client, because they never saw anyone from the company. The president handed out airline tickets to the entire sales staff so they could go out and visit the customers. When asked what he was going to do with the remaining ticket he replied that he was going to go see the lost client. And, a recent study revealed that customers really want contact with the business owner. In fact 83 percent of the decision makers want personal contact with salespeople.
Both of these examples point out the importance of customer contact. From the small shop owner to the CEO of a large company, meeting with the customers is still the smart way to go. With today’s technology, it may be easier to fax, telephone or e-mail a customer or client, but is it really the best way to contact that person? Remember how good you feel when the owner of a restaurant comes to your table and asks how everything is. Nothing beats owner contact!
Is your business resorting to just telemarketing and direct mail programs to contact your customers – both present and possibly future ones? Perhaps it’s time to hire a salesperson to go out and meet the people. Perhaps it’s time to go out and do it yourself. Why not go out yourself and meet or visit your important customers or clients? If you own a retail business – go out and meet the customers. Owning your own business is not a “back-room” or hide behind the business-plan business. It is a “front-room” business – go out and meet the customers!
In the day-to-day activity of making a business work, many owners overlook the importance of the buy-sell agreement. This document (also referred to as a business continuity agreement) is like a will; no one thinks about it until it’s too late. However, it may just be the most important written agreement or document you ever create.
If your business has more than one owner, either partners or stockholders, what happens if one or more of them dies or “wants out”? The same thing holds true in family-owned and operated businesses. A buy-sell agreement can dictate the transfer of business ownership under certain events as described within its specifically-written language.
The well-drafted buy-sell agreement is designed to prevent the following:
- The sale of the company because one of the partners or stockholders desires to exit the business and no one can agree on the price or the terms;
- The necessity to sell or dissolve the business due to the lack of a written agreement determining ownership/management of the business in case of a partner’s, stockholder’s, or family member’s death; (Or, what might prove even worse than a precipitous sale, an heir might decide that he or she is going to get involved in the operation of the business.)
- A lack of agreement on who should take control when an active partner, stockholder, or family member becomes disabled and can no longer run the business;
- A serious dispute on any key issue among the partners, active family members, or stockholders that cannot be resolved; and,
- Questions about business operations following a legally-complicated divorce (or other legal entanglement) involving one of the partners, family members, or stockholders.
The buy-sell agreement can help prevent these situations, as well as many other problems that can befall a business enterprise. In a small business, one of the areas frequently overlooked is the buy-out provision, in the event one of the active partners decides to exit. The buy-sell agreement normally, and properly, provides for the partner, family member, or stockholder to have the first right of refusal in this case. But at what price? If two partners are in disagreement over how to run the business, they will most likely never come to an agreement about its value. A method or formula for valuing the business should be included in the buy-sell agreement; otherwise, the first right of refusal would be no right at all.
In larger businesses, especially those that are incorporated, it is important that the buy-sell agreement specify how the stock of the business should be valued. The agreement should also specify whether the stock must be purchased by the company or its shareholders, or if it can be sold to an outsider. In many cases, life insurance coverage is used to purchase the interest or stock in the business, in the event that one of the partners or majority stock holders dies.
The buy-sell agreement is really the key to the continuation of the business. You can see that the buy-sell agreement, if executed properly, can solve problems surrounding retirement, disability, termination, divorce, bankruptcy, death, and business disputes. Given all the benefits of such an agreement, why doesn’t every business have one?
The answer is simple; most business owners are too busy trying to get the work done and the bills paid. Creating such a document means that the owners must stand back from the business and decide what should happen under a variety of serious situations. The process is time-consuming and also expensive. There are no pre-printed forms; it isn’t possible simply to fill in the blanks and come up with an instant agreement. A lawyer must do the drafting to get a document that will have legal authority in the event that it is ever challenged.
If your business already has a buy-sell agreement, perhaps it is time to review the document, checking for the need to update or amend it. If your business doesn’t have a buy-sell agreement, you should seriously consider creating one. It may be the most important business decision you ever make.
Buy-sell agreements, as well as all of the important documents pertaining to the sale of a business, should be handled by an attorney experienced in such matters. It may seem expensive in the short run, but the careful preparation of any agreement that can affect the rights of the buyer or seller will be a bargain in the long term.
Although business brokers cannot provide legal advice, they are familiar with the intricacies of the business sale. They are also familiar with local attorneys who specialize in the details of these transactions. These attorneys will usually be more efficient, and therefore more cost effective than the attorney who handles a general practice.
Business brokers–because of their knowledge and experience–are a good source of information concerning the buying and selling of businesses. They are conversant with the local marketplace, business prices, and terms. In sum, they are an excellent resource.
For every reason that a pending sale of a business collapses, there is a positive reason why the sale closed successfully. What does it take for the sale of a business to close successfully? Certainly there are reasons that a sale might not close that are beyond anyone’s control. A fire, for example, the death of a principal, or a natural disaster such as a hurricane or tornado. There might be an environmental problem that the seller was unaware of when he or she decided to sell. Aside from these unplanned catastrophic events, deals abort because of the people involved. Here are a few examples of how a sale closes successfully.
The Buyer and Seller Are in Agreement From the Beginning
In too many cases, the buyer and seller really weren’t in agreement, or didn’t understand the terms of the sale. If an offer to purchase is too vague, or has too many loose ends, the sale can unravel somewhere along the line. However, if prior to the offer to purchase the loose ends are taken care of and the agreement specifically spells out the details of the sale, it has a much better chance to close. This means that a lot of answers and information are supplied prior to the offer and that many of the buyer’s questions are answered before the offer is made. The seller may also have some questions about the buyer’s financial qualifications or his or her ability to operate the business. Again, these concerns should be addressed prior to the offer or, at least, if they are part of it, both sides should understand exactly what needs to be done and when. The key ingredient of the offer to purchase is that both sides completely understand the terms and are comfortable with them. Too many sales fall apart because of a misunderstanding on one side or the other.
The Buyer and Seller Don’t Lose Their Patience
Both sides need to understand that the closing process takes time. There is a myriad of details that must take place for the sale to close successfully, or to close at all. If the parties are using outside advisors, they should make sure that they are deal-oriented. In other words, unless the deal is illegal or unethical, the parties should insist that the deal works. The buyer and seller should understand that the outside advisors work for them and that most decisions concerning the sale are business related and should be decided by the buyer and seller themselves. The buyer and seller should also insist that the outside advisors keep to the scheduled closing date, unless they, not the outside advisors, delay the timing. Prior to engaging the outside advisors, the buyer and seller should make sure that their advisors can work within the schedule. However, the buyer and seller have to also understand that nothing can be done overnight and the closing process does take some time.
No One Likes Surprises
The seller has to be up front about his or her business. Nothing is perfect and buyers understand this. The minuses should be revealed at the outset because sooner or later they will be exposed. For example, the seller should consult with his or her accountant about any tax implications prior to going to market. The same is true for the buyer. If financing is an issue it should be mentioned at the beginning. If all of the concerns and problems are dealt with initially, the closing will be just a technicality.
The Buyer and Seller Must Both Feel Like They Got a Good Deal
If they do, the closing should be a simple matter. If the chemistry works, and everyone understands and accepts the terms of the agreement, and feels that the sale is a win-win, the closing is a mere formality.
There are several things to consider when buying or selling a business. The most important is to listen to the other side. There are always reasons why someone wants something – even if you don’t agree at first. Find out where the other side is coming from, then make a decision on whether you can live with it or not.
Next, whether you are the buyer or the seller, you can not have everything your way. You can’t win on every point or issue. Be prepared to give in on those areas that are not as important as those you feel most strongly about. If you are a seller, you may not be able to get a real high price and a real high down payment. You will have to decide which is more important. The same is true for the buyer. You can’t have it both ways.
Always enter the purchase or sale of a business with a spirit of cooperation rather than one of confrontation. The buyer or the seller, as the case may be, is not the enemy. If the seller wasn’t interested in selling, the business would not be for sale. If the buyer did not like the business there would be no negotiation or eventual sale.
The secret of a successful negotiation is laying out all the points on the table for discussion. It is key to understand where everyone is coming from and to understand what is and what is not important to each party. When there is a sense of cooperation among all of the players, a successful deal will usually result.