Once a buyer has negotiated a deal and secured the necessary financing, he or she is ready for the due diligence phase of the sale. The serious buyer will have retained an accounting firm to verify inventory, accounts receivable and payables; and retained a law firm to deal with the legalities of the sale. What’s left for the buyer to do is to make sure that there are no “skeletons in the closet,” so he or she is not buying the proverbial “pig in a poke.”
The four main areas of concern are: business’ finances, management, buyer’s finances, and marketing. Buyers are usually at a disadvantage as they may not know the real reason the business is for sale. This is especially true for buyers purchasing a business in an industry they are not familiar with. The seller, because of his or her experience in a specific industry, has probably developed a “sixth sense” of when the business has peaked or is “heading south.” The buyer has to perform the due diligence necessary to smoke out the real reasons for sale.
Business’ Finances: The following areas should be investigated thoroughly. Does the firm have good cash management? Do they have solid banking relations? Are the financial statements current? Are they audited? Is the company profitable? How do the expenses compare to industry benchmarks?
Management: For a good quick read on management, the buyer should observe if management is constantly interrupted by emergency telephone calls or requests for immediate decisions by subordinates? Is there a lot of change or turn-over in key positions? On the other hand, no change in senior management may indicate stagnation. Are the employees upbeat and positive?
Buyer’s Finances: Buyers should make sure that the “money is there.” Too many sellers take for granted that the buyer has the necessary backing. Sellers have a perfect right to ask the buyer to “show me the money.”
Marketing: Price increases may increase dollar sales, but the real key is unit sales. How does the business stack up against the competition? Market share is important. Does the firm have new products being introduced on a regular basis.
By doing one’s homework and asking for the right information – and then verifying it, buying a “pig in the poke” can be avoided.Read More
Take two seemingly identical companies with very similar financials, but one of the companies was worth substantially more than the other company. One company will sell for $10 million “as is” or some changes can be made and the same company can be sold for $15 million. Following is a partial list of potential company weaknesses to consider in order to assess a company’s vulnerability.
Customer Concentration: First, one has to analyze the situation. The U.S. Government might be considered one customer but from ten different purchasing agents. Or, GM might have one purchasing agent but be directed to ten different plants. One office product manufacturer with $20 million in sales had 75% of its business with one customer…Staples. They had three choices: 1. Cross their fingers and remain the same; 2. Acquire another company with a different customer base; or 3. Sell out to another company. They selected the third choice and took their chips off the table. The acquirer was a $125 million competitor which was unable to sell to Staples, so after absorbing the smaller company, the customer concentration to Staples was only about 10% ($125m + $20m=$145m of which $15 million was sold to Staples or 10+%).
Single Product: Perhaps the most famous example of a single product acquisition is when General Motors overtook Ford’s single product, the Model A, with Alfred Sloan’s brilliant concept of a different model for people with different financial thresholds. Henry Ford’s stubbornness to stay with one product (Model A) almost cost the company its existence.
Regional Sales/Limited Marketing: Companies with parochial focus have limited capabilities to grow other than within their own domain. A widget company with national and international sales has substantially greater prospects to grow than one limited to its own region.
Aging Workforce/Decaying Culture: Skilled workers in certain trades, such as tool and die shops, are not being replaced by the younger generation. This is a sign that the next generation will not provide the companies with a skilled workforce in certain industries.
Declining Industry: Some companies are agile enough to completely change their industry, such as Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway and Fashion Neckwear Company which completely changed from neckties to polo shirts.
Pricing Constraints/Rising Costs: Companies who sell a commodity product often lack pricing elasticity and are unable to pass on their increased costs to their customers. For a while, the steel industry was in this predicament, but through massive industry consolidation and a booming demand from China, the situation changed.
CEO Dependency/No Succession Plan: Many middle market companies have successfully been built up by the founder/entrepreneur/owner and some critics call these individuals a “one-man-band” for good reason. These superman types tend to dominate most aspects of the company, but this is no way to build a sustainable business long term. Furthermore, these CEOs usually have not created a succession plan.
If the owners of a company, many of whom may be outsiders, want to increase the value of their investment, they should, through the Board of Directors, try to overcome the company’s weaknesses. On the other hand, the CEO may not be either capable or motivated to do so. The alternative is to implement a CEO succession plan, preferably with the cooperation of the current CEO. Kenneth Freeman’s thesis in “The CEO’s Real Legacy” (Harvard Business Review, Nov 2004) is that the CEO’s real legacy is implementing a succession plan.
“Your true legacy as a CEO is what happens to the company after you leave the corner office.
“Begin early, look first inside your company for exceptional talent, see that candidates gain experience in all aspects of the business, help them develop the skills they’ll need in the top job…
“During good times, most boards simply don’t want to talk about CEO succession…During bad times when the board is ready to fire the CEO, it’s too late to talk about a plan for smoothly passing the baton…Succession planning is one of the best ways for you to ensure the long-term health of your company.”
Both buyers and sellers should assess the company’s weaknesses. While some weaknesses are difficult to overcome, especially in the short term, one potential weakness that is very easy to overcome is to implement a succession plan…especially during the company’s good times before things go bad and it’s too late.Read More
A serious buyer should have the answers to the following questions:
- Why are you considering the purchase of a business at this time?
- What is your time frame to find a suitable business?
- Are you open-minded about different opportunities, or are you looking for a specific business?
- Have you set aside an amount of capital that you are willing to invest?
- Do you really want to be in business for yourself?
- Are you currently employed or unemployed?
- Are you the decision maker, or are there others involved?
The real key to being a serious buyer, however, is whether the individual can make that “leap of faith” so necessary to the purchase of a business. No matter how much due diligence a buyer performs, no matter how many advisors there are to advise the buyer, at some point, the buyer has to make a leap of faith to purchase the business. There are no “sure things” and there are no guarantees. If a buyer is not comfortable being in business, he or she should not even contemplate buying one.
Buyers are generally categorized as belonging to one of the following groups although, in reality, most buyers fit into more than one.
The Individual Buyer
This is typically an individual with substantial financial resources, and with the type of background or experience necessary for leading a particular operation.
The individual buyer usually seeks a business that is financially healthy, indicating a sound return on the investment of both money and time.
The Strategic Buyer
This buyer is almost always a company with a specific goal in mind — entry into new markets, increasing market share, gaining new technology, or eliminating some element of competition.
The Synergistic Buyer
The synergistic category of buyer, like the strategic type, is usually a company. Synergy means that the joining of the two companies will produce more, or be worth more, than just the sum of their parts.
The Industry Buyer
Sometimes known as “the buyer of last resort,” this type is often a competitor or a highly similar operation. This buyer already knows the industry well, and therefore does not want to pay for the expertise and knowledge of the seller.
The Financial Buyer
Most in evidence of all the buyer types, financial buyers are influenced by a demonstrated return on investment, coupled with their ability to get financing on as large a portion of the purchase price as possible.
Almost all the purchasers of the smaller businesses fall into the individual buyer category. But most buyers, as mentioned above actually fit into more than just one category.
© Copyright 2013 Business Brokerage Press, Inc.Read More
- Don’t have a valid reason for selling.
- Are testing the waters to check the market and the price. (They are similar to the buyer who is “just shopping.”)
- Are completely unrealistic about the price and the market for their business.
- Are not honest about their business or their situation. The reason they want to sell is that the business is not viable, it has environmental problems or some other serious issues that the seller has not revealed, or new competition is entering the market.
- Don’t disclose that there is more than one owner and they are not all in agreement.
- Have not checked with their outside advisors about possible financial, tax or legal implications of selling their business.
- Are unprepared to accept seller financing or now unwilling to accept it.
- Don’t have a valid reason to buy a business, or the reason is not strong enough to overcome the fear.
- Have unrealistic expectations regarding price, the business buying process, and/or small business in general.
- Aren’t willing (many of them) to do the work necessary to own and operate a small business.
- Are influenced by a spouse (or someone else) who is opposed to the purchase of a business.