As you consider your business exit, you may find that approaching it alone is prohibitively challenging. You may also find that some of the advisors with whom you’ve worked don’t have all of the skills, tools, and strategies necessary to help you exit on your terms. While planning for your future is the key, you know that results are how you’ll judge your business exit. But a business exit can have several facets, such as personal, financial, and professional considerations. Is it possible to address all facets at once?
We recommend that you follow a comprehensive Exit Planning process that responds to the unique qualities you and your business possess. You’ll first want to establish your goals for yourself, your family, your business, and your employees. Next, evaluate what you’ve done so far, where you’ve made progress, and where you’ve fallen short. Then, identify and compare action items that may move you closer to your goals. You’re likely to need more than one qualified advisor to help you uncover opportunities and strategies that move you forward and address specific aspects of your business exit. Last, you’ll set a schedule and assign responsibility for getting things done.
Let’s look at how these activities can affect your business exit.
Planning a business exit can seem like a lot of work at first. From building business value to developing capable successors to figuring out exactly what you want to do with your life after you leave, Exit Planning might look like too much work for one person to do. In our experience, Exit Planning isn’t something that business owners can tackle alone if they want to exit on their terms. But with so much to do, where can you start?
One way to begin the Exit Planning Process is by writing your Exit Plan down. Writing your Exit Plan down can provide three potential benefits when done properly.
When business owners start their businesses, they often create a written business plan to guide them toward success. However, many successful owners don’t mimic that process when they begin to approach the end of their business ownership.
There are three areas in which forgoing planning for the future can create unintended consequences for business owners: money, time, and successors. Consider how a thoughtful planning process (or lack of one) can affect each area.
If you’re considering transferring your business ownership to family, you might be tempted to put your family’s wants over your own goals. While this altruism may be admirable, it can also cause more problems than it solves. Consider the case of Darnell Orie.
Darnell Orie was unsure how to approach his business exit. His son, Hannibal, was the main reason why his company had tripled its revenues and profits over the last 15 years. And even though he wanted to begin winding down his own involvement in the business, he knew that he had to keep Hannibal motivated to grow the company: His retirement depended on Hannibal’s continued success growing the company.
Darnell had always wanted to transfer ownership to Hannibal, but he knew Hannibal didn’t have the money to pay him full value. He wanted to begin transferring ownership now, but he also felt it would be unfair to expect Hannibal to pay full value, because Hannibal was primarily responsible for the business’ success through his work.
After building a successful business, many business owners decide that they want to transfer their ownership to their children. Too often, those owners assume that a transfer to children will go smoothly and simply, requiring little more than informing their kids of the date they’ll be taking the reins. Owners who make this assumption commonly realize that without planning, they can harm their businesses, their business exits, and their long-term relationships with their families.
Without proper Exit Planning, ownership transfers to children can produce negative consequences in three areas of your life.
For many business owners, a sale to a third party is their assumed Exit Path. Some business owners even start their businesses with the goal of finding a larger, more deeply pocketed buyer; selling the business; and retiring early. The potential to sell the business for cash draws business owners to third-party sales. If you are considering a third-party sale, do you know the full scale of the planning you’ll need to do to get ready? Those who make plans improve their chances for a successful sale.
While it’s true that many business owners initially intend to pursue a third-party sale as their Exit Path, it’s also true that many of those same owners choose a different Path in the end. There are four challenges that you may face in pursuing a third-party sale that may cause to you change your mind, and some of them are unexpected.
Business owners seldom seek to exit their businesses without attaining financial security. They understand that one requirement of financial security is to grow business value, but many struggle to achieve this goal. Fortunately for these owners, Exit Planning can directly address their need to build business value and serve as an unexpected solution for owners who want to increase their businesses’ value, but don’t know how.
One of the pillars of Exit Planning is a timeline that plots the value-building actions that owners should consider in order to position themselves to exit their businesses on their chosen exit date. This timeline incorporates how much the business needs to grow in value to meet the owner’s financial target by the owner’s departure or exit date. The timeline is created after the business owner’s professional advisors assess the owner’s current resources (especially business value and cash flow) relative to the owner’s financial needs post-departure.
When business owners begin to think about their business exits, they tend to focus on one specific goal that they want to achieve. Some owners focus on when they want to exit, some focus on how much money they want when they exit, and others focus on the person or group that will take over once they exit. But what’s the process that takes owners from thinking about what they want, to acting on what they want?
In the context of Exit Planning, it’s important for business owners to understand the two-pronged approach that Exit Planning Advisors take to Exit Planning. The first prong is the general prong, which focuses on a successful business exit for a business owner. The second prong is the specific prong, which focuses on the business owner’s goals and in turn defines what makes the business exit successful.
Generally, business owners feel comfortable being owners. They enjoy what they do, but rationally, they know they need to change their roles in their businesses eventually. But most owners don’t resist planning their exits on a rational basis. Instead, they resist Exit Planning at an emotional level.
Consider Clancy, a 50-year-old business owner. He loves working at and owning his 25-person manufacturing company, but he knows that he’ll eventually need to start preparing for retirement. He assumes that if he can sell his business for about $5 million, he and his wife can live comfortably and still help send their grandson, Ralph, to the finest colleges. He gets his business professionally appraised and learns that it’s currently worth $3.5 million.
According to surveys, up to 79% of business owners plan to exit their businesses within the next 10 years, with more than half saying they want to exit within the next five years. However, many business owners fall into the trap of the “rolling five-year Exit Plan,” in which owners constantly reset their exit dates for five years later. This often prevents them from taking tangible steps to accomplish their exit goals.
To highlight the consequences of setting an exit date, let’s look at a case study involving a business owner, Charles Franklin, and his Exit Planning Advisor, Mathilda Traubert.
Charles met with Mathilda to discuss the first steps he needed to take to exit his business on his terms. After learning that Charles wanted fewer responsibilities and more free time as he exited his business, Mathilda asked, “Have you decided precisely when you want to exit your business?”
For business owners, the idea of exiting their businesses, which for many owners define their professional lives, can seem like a gigantic undertaking. They ask themselves, “How can I possibly do all of this? Where can I go for help, and what do I need to know?”
These questions are perfectly normal to ask as you consider your business exit. Further, business owners are absolutely correct in thinking that Exit Planning is a gigantic undertaking. No single business owner or advisor can create and implement an Exit Plan alone. In our experience, most successful Exit Plans occur through a process of collaboration among several different professions.
When you set about starting your business, you likely had big goals and expansive dreams about its success. Whether success meant having an impact on your community, making as much money as possible, or something else, you probably wanted your business to become the ideal firm in your market.
As you build your business toward the ideal, you concurrently build your business’ value, which is a key aspect of a successful Exit Plan.
Does this mean that hiccups, stalls, or unforeseen failures in the growth of your business’ value will directly affect your business exit? While that can be true, proper planning helps mitigate those kinds of fluctuations. Consider the situations of two owners, Wendell Heath and Aspen Taylor.
An important part of a successful ownership transfer, regardless of Exit Path, is the presence of key employees. Key employees are those who have a direct and significant impact on business value, meaningfully participate in the business’ strategic future, and whose combination of skills and experience would be exceedingly difficult to replace.
Because of their role in the business, key employees can just as easily stall your business exit as facilitate it. Consider the story of Maria Villalobos, who had her Exit Plan stalled by one of her key employees.
For many business owners, building their successful businesses began by accurately determining what they had. Whether their businesses provide products, services, or ideas, the success they experienced didn’t come to them blindly. It likely took years of refinement, study, and analysis to figure out the best way to establish and deliver the thing that makes the business successful. The same is true when discussing business exits.
As owners set their business exit goals, they may find that the resources that they currently have do not allow a financially independent business exit. That is, if those owners were to exit their businesses with their current resources, they would likely need to go back to work at some point to stay personally solvent. For those owners, a business exit is less a retirement and more of a headfirst dive into a pool of new challenges and opportunities. When they dive headfirst into that new phase, they want to make sure there’s enough water in the pool to keep them afloat after they’ve jumped.
With the new year upon us, many people have begun their journeys to fulfill their New Year’s resolutions. For business owners, it’s no different. Between creating goals for the business to achieve and assuring that the business keeps growing, owners will have much to consider this year. One of the goals most commonly shared by owners is to successfully exit their businesses over the next 10 years. Most business owners have a sense of how much longer they want to remain as owners of their businesses, and the new year is a perfect time to take control of the planning that can make the future successful.
Business owners commonly associate Exit Planning with estate planning, and they aren’t too far off. Good Exit Plans and estate plans both aim to assure that the owner’s family is provided for after the owner is gone. Both an Exit Plan and an estate plan might address a transfer of ownership to an intended recipient following the death of the business owner.
But one thing that owners may overlook when committing to estate planning is the notion of transferable value. While transferring ownership can be relatively straightforward, creating transferable value so that an ownership interest carries the benefits the owner hopes for can be a greater challenge. Transferable value is the value a company has without its owner, and it’s incredibly important to consider when we are looking at what ownership is expected to provide once it’s transferred through an Exit Plan or estate plan.
It’s this aspect that makes estate planning a small but significant slice of a larger planning pie.
As owners approach their business exits, one topic that’s often overlooked is unexpected death or permanent incapacitation. One reason owners gloss over this topic is because it injects an uncontrollable element into a controlled process. Many successful business owners take pride in the control they have over guiding their businesses toward success, so the idea that all of that hard work can be dashed by death without warning is unsettling. But consider the following case study:
Bud Brown, an Exit Planning Advisor, woke up early on a Monday morning with great anticipation. He and one of his clients, Bruce Delany—a successful business owner and longtime friend—were preparing to receive an offer from a third-party buyer. As Bud finished tying his tie, his phone rang: It was Bruce’s wife, Dolores. He answered with a warm, “Good morning, Dolores. Excited about today?”
We often hear owners say they want to transfer their businesses to third-party buyers when they first encounter the concept of Exit Planning. However, we’ve observed that in many completed Exit Plans, owners actually choose to transfer their businesses to employees. Some reasons for this decision include employees knowing the culture and values of the business, a desire to keep the business with people the owner knows and trusts, and employees’ inherent desire and commitment to grow the business.
As owners start to consider options that include transferring to employees, they can forget to ask two important questions:
1. Do the employees I want to succeed me even want my ownership?
2. If so, how can I motivate each employee to stay and make the financial commitment?
Your love and enthusiasm for your company can cause you to skip these critical first questions. What may seem like a good fit to you can lead to chaos if the most important employees (often referred to as “key employees”) cannot, will not, or just don’t want to accept ownership. Fortunately, there are three things you can do to address this issue.
For some business owners, a third-party sale is their best option for a successful business exit. Third-party sales are popular because owners often believe they can get the most money from their businesses in as little time as possible from a third-party buyer. They might be right. But what they may not consider is how little control they have over their businesses, their schedules, and even their futures once the third-party sale process begins. Consider the following case study:
After 35 years of building a successful manufacturing company, which employed about 100 people, Lemont Lemieux was ready to retire. Always a do-it-yourselfer, Lemont had hired a business valuation specialist; found an interested buyer; assembled a deal team consisting of a business broker, deal attorney, and his company’s CPA; and, most importantly, told his wife, Trinity, about his intentions to sell to an outside buyer long before he began the process. Neither of their children had any interest in the business, and Lemont and Trinity were ready to travel.
It’s likely that few people, if any, have ever told you, “You need to make yourself less important,” regarding your business. But sophisticated buyers look for businesses that can operate without their owners. Unless your goal is to sell or transfer your business, and then stay with the business as a subordinate to assure a smooth transition, you’ll need to train a management staff that can run the business without you. This is the most important Value Driver you’ll install, and for many owners, it’s the hardest, because they aren’t prepared to expend the emotional and mental energy required to remove themselves from their businesses.
There are countless technical strategies to making yourself inconsequential to your business, many of which we’ve discussed in previous newsletters. But just as important as the technical aspects are the mental and emotional aspects, so let’s look at some of the common mental and emotional roadblocks you might face as you make yourself inconsequential.