Deals fall apart for many reasons – some reasonable, others unreasonable.
• The seller doesn’t have all his financials up to date.
• The seller doesn’t have his legal/environmental/administrative affairs up to date.
• The buyer can’t come up with the necessary financing.
• The well known “surprise” surfaces causing the deal to fall apart.
The list could go on and on and this subject has been covered many times. However, there are more hidden reasons that threaten to end a deal usually half to three-quarters of the way to closing. These hidden reasons silently lead to a lack of or loss of momentum.
This essentially means a lack of forward progress. No one notices at first. Even the advisors who are busy doing the necessary due diligence and paperwork don’t notice the waning or missing momentum. Even though a slow-down in momentum may not be noticeable at first, an experienced business intermediary will catch it.
Let’s say a buyer can’t get through to the seller. The buyer leaves repeated messages, but the calls are not returned. (The reverse can also happen, but for our example we’ll assume the seller is unresponsive.) The buyer then calls the intermediary. The intermediary assures the buyer that he or she will call the seller and have him or her get in touch. The intermediary calls the seller and receives the same response. Calls are not returned. Even if calls are returned the seller may fail to provide documents, financial information, etc.
To the experienced intermediary the “red flag” goes up. Something is wrong. If not resolved immediately, the deal will lose its momentum and things can fall apart quite rapidly. What is this hidden element that causes a loss of momentum? It is generally not price or anything concrete.
It often boils down to an emotional issue. The buyer or seller gets what we call “cold feet.” Often it is the seller who has decided that he really doesn’t want to sell and doesn’t know what to do. It may also be that the buyer has discovered something that is quite concerning and doesn’t know how to handle it. Maybe the chemistry between buyer and seller is just not there for one or the other of them. Whatever the reason, the reluctant party just tries to ignore the proceedings and lack of momentum occurs.
The sooner this loss of momentum is addressed, the better the chance for the deal to continue to closing. Because the root of the problem is often an emotional issue, it has to be faced directly. An advisor, the intermediary or someone close to the person should immediately make a personal visit. Another suggestion is to get the buyer and seller together for lunch or dinner, preferably the latter. Regardless of how it happens, the loss of momentum should be addressed if the sale has any chance of closing.
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Personal Goodwill has always been a fascinating subject, impacting the sale of many small to medium-sized businesses – and possibly even larger companies. How is personal goodwill developed? An individual starts a business and, during the process, builds one or more of the following:
• A positive personal reputation
• A personal relationship with many of the largest customers and/or suppliers
• Company products, publications, etc., as the sole author, designer, or inventor
The creation of personal goodwill occurs far beyond just customers and suppliers. Over the years, personal goodwill has been established through relationships with tax advisors, doctors, dentists, attorneys, and other personal service providers. While these relationships are wonderful benefits, they are, unfortunately, non-transferable. There is an old saying: In businesses built around personal goodwill, the goodwill goes home at night.
It can be difficult to sell a business, regardless of size, where personal goodwill plays an integral role in the business’ success. The larger the business, the less likely that one person holds the key to its profitability. In small to medium-sized businesses, personal goodwill can be a crucial ingredient. A buyer certainly has to consider it when considering whether to buy such a business.
In the case of the sale of a medical, accounting, or legal practice, existing clients/patients may visit a new owner of the same practice; they are used to coming to that location, they have an immediate problem, or they have some other practical reason for staying with the same practice. However, if existing clients or patients don’t like the new owner, or they don’t feel that their needs were handled the way the old owner cared for them, they may look for a new provider. The new owner might be as competent as, or more competent than, his predecessor, but chemistry, or the lack of it, can supersede competency in the eyes of a customer.
Businesses centered on the goodwill of the owner can certainly be sold, but usually the buyer will want some protection in case business is lost with the departure of the seller. One simple method requires the seller to stay for a sufficient period after the sale to allow him or her to work with the new owner and slowly transfer the goodwill. No doubt, some goodwill will be lost, but that expectation should be built into the price.
Another approach uses some form of “earnout.” At the end of the year, the lost business that can be attributed to the goodwill of the seller is tallied. A percentage is then subtracted from monies owed to the seller, or funds from the down payment are placed in escrow, and adjustments are made from that source.
In some cases, the sale of goodwill may offer some favorable tax benefits for the seller. If the seller of the business is also the owner of the personal goodwill, the sale can essentially be two taxable events. The tax courts have ruled that the business doesn’t own the goodwill, the owner of the business does. The seller thus sells the business and then also sells his or her personal goodwill. The seller’s tax professional will be able to give further advice on this matter.
Basically, there are three major negotiation methods.
1. Take it or leave it. A buyer makes an offer or a seller makes a counter-offer – both sides can let the “chips fall where they may.”
2. Split the difference. The buyer and seller, one or the other, or both, decide to split the difference between what the buyer is willing to offer and what the seller is willing to accept. A real oversimplification, but often used.
3. This for that. Both buyer and seller have to find out what is important to each. So many of these important areas are non-monetary and involve personal things such as allowing the owner’s son to continue employment with the firm. The buyer may want to move the business.
There is an old adage that advises, “Never negotiate your own deal!”
The first thing both sides have to decide on is who will represent them. Will they have their attorney, their intermediary or will they go it alone? Intermediaries are a good choice for a seller. They have done it before, are good advocates for their side and they understand the company and the seller.
How do the parties get together in a win-win negotiation? The first step is for both sides to work with their advisors to settle on the price and deal structure positions. Both sides should be able to present their side of these issues. Which is more important – price or terms, or non-monetary items?
Information is vital to a buyer. Buyers should keep in mind that the seller knows more about the business than he or she does. Both buyer and seller need to anticipate what is important to the other and keep that in mind when discussing the deal. Buyer and seller should do due diligence on each other. Both buyer and seller must be able to walk away from a deal that is just not going to work.
Bob Woolf, the famous sports agent said in his book, Friendly Persuasion: My Life as a Negotiator, “I never think of negotiating against anyone. I work with people to come to an agreement. Deals are put together.”
Due diligence is generally considered an activity that takes place as part of the selling process. It might be wise to take a look at the business from a buyer’s perspective in performing due diligence as part of an annual review of the business. Performing due diligence does two things: (1) It provides a valuable assessment of the business by company management, and (2) It offers the company an accurate profile of itself, just in case the decision is made to sell, or an acquirer suddenly appears at the door.
This process, when performed by a serious acquirer, is generally broken down into five basic areas:
• Marketing due diligence
• Financial due diligence
• Legal due diligence
• Environmental due diligence
• Management/Employee due diligence
It has been said that many company officers/CEOs have never taken a look at the broad picture of their industry; in other words, they know their customers, but not their industry. For example, here are just a few questions concerning the market that due diligence will help answer:
• What is the size of the market?
• Who are the industry leaders?
• Does the product or service have a life cycle?
• Who are the customers/clients, and what is the relationship?
• What’s the downside and the upside of the product/service? What is the risk and potential?
Two important questions have to be answered before getting down to the basics of the financials: (1) Do the numbers really work? and (2) Are the seller’s claims supported by the figures? If the answer to both is yes, the following should be carefully reviewed:
• The accounts receivables
• The accounts payable
• The inventory
Are contracts and agreements current? Are products patented, if necessary? How about copyrights and trademarks? What is the current status of any litigation? Are there any possible law suits on the horizon? What would an astute attorney representing a buyer want to see and would it be acceptable?
Not too long ago this area would have been a non-issue. Not any more! Current governmental guidelines can levy responsibility regarding environmental issues that existed prior to the current occupancy or ownership of the real estate. Possible acquirers – and lenders – are really “gun-shy” about these types of problems.
What employment agreements are in force? What family members are on the payroll? Who are the key people? In other words, who does what, why, and how much are they paid?
The company should have a clear program covering how their products are handled from raw material to “out the door.” Service companies should also have a program covering how services are delivered from initial customer contact through delivery of the services.
The question is, do you give your company a “physical” now, or do you wait until someone else does it for you – with a lot riding on the line?
Important questions to ask when looking at a business…or preparing to have your business looked at by prospective buyers.
• What’s for sale? What’s not for sale? Does it include real estate? Are some of the machines leased instead of owned?
• What assets are not earning money? Perhaps these assets should be sold off.
• What is proprietary? Formulations, patents, software, etc.?
• What is their competitive advantage? A certain niche, superior marketing or better manufacturing.
• What is the barrier of entry? Capital, low labor, tight relationships.
• What about employment agreements/non-competes? Has the seller failed to secure these agreements from key employees?
• How does one grow the business? Maybe it can’t be grown.
• How much working capital does one need to run the business?
• What is the depth of management and how dependent is the business on the owner/manager?
• How is the financial reporting undertaken and recorded and how does management adjust the business accordingly?