A Seller's Dilemma
When one sells their house, the best deal is usually the highest price. When one decides to sell their business, there may be other factors to consider. Many buyers are similar to the “overlooked” buyer described below, serious and qualified; and most sales of businesses are win-win transactions. However, there are a few exceptions, and sellers should consider them carefully, balancing their prerequisites to the goals of the buyer.
Selling to a Competitor – Many company owners think this is the best way to go. They read about the mega-mergers such as Bank of America and Fleet bank, or the pending deals such as Federated and the May Company Department Stores, and U.S. Air and American West. Consolidation may play a major role in large public companies; this is not the case in middle market companies.
Many owners of middle market firms look at these mega-deals and think it might work for them. However, upon further consideration, they realize that by disclosing a lot of confidential information to a competitor, their business could suffer irreparable damage if the deal would fall apart – and many do.
Selling to a Strategic Acquirer – This may bring the highest price, but there are several reasons why this may not be in the company’s best interest. Many owners have worked with key employees for years and would not like to see them replaced. The strategic owner might not only replace members of management, but might also move the company to another part of the country.
Selling to a Financial Buyer – This buyer may not be willing to pay the seller’s price and is usually buying a company with intentions of selling it at a profit in three to five years. This leaves the company and its employees in limbo waiting for a new owner to take over.
Other Buyers – The employees may decide to buy the company (ESOP). However, this usually means a long-term payout for the owner. An individual buyer may come along such as a Warren Buffett, but what are the chances? A key member or members of management might decide to purchase the company, but generally they won’t pay the price. If a sale is not consummated, the key management member(s) will most likely leave.
The “Overlooked” Buyer – There are many individuals who want to own their own company. They might be former executives of major companies who want to do something on their own. Some buyers have access to large amounts of investment capital. There are many qualified individual buyers in the market place. Russ Robb, the editor of a leading M& A newsletter, M&A Today, has written a book, Buying Your Own Business, for those individuals interested in buying their own company. This book has sold over 20,000 copies, which indicates the large number of people who are interested in buying a company.
There Is No Magic Answer – Selling a company comes with no guarantees. When Badger Meter Company, a public company headquartered in Milwaukee, acquired Data Industrial Corporation based in Mattapoisett, Massachusetts, this appeared to be a marriage made in heaven. Their respective product lines fit like a glove, their corporate cultures seemed compatible, and sales expansion by cross-selling was evident.
This strategic acquisition would have been fine except for one change. The parent company moved Data Industrial’s operation to Kansas, and every employee’s job was terminated. However, one should not construe that all acquisitions by strategic or competitive acquirers end up in a similar fate. Furthermore, for price considerations, the seller can draft restrictions in the Purchase & Sale agreement to prevent the transfer of the business, at least for a specified time period.
Certainly selling to the overlooked type buyer doesn’t guarantee all of the seller’s concerns, but knowing the interests of some of the various buyer types can help insure that the goals of both buyer and seller are met. Sellers should determine their goals prior to attempting to sell their business. A consultation with a professional intermediary is a good start to this process.