There will come a time in every store owner’s life when he or she decides that it’s time to post the proverbial “For Sale” sign in the front window.
When that day finally arrives, it’s best to have a plan in place to make the transition as smooth, pain-free and profitable as possible. We’ve reached out to the experts who know a thing or two about the art of selling businesses that have served as a source of income, as well as pride and prestige, for several decades. Here’s what they had to say about handling your time, money and sanity when it’s time to let go of your retail shop.
Is it Time to Sell?
Hopefully, when you decide to sell, it’s because you’re looking forward to welcoming a new phase in life. But other factors can bring about this game-changing decision as well, ranging from health issues to family trouble to flat-out boredom with the industry.
Regardless of the reason, sell when the business is thriving, if at all possible. Buyers pay for the cash flow that a business will generate in the future, so the better your numbers look now, the more money you may be able to get from the sale.
“One of the best times to sell a business is when things are going so well that you can’t imagine selling it,” says Mills Snell, senior research analyst at Pendleton Street Advisors in Columbia, S.C.
Tom Walker, former owner of Mountain Hot Tub in Bozeman, Mont., definitely took the financial state of his business into consideration before selling his three retail locations. He initially thought about making the move in 2008, during the depths of the Great Recession. But after having the business for nearly 30 years, he didn’t want to sell during a low economic period, when the value of the company was lower. “It was a bail-out kind of feeling,” Walker says.
Instead, he waited until 2014, when things had improved substantially. This also gave him time to settle on the perfect buyer: Kelly King, an employee who had worked for him for nearly 20 years. “It just seemed to be a good time to transfer that ownership,” says Walker.
Call in the Pros
Many pool and spa retailers will sell just one business in their entire lives. It’s important to make sure this one and only purchase transaction is handled in a way that honors a lifetime of dedication.
Calling in an intermediary, such as a mergers and acquisitions advisor or a business broker, may prove the best way to go.
M&A advisors typically serve companies earning more than $5 million in revenue, while a business broker works with small businesses, says Bryce DeGroot, an M&A advisor and president of Compass Advisors in Bozeman, Mont., who assisted Walker with his sale. Intermediaries advise business owners on how to value the business, prepare it for sale, present it confidentially to the market of buyers, and facilitate the entire sale process.
DeGroot recommends finding an advisor through personal references, and making a selection based on credentials, industry experience and conversations with prior clients.
But company owners would benefit from more than one perspective when it comes to this monumental task. So it’s best to assemble a team of advisors, including trusted professionals who already know your business, such as your attorney, accountant or banker, in addition to an intermediary. Begin working with these professionals at least three years before the target date for exiting the business.
“This will give store owners and their advisors time to prepare the business for an optimal transition,” DeGroot says.
Those who’ve been through the process know that it takes a surprising amount of work to prepare a company for sale and make it as attractive as possible. Tasks can include cleaning up inventory accounting by eliminating slow-moving or obsolete products, ensuring that your inventory has been consistently valued, and removing discretionary expenses from your accounting books that may not reflect the ongoing expenses to a new owner (e.g. owner’s salary and benefits, travel, and vehicle expense), says DeGroot.
To manage this workload, DeGroot notes that business owners can make meaningful progress by investing just one hour each week to the preparations.
Pick a Buyer
Once you’re ready to sell your business, the next step is picking a buyer.
While a good potential buyer may have a background in other retail markets, many pool and spa retailers choose to sell to people inside the industry.
Rich Brady, former owner of Dolphin Pool Supply in Ronkonkoma, N.Y., sold the business he founded in 1982 to Joseph Cimino, a long-time employee. “I just feel that you’re always better off with somebody from inside the industry,” says Brady. “[He] knew the way I did things; [he] took care of the customers the way that I like to take care of the customers.”
He had a business broker evaluate the store and an attorney draw up the paperwork, but “it was almost a handshake agreement,” says Brady. “We were both very happy.”
Alan Butters, former owner of Fox Valley Pools & Spas in St. Charles Ill., also sold his business to someone he knew. But instead of an employee, it was to a local competitor, Arvidson Pools & Spas, headquartered in Crystal Lake, Ill.
The sale made sense to Butters for many reasons other than his personal connection to Arvidson. Both companies were dealers for the same hot tub manufacturer, which made things more seamless, he said. Additionally, Arvidson was a family-owned business, just like Fox Valley.
But along with the obvious benefits come potential drawbacks, Snell cautions. Negotiations with a competitor may just be a ruse to poach key employees or gain access to business secrets. To avoid this situation, exercise extreme caution before distributing critical information about your business to a potential buyer. Try providing only ballpark revenue figures of your business as well as customer lists and employee lists with names and addresses blacked out, he suggests.
Failed attempts at an internal buyout could cause problems as well, potentially resulting in the loss of a key staffer. “I have yet to see an employee who has tasted the prospect of ownership be content with staying an employee should the negotiations fall apart,” Snell says.
Handing the company over to someone outside the pool industry is worth considering, but comes with its own set of pros and cons. A seller might feel that an outside buyer lacks the knowledge to keep the business afloat. On the other hand, someone who acquires businesses for a living and has deep pockets often can pay more for the property, Snell says. Where a long-time employee may need to establish a payment plan to buy the company, an outsider can likely pay in full at closing, Snell says.
If you’re interested in finding an outside buyer, Snell recommends either deferring the task to your business advisor — after all, that’s what you’re paying him for — or keeping your eyes and ears open for people in the community who you think might provide a good home to your business.
A Personal Plan
When strategizing how to sell, you also should prepare for life after the sale is behind you.
“Business owners have to realize that suddenly they are going to have the off season 52 weeks a year,” says Brady. He advises getting involved with activities outside the pool business while preparing to sell, so the personal side of the transition goes as comfortably as possible.
When he was in the business, Brady wasn’t involved with any recreational or community activities, so that first year of retirement was a rough adjustment, he says. Now he’s enjoying retirement and has gotten back in the flow, playing golf, bowling, and even doing volunteer work.
While deciding on the timing of your sale, ask yourself if you’re really ready for retirement. When Butters sold, the buyer asked him to stay on as an employee at Arvidson. But after three years, he realized he wanted another shot at becoming a business owner. He was always interested in leak detection and made plans during those years at Arvidson to start up Watersaver Leak Detection Co. in Stuart, Fla. The company sells a hot tub leak detection kit that Butters invented.
“I still wanted to stay in the industry, but not with all the burden of the day-to-day operations,” he says.
DeGroot recommends that company owners ask themselves a variety of questions about their lives as they prepare to sell their businesses. Do you want to stay on with the buyer for a few years, completely walk away from the business, or work for the new company in an advisory role? Then make sure that the agreement between yourself and the buyer reflects those desires. “It is critical to ask these questions because selling a business is such a momentous life event, and you only have one chance to do it right,” DeGroot says.
Having the leak detection business now has opened up other opportunities for Butters. He’s been offered positions within the pool industry and may just decide to move on from the world of leak detection.
Since you never really know where life will take you, he offers these words of advice for life after selling your business: “Keep your options open.”