Ideally, selling a business is the culmination of years of planning and intention, but sometimes it’s a frantic, last-minute activity brought about by an unexpected change in circumstances. If you’re planning or hoping to sell a business in the next three to five years, you’d be smart to start thinking about the transition process. And even if selling your business is not in your immediate plans, it can’t hurt to give the process a little thought, because we never know what the future will bring.
At first glance, it may seem there are just two stakeholders in the transaction: seller and buyer. However, there are other parties to add to that list: your employees, your clients and customers, your vendors and suppliers, and possibly your family and your community. All parties will benefit from a smooth, well-planned transition.
Transparent Planning Is Crucial
If you’ve bought or sold businesses before, you’ve encountered some of the complex issues that may accompany the process. You may even recall thinking, “who knew it was so complicated?” A good starting point for your planning might be to reflect on what went right and wrong in previous transactions, and what issues took you by surprise or proved to be trickier than you anticipated.
While different businesses will have different details to work out, here some elements to consider common to nearly all transactions.
Define the Outcome
While the obvious, basic outcome is “sell the business,” it’s valuable to get more specific. The smoothest, least disruptive sale is always a goal, so anticipate potential disrupters and how to mitigate them. A clearly defined end point makes communication easier, and the establishment of a timeline and guideposts easier. Other outcomes to shoot for include minimizing anxiety for both seller and buyer.
Build a Transition Team
Team size and composition will depend on the size and nature of your business, but you generally want to include both in-house personnel and outside advisors. An ideal team might include a couple of top managers, some outside advisors such as your outside counsel and accountant, and a professional business broker/advisor.
Clarify Decision-Making Strategy
At some point decision-making authority will transfer from the old to the new. During the transition period, make sure all parties have clarity about where the buck stops and when decision-making authority is formally transferred. Your business broker will have valuable input on this question.
This one’s big: it’s complex, and the stakes are high. Your business broker, accountant, and legal counsel will help make sure all elements are planned and executed responsibly. Accounts, loans, credit lines, payables and receivables, leases, insurance, taxes, retirement plans: there are myriad financial aspects of the business operation which must be transitioned to new owners.
Decide who will be responsible for executing each responsibility, and establish a timeline. Detail the phases, the actions, and the steps to bring about a successful transition, and assign responsibilities with deadlines. Use this to inform communications with other stakeholders: keep them in the loop so they remain confident in a good outcome.
Near Term Developments
Communicate any upcoming issues the new owners need understand and be aware of, such as regulatory changes, ongoing projects, etc.
Training the New Owners
Communicate openly with the new owners about their involvement plans and establish a training plan. Whether they’ll be hands-on or hands-off, they need to know how your business operates.
This is a stressful time for the employees you’re leaving behind, so demonstrate your support for them. The new owners may rely on the existing team or they may be motivated to make changes. While your greatest interest may be the success of the new buyer, you’ll support the new buyer best by keeping your existing employees enthused and positive about the transition.
Planning Pays Off
Working on your transition plan is essential If you plan to sell in the next few years, and it’s a great general “covering the bases” move under any circumstances. If you’ve just bought a business, take some notes now about the pain points and the successes: they’ll be sure to come in handy when the nearly inevitable day comes that you wish to sell your business.