Joel Grebenick has seen a lot of deals over his career as an investment banker and private equity investor.
When it comes to preparing for an exit, there are four key areas sellers should consider, says Grebenick, a partner at Minneapolis-based Northern Lakes Capital.
His first tip: Hire good advisers — from the sell-side M&A adviser to tax and accounting to — when necessary — environmental advisers.
"Good advice is expensive, and people should embrace that," Grebenick said during last year's Minneapolis Smart Business Dealmakers Conference. "We a lot of times run into situations where a business owner doesn't want to hire a good law firm; they hire their law firm that just does their real estate work. And that's different than M&A — there's a different cadence, there's a different process, there's a different skill set involved."
It's also a good idea for sellers to surround themselves with people in their peer group who have gone through a process.
"It's a real emotional thing, selling your company, for a founder," he says. "This is a big life event."
He says business owners post-close have said that there were 10 or 15 times throughout the process that they thought about canceling the deal. Instead, they leaned into people in their group who knew what they were going through, which can be reassuring.
The second key is to know the company's numbers.
"If you've sold your business, groups like us, we're going to hire advisers and they're going to ask you 1,000 questions 10 different ways," Grebenick says. "And it's frustrating. In some ways it's intrusive. So, you got to really have a good grasp on your business."
It's also important for sellers to have answers. Buyers, he says, can understand that margins are compressing. But they'll want to know why and what the seller is going to do to fix it.
"Every business has vulnerabilities, whether that's a key customer or you have a supply contract; earlier on in the process, highlight that. Acknowledge it. Take the elephant out of the room and say how you're going to mitigate it," he says. "Ultimately, every business has risk and hitting it on the front end is super important."
The third point is that sellers should be able to outline and profile the post-close management organization at the company, especially when selling to a financial buyer.
"We're investors. We're not operators," Grebenick says. "We need every person on the management team to continue their role. And our interest level, our ability to stretch on value really is predicated, if you really boil it down, on the strength of the management team."
Business owners, however, can keep a tight lid on who knows about a potential transaction. That can sometimes work against them.
"There's been deals where we've just interacted with the owner, and they didn't want to let anyone else know that this was going on. And we lost faith in the owner," he says. "They probably had a really strong team leading the ship, and if they would have exposed us more to the broader team, it probably would have gave us more confidence that this is a team we can back and really grow with."
His fourth tip for sellers is to detail a growth plan.
"We do a lot of work on the historical numbers of the company," he says. "We're buying the future cash flows of the business. Ultimately, that's what we're buying. And being able to show, here's what we're doing today, here's what we can do with you and some additional capital and some additional thoughts tomorrow, I think it's important to detail that but also show that it's real."
He says it's also important to distinguish between plans for growth that have been put into action, and those that are just ideas.
"You really got to show that we're thoughtful about growth," he says. "Here's what we've done to execute that growth and we're also seeing early traction — it's not just pie in the sky. It's actually, we have some revenue, we have some profit from this. It may not be meaningful, but we're starting that process."