Acquisition strategy often comes down to your ability to relate to and make a strong connection with the seller, says David Wood.
“You’re trying to win over that entrepreneur who is worried about who is going to take care of the kids when they’re gone,” says Wood, founder and managing partner at Foundation Investment Partners.
“The first deal we won — and I had a lot of extra time on that deal because we had nothing else to do except to try to win one —we worked our fingers to the bone. She was somebody who cared about what happened to the business. She had a lot of pride in what she had done and she was excited to find somebody hungry to take the business to take the next place.”
Smart Business Dealmakers talked with Wood about his approach to minimizing trouble when making acquisitions.
What’s an ideal setup for you to make an acquisition?
We try to find businesses where it’s not going to need a really unique person, something that is so esoteric as a business model that there’s only 10 executives out there who could do it. We would have a hard time doing a management transition on one of those kinds of businesses. We’re looking for business models that require the basic corporate athlete skills. Sales, marketing, good manufacturing skills. We start with a pretty big universe of folks.
Ideally, we want to work with the entrepreneurs. A lot of times, they are retiring. Some of the folks are only working a third of the time, others are more engaged and want to spend some more time with the business. They have a trusted No. 2 person who they want to see supported in taking over the CEO position. We like those situations as well.
Most people don’t want to do management transitions and there are good reasons behind that. They are hard and they take a lot of time, both with the exiting shareholder, but also the new incoming person. You can go through as detailed and exhaustive an interview process as you want. You still need to spend a tremendous amount of time with these executives once they are in the business. When we bring somebody in, we still know the company better than the new executive does. We need to be there to assist with that transition.
We try to be the spackle for our management teams. We’re getting in and handling projects as a first course instead of going to a consultant. We’ll use consultants on special projects and there are times when you just need an extra set of hands. But from an industry perspective, we try to go for a little bit more stability and repeatability.
What if it turns out you need to bring in new leadership?
The key is understanding what the business needs and what that entrepreneur wants and needs. If we can create a situation that feels comfortable and works for them, it’s a perfect marriage. If we see a lot of daylight between what we think the business needs and what they want, we tend to move away because it might be a better opportunity for someone else.
Before we start to make changes, we need to understand what makes the company good already and then start making it better. We can’t pretend we’re that much smarter than anybody else. We’re not. We need to be humble, we need to understand and appreciate what the business already does well and then build off of that.
When you need to find a leader, everybody would love to have a group of CEOs ready to go at their leisure. The reality is you don’t always have the opportunity at the right time, so those people are going to go find something else. The one thing I’ll say about the Cleveland private equity community, people are willing to share names. When we’ve had an executive we’re looking for, I call around to our competitor firms to see if they are talking to anybody before we start searching.