Justine E. Tobin, founder and managing partner of investment bank Tobin & Company, recently started riding a bike. In these sometimes 18-mile rides it's important that they regroup every two miles. That, she says, is also a good idea for business owners who know one day they'll sell their company — regroup with their advisers regularly to ensure the company is on track. Otherwise, based on the company's numbers, reaching a seller's goals might not be possible.
"There are things that I would like them to fix," Tobin said at the Charlotte Smart Business Dealmakers Conference about the business owners approaching her with the idea that they'd like to sell. "And the way they fix those is have those advisers in early. And the advisers I'd like them to see three years before they sell are the investment banker, I'd like for them to have their business attorney to make sure their documents are in place, I want them to have their tax accountant and their CPA to make sure that their financial statements are presentable — and I like to see audited financials and starting really that financial hygiene. And then I like to see them have a wealth manager who's going to tell them about how much money they need to have in order to get where they want to be, so then I know what the valuation needs to be to meet their objectives, which is the only reason they want to sell the company is to get the money so they can stop."
Business owners should be collecting data about their company and reviewing it periodically with advisers. Those meetings should be about better understanding the margins, and weighing the impact of the loss of certain customers and how to recover if that happened, trying ultimately to clean up financials and be able to show buyers a pattern of consistent growth, not only in revenues but also in earnings and diversity of customers.
Another aspect is that is critically important as a business owner prepares for a sale is honesty.
"We like to see clients who are willing to be honest and open. I have seen 15 naked bodies that day. I can see one more," Tobin says. "I would love to help you figure out how to become beautiful so that when you sell in three years it's just going to be a piece of cake."
She says it's never too early for a business to start preparing for a sale. That means, in part, when business owners get calls inquiring about the sale of their company, don't hang up. Talk to them because it can help get business owners into the mindset of selling their company.
And unlike some, Tobin is a proponent of being open and honest with the company's employees that a sale is either happening or is possible.
"So many times, I'm working with clients and they're like, We need to keep it a secret, we have to have a code name, we can't let anyone know because I'm going to lose my employees. Well, why are you going to lose your employees? Why did you not manage it and make them part of the process?" she says. "It's never too early. You're doing it from the day you start. Why else are you starting a company? You're starting it to sell it."
When a company is preparing for an eventual sale, she says her firm has two checklist they use. One is used for doing a valuation of the company. She suggests getting that done on an annual or bi-annual basis. A second checklist is used more when a sale process is underway. The first one looks at financial documents, customers, and IT and technology. They also work with customers in exit planning.
Sometimes a process — when a company is ready to go to market — can go quickly. She says her firm tries to get a company to market within three weeks.
"If you come to us and you've got a lot of that you've thought about or we've been working for the past two or three years in creating those documents, that three weeks goes really fast and it's really easy," she says. "Sometimes that three weeks breaks down to two months because you're just starting to understand the financial statements."