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Problem: Your 2020 strategic plan includes growing your business through acquisitions, but there are very few companies that are actively for sale. 

Solutions:

  1. Explain to your board that there is nothing on the market.
  2. Push off expansion until 2021, even if that means missing a window of opportunity for your company.
  3. Get creative when it comes to target identification and find those businesses that fit your needs but that are not openly on the market yet.

Be smart and choose option No. 3. Now the question becomes, how do you find those businesses that might be on the brink of selling, but haven’t put the sign out in the yard yet?

Sellers actively looking for buyers typically use investment bankers or lawyers to help with the search. With an interested buyer, the transaction proceeds in a straightforward manner, with the finesse and dealing revolving around the final negotiations.

But what if the type of business you want to acquire is not on the market? Having an in-depth knowledge of your competition is the first step. “Word on the street” has been replaced by social media sources like LinkedIn. Don’t let a potential seller get away because you failed to realize what was going on behind the scenes.

Here are some common scenarios where “not for sale” can easily be turned into “sold.”

The CEO and/or a majority business partner is approaching or is past the age of retirement. In some cases, business owners fail to prepare for succession or ownership transition. They suddenly find themselves wondering how their business will continue without a leader. Common concerns for a seller of this type include, what happens to my executives and employees? What happens to the community when I am not there to support it?

Listening is a key component when floating a sales pitch to this owner. Use exploratory conversations but avoid being aggressive or overly eager. Subtly communicate your interest while staying sensitive to the emotions the owner is possibly feeling about exiting the business. Outwardly expressing interest, coupled with your willingness to be fair and reasonable, go a long way with this potential seller.

The target business is underperforming, has outgrown its location or has outdated equipment. It doesn’t take a great deal of investigative work to determine if a company is limping along. Chances are, the situation has already been identified by an activist investor or other shareholders.

You might know that the owner is injecting personal funds to keep things going. It may be that the owner doesn’t know how, or is unwilling to, borrow money to fund expansion. Often in these cases, it’s a lack of vision or lack of capital that has put the company’s profitability in jeopardy.

Consider this type of sale a fixer-upper opportunity. Just like buying a house, your due diligence is key in identifying how much beyond the sale price you want to consider investing.

Is this a company that has significant untapped potential? Or is it a business with issues so significant that it would monopolize your time and resources and make it very difficult to get a return on your investment? Potential buyers who are eyeing a challenge may relish such an opportunity, but the effort required should not be taken lightly.

Owners with personal issues (a pending divorce or an illness) or an owner spending significant amounts of time and money on expensive hobbies (racing, airplanes, horses) can lead to a desire for liquidity and a sale. This is where your networking skills give you the greatest advantage.

Would-be sellers may not be ready to admit they need to scale down, or even get out of the game. Using a trusted adviser of the company to broach the subject of a sale is a good tactic. As with the example above, it’s important to listen and be sensitive to the feelings of the owner who has built this business and is now considering an exit from the company. 

In each of these cases, getting to know your audience reigns supreme. Even before you consider asking about a sale, make an introduction. Find them on LinkedIn and talk about the company’s accomplishments. Attend community and industry events where you are likely to run into your target CEO/owner and start a conversation.

This isn’t about the nuts and bolts of dealmaking. That comes later. This is about building trust and a relationship that you hope will lead to a transaction. The key is patience. Similar to dating, after you get that first date, you don’t want to scare them off by immediately proposing.

You need to enter conversations with business prospects using finesse and intrigue. Take your time, listen closely and trust your instincts. If you take the right approach, you just may end up with a great business opportunity.

Jon W. Park is chairman and CEO at Westfield Bank. He has led Westfield Bank’s profitable financial diversification strategy, growing the bank to $1.6 billion in assets and $500 million in business and home loans annually. Hired in 2000 by Westfield, Jon has navigated a number of regulatory complexities as an insurer owning an Ohio community bank. He has served as an active director of eight financial service businesses and seven nonprofit organizations. Visit www.votejonpark.com for more information.

Related: Jon W. Park shares his insights on how to build an effective M&A strategy.