Sell Your Business Even if Others Can’t

In reading about the issues facing small businesses in the United States since the recession began in late 2007, I have heard about many sectors that have fallen behind historical performance levels. One that I hadn’t considered very much until this week is what is called the “business-for-sale” sector, which has seen a huge drop-off in comparison to all metrics known prior to the recession. While many have spoken about the large amount of private equity not in circulation, many of the reasons it is being withheld translate to other types of business buyers.

Whether you are representing an equity firm or your own personal business interests, it is likely that you have been trying to figure out when the economy may turn around. In classic business theory, it would be ideal to buy at a deflated price right before the economy picked up so that your investment could piggyback onto the general trend of successful recovery. Such market timing could make your investment produce very high–perhaps unprecedented–returns.

Since the economy appears to have stabilized, though not surged forward in a demonstrable way, what are these people who would otherwise be buying small businesses thinking? Observers of the business-for-sale sector wonder when they will see a positive change. They are anxious to see more acquisition activity.Buy sell dice

Hindrances to Business Sales

Whether you listen to political pundits, talk show hosts, or economists, all would concur (at least publicly) that small business is key to the overall recovery. Yet, if small businesses are not churning ownership, it is hard for them to obtain the necessary working capital to fund growth and operations. conducted a survey of 260 business brokers from around the country to attempt to determine whether market conditions were improving. A whopping 70 percent indicated that financing for business acquisitions has not improved since 2011. These findings and percentages are consistent with survey results from last year, showing a trend of stagnation.

With commercial loans harder to come by (according to the survey), many buyers can’t get the financing they need to do deals.  Business brokers say that banks have made the loan process even more difficult in 2012, decreasing the chances thereby that buyers will begin investing in businesses for sale. Mike Handelsman, group general manager for and, reports that borrowing is particularly difficult for new or young entrepreneurs. Since banks and similar entities have taken the position that a track record of success is one of the top determinants of future success, newcomers to the small business arena–either startups or acquirers–are handcuffed. 

Handelsman cited other factors of concern to business brokers from the survey. Concerns about the U.S. national debt,  political deadlock (re: the fiscal cliff), long-term unemployment and small business/personal tax rates (14%) also appear to diminish buyer confidence. However, he did offer some tips for sellers:

Seller financing is not necessarily the right strategy for all business succession scenarios. But under the right circumstances, a seller’s willingness to finance a portion of the sale can dramatically increase the number of potential buyers and create more advantageous sales terms (e.g. a higher sale price). Sellers also need to plan for the sale, and make their businesses as attractive as possible to buyers.

Here are a few ways to plan for the sale and make your business attractive–

  • Install an outside board of directors, with positions filled by non-competing entrepreneurs rather than the typical CPA, attorney, banker, and family friend.
  • Stop paying executive perks out of business accounts–clear separation will help show your commitment to professional management.
  • Document the tasks and procedures performed by the executive team. When it has been documented, the business is worth far more money because it is no longer dependent on the personalities.
  • Have a CPA review your financial statements–audit if you can afford it–especially if you have never had it done before.
  • Work with a transactions attorney to advise on deal structure and terms so that you can think through tax implications that may cause you to accept certain types of offers.

Chin up! If you follow these best practices, you will be one of the first ones to sell your business, regardless of whether many others sell theirs at the same time.



Find Ways to Improve Manufacturing Company Profits

In trying to understand business issues, case studies can serve as a useful tool to show us what we may not see at first glance in our own businesses. When I was doing the research that led to the founding of the Turnaround Management Association a number of years ago, I had the “opportunity” to compile, read, and review over 900 case studies on attempted turnarounds. As I read about companies from a variety of industries, geographies, and backgrounds, I was able to decipher certain trends and best practices. While I obviously don’t have the space (or your attention span) to delve into that level of detail in a blog post, I wanted to recount a case study and point out some lessons to be learned.

better resultsA $100+ million company lost 25% of its revenue during the period 2005 – 2010. Simultaneously, EBIT declined by 91%, dropping to 0.9% of  2010 sales numbers. A turnaround firm was retained to restore revenues and achieve at least 10% EBIT by the end of 2012. The results of the project were that 2011 revenue improved by 20.20% over 2010 and 2011 EBIT was 5.5% of 2011 revenue, an increase of 470% over that of 2010.

How the Results Were Achieved

Strategic Alignment

By analyzing the markets served, rates of growth, and trends, the turnaround firm was able to highlight the very best opportunities for high growth. Historical analysis yielded insights into top customers and products, with breakout information by plant location. As insights were gleaned from the data, brainstorming sessions were held with the executive team to modify strategic and tactical plans.

Product Pricing

As with many companies who suffered a decline in fortunes, this company had begun to compete on price rather than more strategic competitive advantages. As their products and services became commoditized, considerable price variability had snuck into the company based on local market conditions. With considerable (40%+) market share in its primary markets, the company in crisis had very few price comparables available from competitive intelligence by which new pricing could be developed. The consultants helped the company do the following:

  1. Make product groups by cost and technical specs,
  2. (For each product group) establish minimum, mean, and max prices,
  3. Determine products that were priced outside of guideline rages, and
  4. Identify customers who were not profitable to serve.

Margins were terrible, so the company implemented the following procedures recommended by the turnaround firm: 

  • Pricing for non-strategic customers was immediately increased,
  • Held meetings with strategic customers to explain the fair price increases, and
  • Future price increases were planned in unison with strategic customers.

Product Costing & Standardization

The old product costing model was jettisoned in favor of a more accurate, easier to maintain one. Product Standardization was accomplished by analyzing SKUs across key product groupings. A small list of products were designated as standard offerings. Everything else was labeled “custom,” with appropriate cost and pricing decisions.

Operations Improvement

Process improvements were instituted after plant visits. Highlighted items included:

  • Supply chain improvements through TQM and JIT were achieved
  • Minimum order quantity guidelines streamlined production runs and enhanced scheduling efficiency
  • Setup and preventive maintenance routines were sharpened
  • Paperwork and scrap reduction and recycling were instituted

The culmination of 2011 efforts was that higher contribution margin at the plant level. Production scheduling and materials requirement procedures were highlighted as areas for additional improvement. 

When an outside team is brought in to focus on profitability and the executive team cooperates fully, great things can happen in a turnaround. Clear communications, improved decision-making, unified focus all lead to enhanced morale and the profitability becomes an outgrowth of good management.


Discovering Financial Keys to Higher Profits

Keeping a finger on the pulse of the company is essential; financial reports and management information provide vital signs of business performance. The accuracy and timeliness of financial and management information is, therefore, critical for maximizing profits. 

Systems Management

The person managing your company’s management information systems is a key ally for the business owner. With responsibilities encompassing data collection, entry and analysis, this employee must have a solid grounding in accounting and information technology. In addition, the manager must be able to implement solutions to problems discovered during review and analysis of the information generated. 

Reporting Systems

Three areas affect the way reports can be used to enhance company profitability:

  1. how information is entered and maintained
  2. how results are read, and
  3. how the reports are used to influence business decisions.

The daily tasks of information entry and data maintenance are the building blocks of any management information system. Since it does not accurately reflect the true operating and financial conditions of the business, incorrectly entered or antiquated information can lead a company to ruin if used to make important decisions. The systems manager should employ systems, then, that are relatively easy to use and allow for daily but controlled data entry; menu-driven systems are easiest to use. The system should be selected based on designed checks and balances of the data to prevent reliance on incorrect information. Review of information to catch any errors or omissions and make corrections is a best practice.

Be sure that management team members all know how to use the system. If only the systems manager can use the system, it is useless because one person begins to wield too much  influence and indirect control over the company’s direction. Take care not to fall into a trap of the system driving the company rather than the other way around. 

Reading reports requires more than a casual glance; a thorough study of a report’s essential indicators gives the owner and other key executives in-depth knowledge of operating performance. The figure below is an example of such a report:


An effective system must be able to generate this kind of information. For example, reading Figure A prepares an executive to question issues of timeliness in production scheduling, loan advances, and interest rates.


Figure B is a job costing report. The way in which the report is read and interpreted will affect every decision made–or not made–with regard to the job listed. Comparing this report with a similar report for a project either in progress or completed, the relationship between the materials and labor for specific designs can be determined. The goal of the report is to establish standards for purposes of comparison; current projects are compared to the standards to analyze their performance.

Figure C shows a sample income statement for a growing small business ($3-5 million in sales). The income statement reports prior activity and should therefore be used to modify future business operations to maximize profits.  The statement needs to be even more detailed than the sample below to help determine how the profits or losses are being generated. One can be profitable and still not have cash. Cash flow projections, incorporating actual expenses, show the sources and uses of cash and are a good complement to the income statement and balance sheet.


The ability to read and understand reports and statements prepares the executive team member to use the information to influence business decisions. After reviewing Figure B, you should be equipped to establish workable production schedules. Subsequent production meetings should highlight areas to reduce costs and improve production deadlines.

Figure B should be discussed with all managers, who in turn implement  the schedules and budgets with subs and vendors. The resulting scheduling and budgeting systems ensure timely, cost-efficient job completion. Managers also need to assist in keeping the information current.

In Figure C, data is presented comparing the current year to the prior year in order to analyze trends and ratios. Tracking composite numbers such as gross profit takes on meaning when it serves as a basis for comparison, rather than being viewed in isolation. Deviations from the norm should be discussed in management meetings. So, if sales and profits are lagging,  the group should investigate any underlying causes and develop alternative production and sales methods–and implement them immediately.

Watch Your Asset – It May Not Be a Resource

First, the bad news: making operations, finances, and employees work to maximum value can mean having to eliminate some employees or operations at times. The good news, though, is that many businesses have been able to hold on to existing resources–even during a turnaround situation–by reassigning them to better purposes and uses where required. This is the heart of asset redeployment–the practice of reassigning people, things, and efforts to achieve optimal efficiency. By using capital wisely, your team can make it stretch a lot further. For example, coordinating employee and independent contractor work to produce the greatest amount of work with the fewest number of people working the least number of hours means greater return on efforts and dollars.

Eliminating Operations

Eliminating unprofitable operations–in whole or in part– is a wide-ranging task. Anything that may be termed “waste” in the company needs to be discarded or put to better use. One area that should be addressed is waste due to unnecessary multiple consumption of potentially shared resources. In plain terms, the individual use of items that could be shared is an extravagance that few small businesses can afford. Think of shared printers rather than a printer on each desk as an example. it is highly unlikely that every single person in the office will be printing at the same time. What’s more, high volume printer/copier combination machines use less expensive toner than ink cartridges in smaller units. This initiative may require more cooperation and patience than providing unique units for each employee, but such a move can reduce the amount of money the company must spend to get work done.

Avoiding Duplicate Efforts

A counter problem to the above is too many employees doing the exact same job, either knowingly or unknowingly. Such multiple effort, a clear waste of time, resources, and money, often occurs when someone is fearful of delegation or feels threatened by another’s talents and abilities. Therefore, management should make sure that several people are not doing the same job in differing formats and degrees. 

Non-linked software is a perfect example of this kind of waste; if the secretary maintains supplier addresses and phone numbers, and the accounting group keeps the same information in their files, someone is performing an unnecessary job. Instruct employees in ways to avoid duplication of effort. Look across your organization, document processes by task, and find ways to reduce overlap. This is not to say that your staff should not be cross-trained. It is, in fact, good succession planning and talent management to have people who could do someone else’s job in a pinch!

Managing Capital Resources

Capital resources include facilities, supplies, and work in process. Buying only what is needed when needed (“just in time”) is one way to wisely manage resources. Another way would be to try to have more finished goods inventory than unfinished, because finished goods can be sold quickly to raise cash. At times, you may consider renting or leasing an asset rather than purchasing it–especially if the term of the contract is less than the useful life. You may elect to “turn in” resources that you don’t need very often or convert them to less cash intensive resources through alternate financing. 

Coordinating Human Resources

This is an area often overlooked because it is seen as “just administrative.” When employees, however, have jobs that overlap in requirements, it is up to the executive team in the small business to correct the situation for optimization. When your people are performing jobs that are not their strong suit, they usually take more time and make more mistakes than a better qualified and motivated counterpart.

Develop a competent management team to help you steward resources more efficiently. There are multiple areas for gains in efficiency and profitability if you will commit to the process. Note: process rather than one-time task–follow-through and experience the fruit of your labors!

Keeping Costs Under Control

If expenses are simply allowed to fluctuate, with no way of monitoring where they will be, optimal profitability will be hard to come by. Cut out as much fat as possible and keep the company lean. Clearly, certain expenditures are necessary and unavoidable. There are ways, however, to limit their influence on company profitability. For example, taking advantage  of any offered cost savings an creating efficient procedures to save time and project financing overruns will cut costs significantly. A purchasing requirements program is a start for reducing many hard costs. Most soft costs, however, can be decreased through effective scheduling.

An effective requirements program includes the following steps:

  • using purchase orders 
  • inspecting all deliveries
  • taking advantage of discount incentives
  • implementing invoice verification procedures
  • scheduling efficiently

Using Purchase Orders

Purchase orders are seen as a relic of old business practices by some. Others view them as an indispensable management tool. Somewhere in between the extremes there is a fit for every organization. Their usefulness is in getting reliable quotes upon which invoices can be checked later.

Inspecting all Deliveries

Inspecting all deliveries is essential to make sure orders are shipped according to the quantities and quality specifications provided on the purchase orders. Many managers complain that they do not have the time to physically inspect every item delivered to a work place. Inasmuch as doing so would require a huge time commitment, they are right.  However, for containing cost overruns, these same managers could not be more wrong in their assumptions.  Inspecting samples  from every delivery when delivered and figuring quantities by up close, visual inspection are necessary steps to ensure that suppliers are responding to the company’s needs.

Taking Advantage of Discounted Materials Prices

When suppliers make discounts available on purchases, your team should try to make the most of them. In addition, verify all invoices against delivery inspection reports, checking  the invoiced amount against the total amount delivered, and unit prices against the purchase order. This procedure will help ensure that a supplier’s negligence is not costing the company money.

Scheduling Efficiently

Time constraints are of utmost importance in eliminating inventory carrying costs–whether your business produces goods or services. If a product line or project is slow to be completed, many extra costs begin to accumulate. Alternative uses of profit margins are foregone. Had your team been able to finish sooner and collect within a finance cycle closer to the one in which work began, there would have been profit margin to discuss how to allocate. With margins, choices exist that don’t otherwise–suppliers can be kept happy and bankers and investors can too! If yours is a business that uses work in process assets, insuring those assets is an ongoing cost for the company. Theft and obsolescence of design and features due to carrying raw inputs too long further eat away at margins. The cost to repair items damaged over time also rings up expenses. All of these combine to make inventory (due to delayed delivery) costly.

Proper scheduling is not limited to getting one work team to immediately follow another onto the job. By ordering raw inputs in bulk through purchase orders, trips to supply houses are reduced, resulting in cost savings through lower fuel costs and less time away from actual work. As these employees spend more time on the job and less time running around town picking up materials, their projects are completed faster. Getting teams to succeed one another promptly with slight overlaps can also tighten production schedules and help reduce costs.

By tying your project financing to interest rates in a market where rates are rising, you and your team can make the most of prompt completion of projects. If you operate efficiently, you can move before rates rise consistently. Finally, scheduling vacations with as little overlap as possible will help with your production efficiency, and thereby improve margins.