The road less traveled is often a misimpression when considering a transition from business ownership. Surveys show that roughly 85% of owners expect their exit to happen via a sale of the business to a third party.
A third-party sale is certainly attractive. The idea of monetizing decades of work in one lump-sum payoff seems equitable. Years of sacrificing to “invest in the business” is supposed to generate a return. “He (or she) sold the company” when applied to someone who is clearly enjoying a comfortable lifestyle in retirement acts as an advertisement for the benefits of cashing out.
Unfortunately, that isn’t only less frequent than assumed, but it’s so infrequent as to be close to a rarity.
The Numbers Don’t Lie
Baby Boomers owned businesses at about twice the rate of previous or succeeding generations. Franchising and an overcrowded job market for corporate careers drove about 6% of Boomers into entrepreneurship, where the traditional average for business ownership is closer to 3% of the population.
A decade ago, according to the SBA, about two-thirds of all businesses between 5 and 500 employees were owned by persons 48 years old or older. Today, just over half are owned by folks over the age of 58. That makes it pretty safe to extrapolate that around 4% of that age group still own businesses.
Census data puts the number of persons turning 65 years old at 10,000 a day, so it’s a decent guess to say that 400 of those, on average, probably own a business. That’s 2,800 a week, or about 140,000 a year. Not everyone exits when they hit 65, and almost 90% of those businesses employ fewer than 20 people.
For exit planning discussions, let’s divide the under and over-20 employee companies into two groups, which we will call “Main Street” and “Mid-market.” (Note- this is not a valid market definition of those two terms. For further explanation see the Afterword in my most recent work The Exit Planning Coach Handbook.”)
Main Street companies would then be 90% of our 140,000 owner population. That’s 126,000 businesses. According to the IBBA, Business Brokers sell about 8,000 Main Street companies annually, or about 20% of those they list. That leaves 92% of Main Street owners to find another way.
Of the 14,000 or so that we are classifying as Mid-Market, Private Equity activity accounts for about 6,000 transactions annually, many of which are handled by brokers. (So there is an unknown amount of double counting here.) The last two years saw a spike of about 50% in acquisitions due to low interest rates, but it is safe to say that at least a third of these presumably very desirable middle-market businesses have to find an alternative exit plan.
Advisors Ignore the Numbers
With these statistics, why do owners and their advisors continue to focus on exit strategies that only work for a small minority? The higher visibility of transactions is part of the bias, as are the higher professional fees that they generate, but the biggest issue is a lack of advisor education.
Advisors who work with owners approaching a transaction have an obligation to inform them of their options. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. We survey the exit planning industry annually. Only between 5,000 and 6,000 advisors claim exit planning as an offered service. That’s an advisor-to-owner ratio of 23:1 each year. If we consider the entire remaining population of Boomer-owned employers, that ratio is five hundred to one.
Most owners have 50% of more of their personal net worth in the business. Yet we continue to see financial planners who base their clients’ retirement calculations on an unconfirmed estimate of what the company will contribute via a third-party sale, when such a sale may be the least likely outcome. A financial plan for a business owner cannot be holistic if it doesn’t consider 50% of his assets.
Attorneys and accountants frequently report that the first time they interact with a client about exiting is when a purchase offer is already on the table. Proactive discussions about eventual transfer or succession are usually brief, and cease when the client says “I’m not ready yet.” They let their clients postpone the discussion until circumstance or happenstance intervenes.
Business Brokers, of course, only talk to clients who have already decided on their preferred course of action. As a former Certified Business Intermediary, I can say from experience that unfortunately, most have no alternative for the 80% of listings they can’t sell.
The Road Less Traveled
The truth is, despite popular conceptions to the contrary, sales to third parties are the road less traveled. Certainly, many lifestyle businesses are really jobs and have to close when the founder/owner/CEO retires. Many others, however, could recoup the owner’s investment with a structured transfer to employees.
Given a few years, most owners could hire and train a suitable buyer. That usually requires support, since few have experience in recruiting and teaching someone to do what they do. There is also some education involved to help the owner understand how investing in a top-flight employee today can pay huge dividends in the future.
Additionally, there is the issue of owners who believe that they have to keep any rumor of their impending retirement from others in their industry. Customers, vendors and competitors are a fertile market for acquirers. A good advisor can act to maintain confidentiality when putting out feelers.
Advisors need to be more proactive in approaching clients about their objectives and their options. Initiating a structured conversation around both is in the best interest of the client and the advisor. They may choose to avoid the road less traveled.
This article was originally published by John F. Dini, CBEC, CExP, CEPA on awakeat2oclock.com. John develops transition and succession strategies that allow business owners to exit their companies on their own schedule, with the proceeds they seek and complete control over the process. He takes a coaching approach to client engagements, focusing on helping owners of companies with $1M to $250M in revenue achieve both their desired lifestyles and legacies.