When preparing for the transfer of a business, there are many stakeholders who can impact your plan. Some have direct authority or decision-making capability over the transaction, but others may have substantial influence. In general, it’s best to presume that anyone who has a relationship with the owner or the business will have some impact on his or her decisions.
Of primary importance are partners and shareholders. Even when an owner has a voting majority, minority partners may have an official or unofficial veto. “Official” comes in the form of supermajority rights. Unofficial may be in the form of a threat to terminate employment, which in some cases may make the business unsaleable. If the minority holders are the intended recipients of the equity, they will function as both key components of the company’s value, and negotiators of the price to be paid for that value.
Employees are the other major internal stakeholders. Could they be a flight risk in the owner’s absence? Are they in danger of losing special status or privilege under new management? What is the plan for informing and updating them before and after a deal is struck?
With most business owners, their equity in the business is 50% or more of their personal net worth. That makes future ownership, sale price and coordination with the estate plan items of great interest to spouses and children. In today’s serial family relationships, that can also involve step-siblings, former spouses, and their new partners’ families.
If there are children in the business, their future is inextricably tied to the company. If some children are in the business and some outside of it, the entitlements and expectations grow even more complicated.
Customers may be transactional, as in retail, or strategic partners whose own business depends on what the company supplies. In such cases, or when customers are government entities, they may have contractual rights to approve a change in ownership.
In any case, the valuation of the business is going to depend at least partially on the retention of customers.
Suppliers have similar interests. We recently saw a distribution arrangement canceled simply because the supplier was insulted by not being informed about the company’s merger negotiations. The fact that they were conducted under a confidentiality agreement didn’t appease the supplier.
Creditors and lenders who hold personal guarantees are bound to be concerned about ownership changes. Be proactive in letting them know how their security interests will be preserved.
Government entities, especially any with regulatory responsibility over the industry, should also be approached proactively. Waiting for them to recognize a change may seem like “discretion as the better part of valor,” but untimely intervention could derail a transaction.
If the company is an important employer, a candidate for relocation, or a fixture in the community, some outreach to elected officials may be advisable.
Finally, consider the media. Plenty of business owners have complained about interviews that were slanted, reported inaccurately, or “just plain wrong.” If the transaction is newsworthy (and even if it isn’t,) prepare a professional announcement and a list of where it should be distributed. Refer to it, word for word if necessary, whenever someone calls for comment.
Thinking in advance about the impact of an exit plan on the various stakeholders can save advisors and their clients a lot of headaches when a deal is signed.
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.