Three Basic Factors of Earnings

Two businesses for sale could report the same numeric value for “earnings” and yet be far from equal. Three factors of earnings are listed below that tell more about the earnings than just the number.

1. Quality of earnings
Quality of earnings measures whether the earnings are padded with a lot of “add backs” or one-time events, such as a sale of real estate, resulting in an earnings figure which does not accurately reflect the true earning power of the company’s operations. It is not unusual for companies to have “some” non-recurring expenses every year, whether for a new roof on the plant, a hefty lawsuit, a write-down of inventory, etc. Beware of the business appraiser that restructures the earnings without “any” allowances for extraordinary items.

2. Sustainability of earnings after the acquisition
The key question a buyer often considers is whether he or she is acquiring a company at the apex of its business cycle or if the earnings will continue to grow at the previous rate.

3. Verification of information
The concern for the buyer is whether the information is accurate, timely, and relatively unbiased. Has the company allowed for possible product returns or allowed for uncollectable receivables? Is the seller above-board, or are there skeletons in the closet?

A Listing Agreement is More than Just a Piece of Paper

In order to sell one’s business using the services of a business broker, a listing agreement is almost always required.

For the owner of the business, signing the agreement legally authorizes the sale of the business. This simple act of signing represents the end of ownership. For some business owners, it means heading into uncharted territory after the business is sold. For many it also signifies the end of a dream. The business owner may have started the business from scratch and/or taken it to the next level. A little of the business owner may always be in that business. The business, in many cases, has been like a part of the family.

For buyers, the signed listing agreement is the beginning of a dream, an opportunity for independence and the start of business ownership. The buyer looks at the business as the next phase in his or her life. Pride of ownership builds.

So, that simple piece of paper – the listing agreement – is the bridge for both the seller and the buyer. The business broker looks at that piece of paper through the eyes of both the buyer and the seller, working to help both parties progress through the business transaction process into the new phase of their lives.

What a Buyer May Really Be Looking At

Buyers, as part of their due diligence, usually employ accountants to check the numbers and attorneys to both look at legal issues and draft or review documents. Buyers may also bring in other professionals to look at the business’ operations. The prudent buyer is also looking behind the scenes to make sure there are not any “skeletons in the closet.” It makes sense for a seller to be just as prudent. Knowing what the prudent buyer may be checking can be a big help. A business intermediary professional is a good person to help a seller look at these issues. They are very familiar with what buyers are looking for when considering a company to purchase.

Here are some examples of things that a prudent buyer will be checking:


  • Is the business taking all of the trade discounts available or is it late in paying its bills? This could indicate poor cash management policies.
  • Checking the gross margins for the past several years might indicate a lack of control, price erosion or several other deficiencies.
  • Has the business used all of its bank credit lines? Does the bank or any creditor have the company on any kind of credit watch?
  • Does the company have monthly financial statements? Are the annual financials prepared on a timely basis?


  • Is the owner constantly interrupted by telephone calls or demands that require immediate attention? This may indicate a business in crisis.
  • Has the business experienced a lot of management turnover over the past few years?
  • If there are any employees working in the business, do they take pride in what they do and in the business itself?


  • What is the inventory turnover? Does the company have too many suppliers?
  • Is the business in a stagnant or dying market, and can it shift gears rapidly to make changes or enter new markets?


  • Is the business introducing new products or services?
  • Is the business experiencing loss of market share, especially compared to the competition? Price increases may increase dollar sales, but the real measure is unit sales.

When business owners consider selling, it will pay big dividends for them to consider the areas listed above and make whatever changes are appropriate to deal with them. It makes good business sense to not only review them, but also to resolve as many of the issues outlined above as possible.

What is the Value of Your Business? It All Depends.

The initial response to the question in the title really should be: “Why do you want to know the value of your business?” This response is not intended to be flippant, but is a question that really needs to be answered.

  • Does an owner need to know for estate purposes?
  • Does the bank want to know for lending purposes?
  • Is the owner entertaining bringing in a partner or partners?
  • Is the owner thinking of selling?
  • Is a divorce or partnership dispute occurring?
  • Is a valuation needed for a buy-sell agreement?

There are many other reasons why knowing the value of the business may be important.

Valuing a business can be dependent on why there is a need for it, since there are almost as many different definitions of valuation as there are reasons to obtain one. For example, in a divorce or partnership breakup, each side has a vested interest in the value of the business. If the husband is the owner, he wants as low a value as possible, while his spouse wants the highest value. Likewise, if a business partner is selling half of his business to the other partner, the departing partner would want as high a value as possible.

In the case of a business loan, a lender values the business based on what he could sell the business for in order to recapture the amount of the loan. This may be just the amount of the hard assets, namely fixtures and equipment, receivables, real estate or other similar assets.

In most cases, with the possible exception of the loan value, the applicable value definition would be Fair Market Value, normally defined as: “The price at which the property would change hands between a willing buyer and a willing seller when the former is not under any compulsion to buy and the latter is not under any compulsion to sell, both parties having reasonable knowledge of relevant facts.” This definition is used by most courts.

It is interesting that in the most common definition of value, it starts off with, “The price…” Most business owners, when using the term value, really mean price. They basically want to know, “How much can I get for it if I decide to sell?” Of course, if there are legal issues, a valuation is also likely needed. In most cases, however, what the owner is looking for is a price. Unfortunately, until the business sells, there really isn’t a price.

The International Business Brokers Association (IBBA) defines price as; “The total of all consideration passed at any time between the buyer and the seller for an ownership interest in a business enterprise and may include, but is not limited to, all remuneration for tangible and intangible assets such as furniture, equipment, supplies, inventory, working capital, non-competition agreements, employment, and/or consultation agreements, licenses, customer lists, franchise fees, assumed liabilities, stock options or stock redemptions, real estate, leases, royalties, earn-outs, and future considerations.”

In short, value is something that may have to be defended, and something on which not everyone may agree. Price is very simple – it is what something sold for. It may have been negotiated; it may be the seller’s or buyer’s perception of value and the point at which their perceptions coincided (at least enough for a closing to take place) or a court may have decided.

The moral here is for a business owner to be careful what he or she asks for. Do you need a valuation, or do you just want to know what someone thinks your business will sell for?

Business brokers can be a big help in establishing value or price.

A “Pig in a Poke"

Once a buyer has negotiated a deal and secured the necessary financing, he or she is ready for the due diligence phase of the sale. The serious buyer will have retained an accounting firm to verify inventory, accounts receivable and payables; and retained a law firm to deal with the legalities of the sale. What’s left for the buyer to do is to make sure that there are no “skeletons in the closet,” so he or she is not buying the proverbial “pig in a poke.”

The four main areas of concern are: business’ finances, management, buyer’s finances, and marketing. Buyers are usually at a disadvantage as they may not know the real reason the business is for sale. This is especially true for buyers purchasing a business in an industry they are not familiar with. The seller, because of his or her experience in a specific industry, has probably developed a “sixth sense” of when the business has peaked or is “heading south.” The buyer has to perform the due diligence necessary to smoke out the real reasons for sale.

Business’ Finances: The following areas should be investigated thoroughly. Does the firm have good cash management? Do they have solid banking relations? Are the financial statements current? Are they audited? Is the company profitable? How do the expenses compare to industry benchmarks?

Management: For a good quick read on management, the buyer should observe if management is constantly interrupted by emergency telephone calls or requests for immediate decisions by subordinates? Is there a lot of change or turn-over in key positions? On the other hand, no change in senior management may indicate stagnation. Are the employees upbeat and positive?

Buyer’s Finances: Buyers should make sure that the “money is there.” Too many sellers take for granted that the buyer has the necessary backing. Sellers have a perfect right to ask the buyer to “show me the money.”

Marketing: Price increases may increase dollar sales, but the real key is unit sales. How does the business stack up against the competition? Market share is important. Does the firm have new products being introduced on a regular basis.

By doing one’s homework and asking for the right information – and then verifying it, buying a “pig in the poke” can be avoided.

Creating Value in Privately Held Companies

“As shocking as it may sound, I believe that most owners of middle market private companies do not really know the value of their company and what it takes to create greater value in their company … Oh sure, the owner tracks sales and earnings on a regular basis, but there is much more to creating company value than just sales and earnings”
     Russ Robb, Editor, M&A Today

Creating value in the privately held company makes sense whether the owner is considering selling the business, plans on continuing to operate the business, or hopes to have the company remain in the family.  (It is interesting to note that, of the businesses held within the family, only about 30 percent survive the second generation, 11 percent survive the third generation and only 3 percent survive the fourth generation and beyond).

Building value in a company should focus on the following six components:

  • the industry
  • the management
  • products or services
  • customers
  • competitors
  • comparative benchmarks

The Industry – It is difficult, if not impossible, to build value if the business is in a stagnating industry.  One advantage of privately held firms is their ability to shift gears and go into a different direction.  One firm, for example, that made high-volume, low-end canoes shifted to low-volume, high-end lightweight canoes and kayaks to meet new market demands.  This saved the company.

The Management – Building depth in management and creating a succession plan also builds value.  Key employees should have employment contracts and sign non-compete agreements. In situations where there are partners, “buy-sell” agreements should be executed. These arrangements contribute to value.

Products or Services– A single product or service does not build value.  However, if additional or companion products or services can be created, especially if they are non-competitive in price with the primary product or service – then value can be created.

Customers – A broad customer base that is national or international is the key to increasing value.  Localized distribution focused on one or two customers will subtract from value.

Competitors – Being a market leader adds significantly to value, as does a lack of competition.

Comparative Benchmarks – Benchmarks can be used to measure a company against its peers.  The better the results, the greater the value of the company.

Three keys to adding value to a company are: building a top management team coupled with a loyal work force; strategies that are flexible and therefore can be changed in mid-stream; and surrounding the owner/CEO with top advisors and professionals.

What Do Buyers Really Want to Know?

Before answering the question, it makes sense to first ask why people want to be in business for themselves. What are their motives? There have been many surveys addressing this question. The words may be different, but the idea behind them and the order in which they are listed are almost always the same.

  1. Want to do their own thing; to control their own destiny, so to speak.
  2. Do not want to work for anyone else.
  3. Want to make better use of their skills and abilities.
  4. Want to make money.

These surveys indicate that by far the biggest reason people want to be in business for themselves is to be their own boss. The first three reasons listed revolve around this theme. Some may be frustrated in their current job or position. Others may not like their current boss or employer, while still others feel that their abilities are not being used properly or sufficiently.

The important item to note is that money is reason number four. Although making money is certainly important and necessary, it is not the primary issue. Once a person decides to go into business for himself or herself, he or she has to explore the options. Starting a business is certainly one option, but it is an option fraught with risk. Buying an existing business is the method most people prefer. Purchasing a known entity reduces the risks substantially.

There are some key questions buyers want, or should want, answers to, once the decision to purchase an existing business has been made. Below are the primary ones; although a prospective buyer may not want answers to all of them, the seller should be prepared to respond to each one.

  • How much is the down payment?  Most buyers are limited in the amount of cash they have for a down payment on a business. After all, if cash were not an issue, they probably wouldn’t be looking to purchase a business in the first place.
  • Will the seller finance the sale of the business?  It can be difficult to finance the sale of a business; therefore, if the seller isn’t willing, he or she must find a buyer who is prepared to pay all cash. This is very difficult to do.
  • Why is the seller selling?  This is a very important question. Buyers want assurance that the reason is legitimate and not because of the business itself.
  • Will the owner stay and train or work with a new owner?  Many people buy a franchise because of the assistance offered. A seller who is willing, at no cost, to stay and to help with the transition is a big plus.
  • How much income can a new owner expect?  This may not be the main criterion, but it is obviously an important issue. A new owner has to be able to pay the bills – both business-wise and personally. And just as important as the income is the seller’s ability to substantiate it with financial statements or tax returns.
  • What makes the business different, unique or special?  Most buyers want to take pride in the business they purchase.
  • How can the business grow?  New owners are full of enthusiasm and want to increase the business. Some buyers are willing to buy a business that is currently only marginal if they feel there is a real opportunity for growth.
  • What doesn’t the buyer know?  Buyers, and sellers too, don’t like surprises. They want to know the good – and the bad – out front. Buyers understand, or should understand, that there is no such thing as a perfect business.

Years ago, it could be said that prospective buyers of businesses had only four questions:

  1. Where is the business?
  2. How much is it?
  3. How much can I make?
  4. Why is it for sale?

In addition to asking basic questions, today’s buyer wants to know much more before investing in his or her own business. Sellers have to able to answer not only the four basic questions, but also be able to address the wider range of questions outlined above.

Despite all of the questions and answers, what most buyers really want is an opportunity to achieve the Great American Dream – owning one’s own business!

The Pre-Sale Business Tune-Up

Photo Credit: tallkev via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: tallkev via Compfight cc

Owners are often asked, “do you think you will ever sell your business?” The answer varies from, “when I can get my price” to “never” to “I don’t really know” to everything in between. Most sellers may think to themselves when asked this question, “I’ll sell when the time is right.” Obviously, misfortune can force the decision to sell. Despite the questions, most business owners just go merrily along their way conducting business as usual. They seem to believe in the old expression that basically states, “it is a good idea to sell your horse before it dies.”

Four Ways to Leave Your Business

There are really only four ways to leave your business. (1) Transfer ownership to your children or other family members. Unfortunately, many children do not want to become involved in the family business, or may not have the capability to operate it successfully. (2) Sell the business to an employee or key manager. Usually, they don’t have enough cash, or interest, to purchase the business. And, like offspring, they may not be able to manage the entire business. (3) Selling the business to an outsider is always a possibility. Get the highest price and the most cash possible and go on your way. (4) Liquidate the business – this is usually the worst option and the last resort.

When to Start Working on Your Exit Plan

There is another old adage that says, “you should start planning to exit the business the day you start it or buy it.” You certainly don’t want to plan on misfortune, but it’s never to early to plan on how to leave the business. If you have no children or other relative that has any interest in going into the business, your options are now down to three. Most small and mid-size businesses don’t have the management depth that would provide a successor. Furthermore liquidating doesn’t seem attractive. That leaves attempting to find an outsider to purchase the business as the exit plan.

The time to plan for succession is indeed, the day you begin operations. You can’t predict misfortune, but you can plan for it. Unfortunately, most sellers wait until they wake up one morning, don’t want to go to their business, drive around the block several times, working up the courage to begin the day. It is often called “burn-out” and if it is an on-going problem, it probably means it’s time to exit. Other reasons for wanting to leave is that they face family pressure to start “taking it easy” or to move closer to the grandkids.

Every business owner wants as much money as possible when the decision to sell is made. If you haven’t even thought of exiting your business, or selling it, now is the time to begin a pre-exit or pre-sale strategy.

Considering Selling? Some Things to Consider

Photo Credit: Jason Hargrove via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Jason Hargrove via Compfight cc

  • Know what your business is worth. Don’t even think about selling until you know what your business should sell for. Are you prepared to lower your price if necessary?
  • Prepare now. There is an often-quoted statement in the business world: “The time to prepare your business to sell is the day you buy it or start it.” Easy to say, but very seldom adhered to. Now really is the time to think about the day you will sell and to prepare for that day.
  • Sell when business is good. The old quote: “The time to sell your business is when it is doing well” should also be adhered to. It very seldom is – most sellers wait until things are not going well.
  • Know the tax implications. Ask your accountant about the tax impact of selling your business. Do this on an annual basis just in case. However, the tax impact is only one area to consider and a sale should not be predicated on this issue alone.
  • Keep up the business. Continuing to manage the business is a full-time job. Retaining the best outside professionals is almost a must. Utilizing a professional business intermediary will allow you to spend most of your time running your business.
  • Finally, in the words of many sage experts, “Keep it simple.” Don’t let what looks like a complicated deal go by the boards. Have your outside professionals ready at hand to see if it is really as complicated as it may look.

Can You Really Afford to Sell?

Photo Credit: Dave Dugdale via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Dave Dugdale via Compfight cc

In many cases, the sale of a small company is “event” driven. That is, the reason for sale is often an event such as a health decline or illness, divorce, partnership issues, or even a decline in business.

A much more difficult reason for selling is one in which the owners simply want to retire and live happily ever after. Here is the problem:

Suppose the owners have a very prosperous distribution business. They each draw about $200,000 annually from the business plus cars and other benefits. If the company sold for $2 million, let’s say after debt, taxes and closing expenses, the net proceeds would be $1.5 million. Sounds good, until you realize that the net proceeds only represent about 3 1/2 years of income for each (and that doesn’t include the cars, health insurance, etc.). Then what?

The above scenario is not atypical, especially in small companies. These are solid companies that provide a very comfortable living for two owners. In the above example, the owners obviously decided they couldn’t sell because it didn’t make economic sense to them. The business was worth much more to the owners than to any outside buyer. Perhaps they thought that an intermediary could produce a buyer who would be willing to pay far more than the business was worth. But, the M&A market is a fairly efficient one.

So, what should they do?

The downside is that competition could enter the fray and their business would not bring in the same cash flow.

The business could also suffer because the owners are not continuing to build it. They apparently want to retire and take life easy, and this mind-set could dramatically undermine the business.

If the owners are forced to sell the business because it is declining, they, most likely, won’t even receive the $2 million they might have received earlier.

On the other hand, the owners, ready to begin their happily ever after, could bring in a professional manager. This addition would cut their earnings slightly to pay for the new manager, but it would also reduce their responsibilities and give the business a chance to grow with new energy and ideas.