By: Patrick Ungashick
Five conversations can put you on the path to a happy and successful exit. These conversations need to be open and honest, revealing your desire to exit the business eventually. They need to be handled intentionally and carefully, with preparation and practice, because there is a real danger you may do more harm than good. Ideally, the conversations need to happen well before you exit (we suggest about five years,) when you still have time to take the right advice coming out of these conversations and put it to use. Waiting until just before you exit to have these conversations negates the opportunity for positive action arising out of them, and risks alienating people who care about you and the business, and feel disrespected for not being included much earlier.
The five conversations are with the following relationships:
- Your spouse or partner
- Your business co-owners (if applicable)
- Your business co-leaders
- Your advisors
These five relationships are critical for your exit success. How you approach these relationships—through the conversations you have with them—will go a long way to determine if you exit happily or not. As long as you have not disclosed your exit aspirations with these key relationships, you cannot be entirely honest with them for fear of creating potential problems for you and your company. Your ability to lead the business and work effectively with these relationships will be compromised. You will find yourself making critical exit-related decisions that impact the business, partners, employees, customers, key suppliers or advisors, and your family, keeping them in the dark about your intentions, and where you are trying to lead things. Misalignment, tension, friction, and frustration are nearly certain to ensue.
The longer you wait to have these conversations, the greater potential your exit success will be undermined, or you may even cause harm to your relationships with your business partners, employees, customers, and family members. The business may suffer. Millions of dollars may be lost. Consider the following real examples we have encountered, all of which occurred because of business owners who never had a productive exit conversation with these relationships:
- The two business partners who, after 14 years of working together in friendship, found themselves unable to be in the same room out of anger and hurt, because they could not learn how to effectively talk about their future exit.
- The business owner’s wife, sitting in a conference room in our offices, crying out of fear. After thirty years of owning their business, nearly all their wealth was still tied up in the company, and her husband was unwilling or unable to tell her when they would end their financial dependency on the business.
- The three siblings who co-owned a second-generation family business, who prematurely sold the firm because they never learned how to have the exit conversation with each other.
- The two key employees who left the company they cared about as much as the owner, feeling unappreciated and disrespected because they suspected the owner would sell the business one day, but had never confided in them nor approached them about potentially buying it.
- The business owner who did not feel comfortable sharing his future exit intentions with his accountant, and without that information, the accountant failed to recommend a corporate structure that would have reduced taxes at exit by more than five million dollars.
- The business owner who sold his business when a surprise buyer showed up and wrote a large check, even though the owner never had this conversation with himself about his exit goals and values. Only to watch the buyer subsequently treat his former employees and customers poorly to the point that for the rest of the owner’s life, he felt like he had failed those people.
Conversations with the five relationships will not guarantee you a happy and successful exit. However, if you fail to have the conversations with these five relationships, your exit likely will be more stressful, riskier, and costlier than if you have the conversations. To plan these communications takes a modest amount of time. In return, you may create thousands to millions of dollars in increased net business value, years of continued good relationships, and uncountable benefits in reduced stress and avoided problems. On a dollar-for-hour basis, these conversations may be the most valuable time you spend during your entire career as a business owner.
To get started, review this helpful information about the 14 most common exit planning questions. Then, contact us to discuss your specific situation.