When I interview a prospective client for exit planning assistance, we usually explore selling to employees. The first reaction is always “That won’t work. They don’t have any money.”
If you have a company with reasonable cash flow, a talented management team and sufficient time, selling to employees is not only a realistic option; it may be the best way to get value from your business. I’ll define those parameters for you in a minute.
If you haven’t read my eBook Beating the Boomer Bust, follow the link for the free download. My research shows that the hard numbers will inevitably translate into a hard market. There are 3,000,000 Baby Boomers (over 50) who own businesses with employees. Over the next 20 years, that’s an average of 150,000 owner retirements per year. Intermediaries (brokers, private equity and M&A) account for about 9,000 transactions a year.
That leaves a lot of folks looking for a way to cash out. Selling to employees is a process that lets you keep control until retirement. By structuring the sale correctly, you can leave with the proceeds in the bank, not in a promissory note.
How does that work? It requires a bit of mental gymnastics. First, any owner has to accept that the only source of funding for any transaction is the cash flow of his or her company. If a buyer pays cash, he expects that cash flow to pay him back. If a bank finances the acquisition, they expect the cash flow to service the debt. If you finance it, you are the essentially the bank.
Selling to employees is the same. You use the current cash flow to help employees buy stock. In return, they qualify by working to increase the value of the business until your final return is equal to (or more than) what it was when you started.
Think of it as taking a note for 30% of the purchase price while you are still in control, so that you can get a 70% cash down payment when you leave.
Now, let’s discuss the parameters.
Cash Flow: Your company has to be earning more than just your paycheck. My rule of thumb is that around $500,000 a year after owner’s compensation gives enough to work with. More than that doesn’t change much, since then we are usually looking at a higher purchase price. Less than that is doable in a longer time frame, or if the owner is willing to subordinate some debt to the bank.
Management Team: You need at least one decision maker who does more than just go through the operational motions. Any third-party lender wants to be comfortable with company leadership when you’re gone. A large portion of our planning surrounds transfer and documentation of management capability sufficient to satisfy a lender.
Time Frame: Many business owners tell me “I’ll think about exiting in five years.” That’s fine, if your plan is to retire in fifteen years. Generally speaking, the longer you have, the more lucrative an internal sale can be. I’ve done three year plans, but five is much more comfortable, eight years is even better, and we regularly work on transitions of ten years and longer.
Selling to employees requires legal agreements, specialized compensation plans and a willingness to run the company transparently. The return is a team that is committed to the long term, highly motivated, and all on the same page when it comes to growing the business.
Why should you consider selling to employees? Because your company lives on with the culture you created. Because you can choose the value, not negotiate it. Because your employees aren’t comparing your company with other investments. Because you control the timing of your exit.
Because it is probably the biggest financial transaction of your life.
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