09. 04. 2021

Riding the tide - when is the right time to sell your services business?

Business owners sell their companies for a multitude of reasons, both personal and professional.

Selling a company can be a tough process, and the steps involved can be both expensive and a distraction from daily operations. The process can also be an emotional one, as many entrepreneurs in the SME bracket will only sell a couple of companies during their careers, perhaps only one.

With so much at stake, the question this article poses is when is the right time to sell?

For most business owners, timing is the hardest part of the sale process to analyze.

In terms of valuation, for many services industries the governing factors are relatively straightforward – typically based on profitability, location, revenue growth, balanced customer base, vertical market specialism and any relevant technology or branding differentiators.

For those who know their markets and have strong visibility across the commercial landscape, identifying a potential buyer is likely not the most challenging aspect of the sale process either. Smart sellers seek a strategic match where the acquisition adds value to the buyer through diversification, technology, niche-market expertise or regional presence.

What is often less clear to owners of small and medium businesses is timing – when to sell their business to achieve maximum valuation, secure the right strategic fit and avoid downtime on a false start.

The balancing act performed by entrepreneurs involves acknowledging that the optimal moment to sell all or part of their company can be the very same moment when it appears there is every reason to retain full ownership – when wind is in the sales, revenues are climbing, new customers are rolling in month on month and the business has ample potential to move into new markets.

Owners without a clear exit strategy risk falling into the trap of waiting for an undefined “right moment in the future” to sell their business, and may focus their energies on building towards this goal.

For many this can mean a vision of a company with stable, consistent EBITDA which has acted on every easily visible market opportunity for expansion and diversification.

In the eyes of a buyer, however, these elements do not always signal a great deal. If a seller is over cautious in waiting for the stars to align, this can portray a company that has lost its dynamism and future potential to an investor. A business can shift from an exciting asset to a bolt-on acquisition appealing to a limited pool of buyers, with forecasted ROI based on maintaining performance rather than continuing to innovate and grow at a fast pace.

According to Crispin Pike, who sold his IT security business, Sysec, to Herjavec Group, “your business should be on the up when you offer it for sale, with growing profits, reinvestment, employment opportunities and new markets, geographies or product lines” (Telegraph). Ironically this may seem like the ideal moment to remain at the helm of the company, but for others it can be the ideal moment to sell. A surge of forward momentum and readily accessible future opportunity can excite investors more than a tried-and-tested balance sheet with no evident signs of a future uptick in performance.

The right timing and sale scenario is always going to be a complicated decision for any seller, but some things that help give a better chance of capitalizing on the golden moment include: defining exit goals, listening to the market & talking to advisors.

An exit strategy with goals is key - running a company knowing that the owner will want to sell it “one day” can mean that lucrative scenarios pass by them continuously and they are unaware. If a business owner’s goal is retiring with funds to finance a lifestyle, then this helps quantify the goal and identify when this might be achievable. Younger owners may wish to sell a portion of their equity to a larger buyer or a PE group and join an executive management team with a view to a second exit. Being aware of what an owner wants, be it liquidity or future upside, is invaluable in helping them run their company and shape it towards an ideal acquisition scenario.

Business owners are also well advised to continually listen to the market and evaluate if M&A activity in their space is gathering pace or cooling off, and to track valuation multiples where publicized. These indicators can signal to an entrepreneur that it might be a good moment to re-evaluate their current exit time-frame. Many SME owners ignore obvious signals that buyers are active in their space because they are working towards their balance-sheet-driven future moment when they will be “ready” for sale. In some cases the market dictates the driving force behind acquisitions more than owner plans. Entrepreneurs can miss the boat by waiting too long, with buyer’s appetites and PE investment slowing down.

Keeping open channels of dialogue is also essential for the process, as third parties and consultants can help provide some guidance and expertise within fragmented markets where public M&A data is less available. As long as conversations with prospective buyers, advisers and investors are always managed on clear terms, business owners can build valuable networks and relationships and position themselves to stand strong chances of achieving their goals.