In a market environment riddled with uncertainty, including rising interest rates, a tight labor market, and the possibility of a looming recession, many business owners are asking themselves, “Is now the time to sell?”
In fact, in our 2023 Private Business Owner Survey, 76% of U.S. private business owners said that every time they navigate economic uncertainty, they lean more toward selling their business.
For family business owners, there is an added layer of complexity, as the company is truly more than just a job or source of income – owning a business results in a significant increase in the time family members spend together, defines the family’s legacy in the community, and is often the source of great pride and emotional connection.
After years of building a business, the mere thought of selling can feel unsettling. While inertia or sentimentality can often lead to maintaining the status quo, there are many reasons why selling may be the best decision for the family.1
Though market conditions are an important consideration, the underlying factors driving a sale are often rooted in family dynamics, the business itself, or some combination thereof. These factors should be evaluated openly and thoughtfully with key stakeholders and trusted advisors.
It is critical to objectively evaluate the business and understand and weigh the family’s near- and long-term objectives and priorities. Considering this combination of factors will allow owners to then make an informed decision on selling the business.
For family-owned businesses, particularly those spanning multiple generations with extended branches, two primary questions relating to family dynamics typically drive the decision to sell:
- Does the family have an heir apparent?
- Does the business provide sufficient return for shareholders?
Owning a business is a full-time endeavor and can be all-consuming. After years of operating, it is not uncommon for families or owners to feel a diminished drive for the daily grind of running a company and shift their attention to other passions, such as a new business venture or philanthropic cause, or simply retire.
Acknowledging and planning for this eventuality, as opposed to assuming the current owners will one day seamlessly pass control of the business to family members in the next generation, can preserve shareholder value. There is no guarantee that the next generation will have the acumen, drive, or skill set required to continue running the family business successfully, and not every child has the desire or ability to successfully take the reins.
Studies show that approximately 70% of family-owned businesses either fail or are sold prior to the second generation taking the helm.2 In certain cases, the family may have a management gap, where the difference in age and/or experience between current leadership and the next generation is too wide. Options to bridge this chasm include hiring nonfamily management professionals, partnering with a financial sponsor such as a private equity firm, or pursuing an outright sale.
As important as it is to identify the next generation of leadership and set up a succession plan, managing the ongoing and future liquidity needs of family members with ownership interests in the business is also critical.
The inability to meet the liquidity needs of shareholders often creates conflict that causes an eventual sale. Balancing reinvestment in the business and shareholder liquidity needs or preferences can be challenging depending on the number of family members involved, ownership interests and roles in the business, and the company’s reinvestment needs. Successful family businesses rely on healthy communication among stakeholders about the business strategy and an understanding among them of the value of their ownership stake over time.
Shareholder communication and collaboration through efforts such as family meetings and a family council can help avoid family issues and value-destroying conflict that lead to suboptimal actions, such as a forced sale of the business due to an unforeseen liquidity need. Even for families who communicate effectively, liquidity needs can (and usually do) arise over time as shareholders have divergent goals and timeframes.
If the business is unable to meet these needs without hampering how the business operates, it may be prudent to consider a recapitalization or sale. In such situations, it is common for a family business to turn to a financial sponsor such as a private equity firm to make an investment in the company or a lender to provide a loan, thereby providing near-term liquidity for shareholders as needed. Of course, introducing a nonfamily owner is a major decision that should be weighed carefully.
Successful family businesses rely on healthy communication among stakeholders about the business strategy and an understanding among them of the value of their ownership stake over time.
On the business front, the decision to sell is often driven by the underlying question, “Does the business in its current form have the ability to thrive in a highly competitive market?”
Staying competitive, particularly in a crowded or complex industry, is a challenge faced by all businesses, which require sound strategy and ample capital to compete effectively and grow.
In order to be competitive as industries evolve, companies should consider reinvesting in:
- Sales and marketing
- New technology or equipment
- Additional floor space or a larger facility
- Hiring and promoting employees
If the capital required for these initiatives is not available internally, there are several questions for the company to consider:
- Should the business raise external capital?
- Is there a strategic partner who can bring additional value in the form of access to new markets, improved relationships with suppliers, leadership talent, or other factors that may enhance the company’s competitive standing?
Owners must also make complex capital allocation decisions. As businesses grow and evolve into new product lines, geographies, or even industries, the demands on management increase, and incremental operational capabilities may be necessary for the company to compete effectively. There may be a point at which the family recognizes it may not be well-equipped to steward the go-forward business to its fullest potential.
For instance, a company could develop a new product but then realize it lacks the distribution network or other corporate capabilities to maximize the product’s potential. In such cases, it is not uncommon for owners to decide to divest this noncore part of the business (that is, the new product line) to another owner who can do better with it. The same often holds true with industries that are in structural decline or parts of the business that have stagnated and would be better operated under new owners.
Timing is also an important consideration. While it is impossible to specifically time the mergers and acquisitions market, it is worth remembering that the best time to sell, in terms of multiples and dollars, is often when one does not have to sell. A sale process can be complex and emotionally challenging, so it is best for an owner to consider it while there is still “gas in the tank” and the business is performing well. Demonstrating a bright outlook for the business and being able to achieve projections is important in order to optimize the transaction outcome and close a successful sale.
Sometimes, the decision to sell is as simple as receiving an attractive offer from a potential buyer that an owner cannot refuse. Large institutionalized corporations typically develop a methodical growth strategy, including an aggressive acquisition pipeline. In a competitive environment, certain businesses become “must-have” assets for strategic reasons, resulting in buyers making outsized sales price offers. Family businesses would be wise to seriously consider such once-in-a-lifetime offers.
So, is now the time to sell? The answer to this question is nuanced and should take into consideration not only current market conditions, but also the family dynamics and business prospects of the firm.
Thinking through the decision to sell requires time, thoughtfulness, and open communication among shareholders. The ultimate decision will be one that is specific and personal to the family and business. Engaging with trusted advisors and speaking with other family business owners who have been through similar journeys can help owners make the right decision.
BBH’s Corporate Advisory team is dedicated to assisting family-owned businesses and providing strategic decision-making support across a broad range of corporate topics and business situations. We would be happy to discuss what’s on your mind. For more information, please contact John Secor.
For families who decide that keeping the business in the family is the best option, our Center for Family Business works with family businesses to address myriad topics, from defining legacy and the future of the business to management and ownership succession planning to governance to capital policies, distributions, and family liquidity. For more information, please contact Ben Persofsky.
1 References to selling in this article are meant to encompass a broader range of strategic alternatives in addition to an outright sale, such as partnering with a private equity firm or implementing an employee stock ownership plan.
2 Stalk, George, Jr., and Henry Foley. “Avoid the Traps That Can Destroy Family Businesses.” Harvard Business Review. August 1, 2014.
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