Who Would Buy Your Business?

When selling a business, it is important to know who the buyers are for privately-held businesses and why they buy. Understanding who the buyers are and their respective acquisition criteria equals better preparedness when the time comes to sell. Having realistic expectations and understanding the factors that drive value in the marketplace is key to a successful sale. Proper valuation and presentation to the most likely buyers is crucial to achieving a sale for the best price in the shortest time frame possible.

There are three main categories of buyers of privately-held small to midsize businesses: The Individual Buyer, The Investment Buyer, and The Strategic Buyer. Each category has distinctive characteristics and motives for making an acquisition. The price each is willing to pay is directly proportional to their motive.

The Individual Buyer Category

The Individual Buyer represents the largest number of prospective buyers for small to midsize privately-held businesses. Target companies typically have gross revenues between $200,000 to $3 million. Why? Enterprises with gross revenues under $200,000 do not provide sufficient net earnings and those with revenues over $3 million become difficult for individuals to obtain the level of financing required and to compete with the other categories of buyers.

Most Individual Buyers seek enterprises that have full-time employees or management in place, documented operating procedures, a diversified customer base, verifiable financial records, and net earnings at least similar to their most recent salary with an upside potential for growth. These qualifiers give Individuals confidence in the business' continuity and stability. Employees who can run daily operations is more appealing than a business that is highly reliant on the owner's presence or is dependent on the owner's personal relationships with customers.

While Individual Buyers may not always know the latest techniques for valuing businesses, they are capable of determining if the business makes enough money to earn a livable salary, pay the debt service on the new loan to purchase the business, and provide a reasonable return on their investment. These factors are the ultimate test to see if the price and terms of the deal make sense.

The Investment Buyer Category

One of the major market shifts for privately-held companies has been the growth in the number of Private Equity Groups over the last decade, they number in the thousands. The Investment Buyer's primary goal is to acquire a company, grow it, and then cash out, usually within five years through either selling the business to a public company or taking the business public themselves. They are primarily influenced by return on investment and prefer to invest in companies with gross revenues in excess of $5 million with superior profit margins. Their targets usually have a unique business model with a sustainable and defensible market niche and position. Other traits that appeal to the Investment Buyer are strong growth opportunities, a compelling track record, a deep management team, low customer concentrations, and insulation from or a strategy to deal with import competition.

The Strategic Buyer Category

The Strategic Buyer is usually a public company or a larger privately-held company. Their targets are businesses that would compliment their own and that by combining the two would create a synergy of operations resulting in lower costs, new customers, and other advantages. Strategic Buyers are the most likely to pay more than other types of buyers because they gain a variety of financial benefits and quick business growth.

Synergy means that joining the two companies will produce more, or be worth more, than just the sum of their parts. Here's a simplified example: a large real estate company purchases a mortgage company. It can now use its existing customers (those who buy homes) and offer them the mortgage funds to finance their purchases. The benefits of this type of acquisition help both companies be more competitive and profitable.

Generally, Strategic Buyers target companies that have gross revenues in excess of $2-3 million, offer unique market share not readily available to their own company, such as opening in a new market not previously served or obtaining product lines and/or services not previously provided, but synergistic to their own customer base. Target companies will be especially attractive in industries where economies of scale are possible whereby the acquiring company can obtain significant post-deal expense savings, such as elimination of dual facilities, support staff, or other overhead expenses.