Factors to Consider when Shopping for a Business

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By James Cassel

It’s not enough to land any company. You need to search for one that’s right for you, at the right size and price.

MIAMI, Florida, November 25, 2012 – When looking for a business to buy, you can forget immediate gratification. Businesses can’t be found under rocks. It’s a more complex process that takes more time than most people expect.

We hear it often: “I’m looking for a business in Florida with $10 million in revenues, making $2 million per year or more. Or I want to buy something with a minimum of $5 million of EBITA (Earnings Before Interest, Taxes and Amortization). Can you point me to one?” Sure, if I could find a needle in a haystack.

There’s no good database or source to search with those types of broad parameters. Even if such a database existed, the “anything goes” approach wouldn’t be in your best interest. It’s not enough to just find any business — you need to find the one that’s right for you, at the right size and price. Institutional buyers verses individual buyers may have different views, needs and wishes.

Some buyers have a pretty clear notion of what they want: a small- to mid-sized business, like a small distribution company or mom-and-pop chain of dry cleaners. In those cases, they can work with business brokers who carry listings like real estate agents. There are a couple of those in every town, and also good websites like BizQuest.com, USABizMart.com and BizBuySell.com that post business-for-sale opportunities. S&P Capital IQ is always a good source for information.

Investment bankers are helpful to those looking for larger businesses with specific and well-defined criteria. These are deals that aren’t listed and require research and knocking on doors, a very disciplined approach.

Private equity firms assign their staff members to search through databases for opportunities and make calls to owners to introduce themselves and gather all the intelligence they can. Again, databases don’t cut it for these types of business searches, as the information is often incomplete, erroneous and/or misleading. In addition to databases, there are many other places to look, such as trade magazines.

Here’s a classic example: A partner at private equity firm called us a few years ago wanting to meet a specific business owner who wasn’t returning his phone calls. Dunn & Bradstreet’s credit reporting showed the business had about $15 million in revenue per year and netted $1 million in profit per year. The owner took my call because he knew my name and was curious how I was related to my sister-in-law who’d taught his child in pre-kindergarten. We had a nice conversation and agreed to have lunch with my client. At lunch, he said his business’ revenues were actually about $80 million per year with more than $10 million in profit. When I asked why the report we had obtained contained a different figure, he said: “So people like you don’t bother me. If I gave the real numbers, every private equity firm and investment banker would be calling me.”

Those interested in bigger businesses can always leverage industry trade shows and hire investment bankers to do the buy-side work and knock on doors. Franchise fairs are a good option for buyers interested in franchises. Don’t forget to look at bankruptcies: Often you can have a good business with a bad balance sheet, and you can fix the business by buying and recapitalizing the business.

Something else that invariably surprises people: It takes much longer to find and buy a business than they imagined. We know people who have $5 million to $10 million cash to invest and want to move to Miami and buy a business, but they haven’t been successful after more than two years of searching.

So how can you do it? You roll up your sleeves and you network, call attorneys and accountants, search databases, and subscribe to receive e-alerts from websites that post business-for-sale opportunities. If you’re looking locally, you get involved in the community. If you’re more industry-specific, then you build a database of companies in that space. Attend trade shows. There’s no way around it: Finding a business to buy requires a lot of blocking, tackling and making phone calls every three months to the same people because you have to catch people when they are considering selling or try to pique their interest. Usually, that happens for a reason: when someone is sick, for instance, getting divorced or getting ready to retire. You must have your bait in the water when the fish are ready to bite.

• The best advice for finding the right business to buy: Match your skills and interests. Pick industries that you know or have experience with. South Florida has a lot of solid industries — cruise-related, real estate services (everything from construction to management to products), and import-export businesses like flowers and electronics, as well as all the usual industries like food, healthcare, distribution, logistics and transportation. A few key questions to ask yourself: Which of your skills would best translate to the potential new business? What sectors interest you and match up well with your skills? Do you need any special licenses or other qualifications to run the business?

• Narrow your target. The more you focus on specific criteria, the greater the chance you’ll find what’s right for you. When possible, get a good advisor to help you, especially if you’re coming from another country.

• Understand your finances. What can you realistically afford? Are you putting up all the money or will you need to find an equity partner or a lender? Be honest about your price range. A few key questions to ask yourself: How much can you spend on the business, how much collateral can you use, and how much income do you need to receive? Do you have good enough credit to secure financing from a bank or other lender?

• Know your motivations. Why do you want to buy the business? Are you doing it for the income or the lifestyle opportunities? For example, we know people who purchased yacht brokerage businesses because they like yachts.

• Consider the potential impacts on your lifestyle and your family. What types of hours do you want to work? Will you need to drive long distances or relocate?

• Be proactive. Network, talk to people, get some good advisors to help you.

• Be patient. Keep in mind that most sellers have likely been approached many times by potential buyers, so understand that you might not get every bit of information you need immediately. Buying a business takes time, sometimes months or years.

So, here’s the good news and the bad news: There are some good opportunities today and plenty of money available to leverage them — but there are lots of individuals, private equity firms and strategic buyers searching for those same opportunities. To succeed, you need a healthy balance of strategy, perseverance and, above all, patience.

James Cassel is co-founder and chairman of Cassel Salpeter & Co., LLC, an investment-banking firm with headquarters in Miami that works with middle-market companies. www.casselsalpeter.com