Just imagine. You are not a business owner, you are an elite athlete. A long distance specialist. Your business is the 10,000 metres. Your dedication and hard work during training has prepared you for this most gruelling of events. You have a detailed plan of exactly how you want to run the race, the pace you want to keep, the goals you want to hit for at least the first 20 laps. The big day comes, the gun fires and you are off. The first few laps are hard, but you settle into it. You move up the pack and you’re near the front.
And then the bell goes for the last lap. Now what? You realise you didn’t plan your end-game. Sprint finish? Keep it steady? Stay on the shoulder of the leader? You panic, you are indecisive, your pace fluctuates and your opponents race past you. All that dedication has come to nothing.
When the bell goes in your business, when the time has come for you to exit into retirement or pastures new, you need to have your end-game planned out, or you could see your years of effort wasted. If you are not convinced that exit planning is for you, or believe that it is something you can think about later, you may have fallen for one of these five common myths:
1. I don’t need to think about it yet
You are up to your elbows in running your business, so you’ve already got plenty to think about without worrying about your exit plan, right? Simple: you’ll do it when you haven’t got plenty to think about. And when is that likely to be? Next year? Five years hence? Ten years? The truth is, there will always be plenty going on in your business to distract you from the seemingly distant activity of planning your exit.
By avoiding the procrastinator’s mantra of “I’ll do it tomorrow” and putting firm plans in place for your exit, you are adding weight to your business plan, which will give comfort to your staff, your investors and future buyers. Tomorrow is closer than it seems.
2. I’ll exit when I am ready
You may have a date in mind for when you want to exit your business, or a particular set of goals you want to achieve before moving on, but a lot can happen between now and then. Unforeseen life events such as financial troubles, illness, divorce or even death can mean that you need to exit your business earlier than you anticipated (okay, so death forces your hand somewhat but still.)
Without a plan in place, you could be leaving an absolute mess for you or your loved ones. If the worst should happen, do you really want your family to have to pick through your business operations, navigating difficult questions of tax, inheritance and investor expectations, at what will already be an incredibly stressful time?
The bottom line is; you always need to be ready.
3. It’s easy – I’ll hand it to my kids
You may be of a mind to create a legacy for your family, but do your children or other relatives share your passion for the business? The truth is, fewer than a third of small businesses get handed down to the next generation.
You may also have to ask yourself ‘which kids?’. The eldest? The ablest? If you have a large family and no clear succession plan, you may simply be setting yourself and your family up for years of squabbling and recrimination – certainly not a firm foundation on which to build the future of your business.
There is also the question of tax. Significant reform to the way Capital Gains Tax is calculated after April 2008 may have considerable implications for family succession. Past surveys have shown that a third of family-business owners are unaware of their domestic inheritance tax and CGT liabilities.
Without an exit plan, you could be handing your kids a whole heap of trouble.
4. I’ll just sell up when someone offers me the right price
You may have a figure in mind for how much you feel you need to earn from the sale of your business to make your retirement comfortable, or to fund your next venture. You may also have a figure in your head for how much your business is worth at any given time. These figures may be different, or they may be the same, but chances are, they are not right.
There are many mistakes you can make when valuing your business, from a lack of research to an abundance of emotion. Getting advice from an accredited business broker is key – but this is another actor and another activity that must be included in your plan.
This also presupposes that parties will be queuing up to buy your business. This should not be left to happenstance – you need to market your business for sale and you need to do so suitably in advance of your exit date. You certainly have plenty of options to consider.
5. My accountant will have thought of something
Your accountant is focused on the here-and-now, maybe with one eye on the most tax-efficient way of extricating you from your business – they should have a better idea of its value than you do. However, do you really expect your accountant to identify the best way of preserving your legacy? To consider the implications for your management and staff? To choose which of your progeny should follow in your footsteps?
Your accountant is ultimately only one of the many players involved in a successful exit strategy. Your exit will be a complex affair, involving a range of advisors and experts to ensure that everything is executed smoothly, legally and with as little fuss as possible.
It is an old adage, but prior planning really does prevent ‘particularly’ poor performance. It would certainly be a shame if the hard work you have put into your business over the years is unravelled by a poorly planned and executed (or indeed panicked and rushed) exit process.
By taking control and having a plan in place at the earliest opportunity, you could protect your legacy, prevent your family from having to pick up the pieces, and ensure that your business is as attractive as possible to buyers or investors, thus earning you the appropriate reward for all of your hard work – the 10,000m gold.