Looking at a Business That You Might Want to Buy? Here’s How to Analyze It.

By William Bruce

Let’s say you’re serious about buying a business and have identified an attractive business How to analyze a business to purchasethat is for sale.   You’re interested in investigating the opportunity.  What’s next?  Here’s how to analyze a business you might want to buy.

First, The Need for Confidentiality

Confidentiality is critical to the successful transfer of a business.  If word gets out that a business is for sale, several things start happening and none of them are beneficial to a prospective buyer.  First, key employees start looking for other jobs, fearing that a new owner may not retain them.  In the uncertainty, customers start looking around and begin shopping elsewhere.  Suppliers get nervous.

This is why a seller or business broker will ask you to sign a non-disclosure agreement.  It’s sometimes called a confidentiality agreement.  In this agreement, you confirm that you will not disclose the fact that the business is for sale — except to your professional advisors.  And yes, your spouse is considered a professional advisor.  After all, he/she consults with you often on a professional basis, right?  Just caution them on the need for extreme confidentiality.

If you show that you take the need for confidentiality seriously, you will be regarded as the professional that you are.

The Anonymous Customer

If you’re working with a business broker, he will probably have furnished you with a summary profile on several different businesses.  The profile will summarize all the salient points of the business including gross revenue and owner’s cash flow.  From the several profiles that your broker has given you, pick the two or three that you would like to pursue.  The first step for each business that you would like to explore is an anonymous visit posing as a customer.  We call this a reconnaissance run.

As you visit, first, note the location.  Is it appropriately located for the type of business?  As you’re driving into the parking lot, what does the business look like from the street?  What about signage and street identification?  Then as you walk to the entrance, what kind of an impression do you receive?

Once you’re inside, take a close look around.  If it’s a retail establishment, are the shelves full?  Is it clean and neat  Are there customers there?  Are the employees helpful?

What is the general feeling you received from your visit?  If you decide this is a business you want to follow up on, make a list of questions for the owner.  Make this list while your visit is fresh on your mind.  Include anything and everything you’re curious about.

It’s great if the image is good, but don’t despair if it’s not.  As one of my astute clients reminded me recently as I was lamenting the poor street image of some of my business listings, “It’s an opportunity for a new owner to make a difference.”

A word of caution:  While on this visit, don’t talk to anyone in the business about the fact that the company is for sale.  Chances are the employees don’t know it’s for sale.  And even the owner would not be free to talk about it at this point within earshot of customers and employees.  Chat pleasantly about the weather … or college football!  (‘Tis almost that time of the year, you know.)

The Meeting With the Owner

The next step in this logical sequence will be a meeting with the owner.  If you’re working with a business broker, he will set up the meeting at a time convenient with both parties.  He will go with you to the meeting and facilitate the exchange of information.

Be sure to bring your list of questions.  Ask anything you want to.  However it’s usually best, at this point, not to discuss the selling price of the business or the possibility of owner financing.  That comes later.  But ask anything else that comes to mind.  Nobody knows the business better than the owner.  If you’re meeting at the business, ask for a tour of the facility.

It’s important that this meeting remains informal and cordial.  Remember, you are both checking each other out.  If the owner is going to finance a portion of the selling price, he’s looking at you as much as you’re looking at the business.  It’s a two-way street.

At the end of the meeting, you don’t have to express any commitment.  Simply say something like:  “Well this has been very informative.  Thanks for your time.  Let me consider this new information.”  It might also be a good idea to convey to the owner that the information will be kept in the strictest of confidence.  He’ll appreciate your sensitivity to that issue.

Computing Cash Flow, Also Called Discretionary Earnings

The next step, assuming you are interested in the business, is to determine the operation’s annual cash flow.  After all is said and done, what you will be buying is the ability of the business to produce cash.

So first let’s define cash flow.  Some brokers refer to it as the owner’s discretionary earnings, which is the term I personally like.  Discretionary earnings are defined as that amount of cash left over after only the necessary operating expenses gave been paid that is available for (1) owner’s remuneration, (2) return on investment, and (3) debt service, if any.

Another way to express it is that discretionary earnings are the total owner’s benefit from owning the business regardless of how the owner takes the money out of the business.

Discretionary earnings are not the same as net profit shown on the profit and loss statement.  It’s not the same because of the bookkeeping practices of the large majority of business owners.  Simply stated, business owners do not keep books to pay income taxes.  Most business owners make strenuous efforts to reduce any taxable income.

For this reason, most business owners in an effort to reduce their taxable income run some expenses through the business that are not purely business operating expenses.  This practice reduces tax liability but it also oftentimes masks the true earnings record of a business.

As an example, take the sale of a restaurant that I recently handled.  The profit and loss statement from the business was actually showing a small loss.  However, the owner’s wife drove a Lincoln Navigator which was listed on the books of the business as a company vehicle.  The company also paid for all her gas and maintenance on the Navigator although she has no role in the operation of the restaurant.  Same for the daughter’s Honda which she drove back and forth to college.  The daughter was also on the payroll as an employee of the restaurant which furnished her with spending money at college, although she never actually worked at the restaurant.  The family ski vacation to Colorado was charged to the business because the owner attended a business meeting for a couple of hours while in Aspen.  You see where I’m heading here, don’t you?  By the time all these items plus any non-cash expenses were accounted for, the restaurant was actually producing a nice yearly cash flow for the family.

In considering a business, your challenge is to determine its true cash flow.  This process is referred to as the recasting or normalizing of income.  If you are using a business broker, he has probably already prepared a recasting worksheet on each business he presents to you.

Here another of my articles explaining more about the computation of discretionary earnings.

To Pursue or Not to Pursue

After computing the discretionary earnings of the business, the next step is to determine if the cash flow is enough for you.

To do this, you need a fairly close approximation of what your debt service will be on the amount borrowed to buy the business.  After all, it’s the amount left over after debt service that will be available for you and your family to live on.

Your broker will have amortization tables available for debt calculation.  Business loans without real estate generally run seven to 10 years.  With real estate, the term of the loan can be up to 20 years.

An increasingly popular type loan where the seller is offering financing is called the balloon loan.  It solves the problem of the seller wanting his money long before a ten or fifteen year term us up and the buyer wanting to keep his payments as low as possible.  It works this way.  After the down payment, the seller finances the sale of the business with a note from the buyer.  The payments are calculated on, say, a fifteen year amortization schedule (to keep them low) but the note calls for a payoff of the balance due (the balloon) at the end of the fifth year.  During the five years, the new owner builds up a track record and establishes a relationship with a bank.  At the end of five years, he is in a position to refinance the balloon with the bank and pay the seller.  It’s a win-win situation for both parties.

Your worksheet should show:

Annual Owner’s Discretionary Cash Flow           $____________

Less Annual Debt Service                                       $____________

Cash Left Over to for Owner’s Living Expenses $____________

It probably should be mentioned that the above calculations do not consider any increases in revenue and cash flow resulting from new ownership.  Historically, a business will experience a revenue increase of between ten and fifteen percent due solely to a change in ownership.  Nor does this calculation account for any new products and services or other changes that a new owner may plan to introduce.

Now it’s decision time.  If the business is of interest to you, and if it returns the amount of cash flow you need (or can be made to do so), and if you can envision yourself successfully running the business, then you may be ready to move on to next logical step.

If you’re ready to pursue this business, my next blog post will outline an important step: The Contingent Offer.

#  #  #

William Bruce is an Accredited Business Intermediary (ABI) and Senior Valuation Analyst (SVA) assisting buyers and sellers of privately held businesses in the transfer of ownership.  He currently serves as president of the American Business Brokers Association.  His practice includes consulting services nationally on issues of business valuation and transfer.  He may be reached at (251) 990-5934 or by email at Will@WilliamBruce.org. 

Follow William on Twitter and LinkedIn.

About William Bruce

President, American Business Brokers Association / Business Broker and Accredited Business Intermediary assisting business buyers and sellers with the transfer of ownership since 1986 / Author: How to Buy a Business.
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67 Responses to Looking at a Business That You Might Want to Buy? Here’s How to Analyze It.

  1. Ken Lewis says:

    Excellant blog. We operate a payroll service company and a full lines insurance agency. We are currently looking to expand both. I would enjoy the opportunity to look at the possibilities of purchasing an existing payroll company or an insurance agency.

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  5. Rick Matthews says:

    I always inteested in your insights as I find myself increasingly in the buy-sell cross hairs as an ad hoc broker. If I am goign to help buy-sell, I need to be the best I can be. Would like a copy of your booklet. Please send to:

    Rick Matthews
    CEO, Fractional Assets, Inc.
    600 Boulevard South
    Suite 104
    Huntsville, AL 35802

    Thank you!

  6. Rick:

    Thanks for your comments. I just emailed you the booklet.


  7. William,

    Good article. Very helpful.


  8. Pingback: What is a Business Owner’s “Discretionery Cash Flow?” | William Bruce on Business: A Discussion

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  11. Ted Lick says:

    I am in the due diligence phase of purchasing a minority share of a well established restaurant which has been successfully operating for 10 years. I am seeking assistance in negotiating the buy-sell agreement, and closing the sale contingent upon financing. I am very interested in reading your booklet, as well as learning if you may be available for consulatation.

    Sincere Thanks,

    Ted Lick

    • Ted, thanks for stopping by. The booklet “How to Buy a Business in a Safe and Organized Way” has been emailed. I’m available for consultation on issues that buyers face when considering a business. In fact, this is an increasing portion of my practice.

  12. Pingback: Thinking of becoming a business broker? Looking for business broker training programs? | William Bruce on Business: A Discussion

  13. Keith says:

    Ted, Good blog. Will you send me a copy of the booklet “How to Buy a Business in a Safe and Organized Way.” I am also considering buying an existing business and having trouble understanding how to assess the ability of the business to support the information the owner is providing me.

    Thank you,


  14. Keith says:

    Sorry for calling you “Ted” obviously I meant William.

  15. Pingback: Business-for-sale Marketplace Continues Strong into 2015 | William Bruce on Business: A Discussion

  16. Can you please send me your booklet? I am just getting started in looking at an existing business that I am interested in buying. I may reach out to you for help if I pursue this.

  17. Tarun Bhalla says:

    Your articles are very informative. I am in the process of diligence for a franchise sub restaurant as well as a UPS store. I would appreciate a copy of your booklet, too.

  18. Marcelo zagia says:

    Great article.
    Im looking to buy a gas station. What shoyld i consider? Could you email me the booklet

  19. Nick C says:

    I’m looking to buy a business. Can I get a booklet? Thanks.

  20. Mark says:

    William, I’d love a copy of your booklet.

  21. Karla Brennan says:

    HI William,

    I came across your website and articles. Very informative. Can I get a copy of your booklet.

    Thank you,


  22. Simmonie Gordon says:

    I’d love to get your booklet. I’m looking at several business opportunities and I really appreciated this article. Thanks for taking the time to share your wisdom.

  23. Suzanne D. Fox says:

    Mr. Bruce,
    I am seeking to purchase an existing business in the healthcare business . I am new to this and want to seek best advise and read as much so I can make the best decision . Would you please send me you booklet . I have been reading your articles and may need your assistance for consultation .

  24. Barney says:

    Enjoyed your articles. I would appreciate a copy of your booklet.

  25. Benson says:

    Very insightful article. I’m in the early stages of exploring the possibility of purchasing an existing restaurant and would like a copy of the book. Also are you able to provide services in the North east region

  26. Magdalena says:

    Hi, i would like your booklet too, please.

  27. Trang says:

    Hi William. Very enlightening… I would like to learn more in detail and would like to see your booklet so I can make a better educated decision as a business person. Your assistance is much appreciated. Continue in doing great things. Cheers!

  28. Giri says:

    Hi Willam
    I am in process of becoming partner in business, this blog helped me understand basic knowledge. If i am not asking too much could you ps. share book.


  29. Sunny says:

    Hello William, very Informative article. We are starting to learn more about available business opportunities in Southern California region, do you provide your services? Appreciate your time and if you can send us copy of the booklet as well. Thank you,

  30. Kevin Noell says:

    Hi William,

    Thanks for the valuable info. Could you please share the booklet as I am considering buying a restaurant business in TX?


  31. Terrence Smith says:

    Hi William,the information you shared is great can you send me a copy of your booklet also.I may need to consult with you for more soon.Thanks Terrence

  32. William:
    Very good article. I enjoy your blogs, should do more myself.
    Leon Parker, CBI
    New Hampshire Business Sales

  33. Steve Bromberg says:

    Hello William;
    Lots of great information here. I am trying to help a client with the purchase of a large electronics distributor and I would love to take a look at this booklet as well. Thank you.

  34. Michael Rahach says:

    Hello William,

    I would also like to jump on the bandwagon, if you wouldn’t mind sharing. Sounds like a good read.

    Thank you, mike

  35. Alex S says:

    Hi William,
    Appreciate all the useful information you share through your various blogs/channels. Would it be possible to send over a copy of your booklet?
    Many thanks,

  36. Ravi Gan says:

    Hi William,

    It’s a very good article. Can you please send me the copy of your booklet? I am particularly interested in getting your consulting expertise too, to know more about how to do price negotiation and understanding your background in assisted living business. I am trying to buy one in Aurora/IL area.


  37. Luis says:

    Hi William
    Good article, please send me the booklet

  38. Martha B. says:

    Hi, I would love to get copy of your booklet. I’m looking into buying a franchise.

  39. Caryn K says:

    Good Morning! I would love to read your booklet as we are contemplating selling multiple qsr locations. Thanks.

  40. David Wood says:

    Should be aware of sellers motive and why he tends to sell business.

    • David, thanks for dropping in. The reason for selling is important. Retirement, health issues, family friction, and even burn-out after running the business for decades are all legitimate reasons.

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