Updated July 5, 2022
Are you considering buying a small business but are not quite sure how to analyze it? Here we set out the clear steps of how to analyze any business for sale the way that the professionals do it.
How to Analyze Any Business for Sale: 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. 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 your advisors 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 of the businesses. The profile will contain the salient points of the business including gross revenue and earnings. The first step in analyzing the business might be 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 one of my offerings, “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 the season, you know.)
The Meeting With the Owner
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 asking 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 Discretionary Earnings
The next step, and a critical one in how we analyze any business for sale, is to determine the owner’s discretionary earnings. After all is said and done, what you will be buying is the ability of the business to produce profits.
So first let’s define discretionary earnings. Some professionals refer to it as adjusted cash flow. Discretionary earnings are defined as that amount of cash left over after only the necessary operating expenses have 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 business tax return. It’s not the same because of the bookkeeping practices of most business owners. Simply stated, most business owners make strenuous efforts to reduce any taxable income by running some expenses through the business that are not really necessary to the operation of the business. This practice reduces tax liability but it also oftentimes masks the true earnings record of a business.
In considering a business, your challenge is to determine its true discretionary earnings. CPAs sometimes refer to this exercise as the recasting or normalizing of the financial statements. If you are using a business broker, he has probably already prepared a recasting worksheet on the business.
Here’s an article explaining more about the computation of discretionary earnings.
Now That You’ve Analyzed the Business: 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, if any, 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.
The arithmetic from this point is fairly simple. Just take the yearly bottom line discretionary earnings of the business and subtract the annual debt service. If the remaining balance is enough to support you and your family, then this business might be one that you would want to pursue.
It probably should be mentioned that the above calculations do not consider any increases in revenue and earnings 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 the next logical step.
If you’re ready to pursue this business, my next blog post will outline an important step: The Contingent Offer.
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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.
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