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For Sale By Owner

Getting the most for the business you built.

It wasn't until her two daughters were grown and out on their own that Diana Lautens started to notice how dependent her third offspring was. It was demanding most of her time and attention. Even though she had birthed, nurtured and groomed this one, much as she had the older two, she was starting to feel tied down and a bit resentful.

Finally, she put the kid up for "adoption," as she now calls it. Early in 1996, Lautens decided to sell Sunday Afternoon Gallery, her 15-year-old high-end art prints and custom framing business in Winnetka, Illinois. She had already shuttered the profitable branch location in nearby Lake Forest the previous fall because the effort it took to keep both locations running had become too much for her. Then, as the new year dawned and she could see her work schedule cramping her plans to help her daughter plan a June wedding, she realized, "I didn't want to lie on my deathbed some day thinking, `I wish I'd done the wedding instead of the framing,' " she recalls.

By March, Lautens' business broker had found a committed buyer (one of Lautens' former employees); by May, the deal was complete, and Lautens took the month of June off to handle wedding details. Returning to work at Sunday Afternoon as a three-day-a-week employee--under the terms of the sale--was "divine," she says now. "I take orders from somebody who worked for me for many years, and nobody ever asks me to work Saturdays."

Lautens had piloted her thriving business for more than a decade, and when she tired of it, she smoothly parachuted to an easier life. That can happen for sellers who follow a few common-sense rules that also make sense for businesses that aren't for sale. Enjoy the ride, experts say, but know it will inevitably end. Keep the business in sound shape, keep quiet about your plans for a sale, and keep a realistic eye on what a sale looks like. These and a few other practices can make your exit as smooth as Lautens' was.

Dennis Rodkin is a writer in Chicago.

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This article was originally published in the January 1998 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: For Sale By Owner.

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