Finding The Right Business

How to Buy a Business

The Art of the Deal

Deciding on a price, however, is just the first step in negotiating the sale. More important is how the deal is structured. David H. Troob, chairman of Geneva Companies, a national mergers and acquisitions services firm, suggests that you should be ready to pay 30 to 50 percent of the price in cash, and finance the remaining amount.

You can finance through a traditional lender, or sellers may agree to "hold a not," which means they accept payments over a period of time, just as a lender would. Many sellers like this method because it assures them of future income. Other sellers may agree to different terms--for example, accepting benefits such as a company car for a period of time after the deal is completed. These methods can cut down the amount of upfront cash you need; Troob advises, however, that you should always have an attorney review any arrangements for legality and liability issues.

An individual purchasing a business has two options for structuring the deal (assuming the transaction is not a merger). The first is asset acquisition, in which you purchase only those assets you want. On the plus side, asset acquisition protects you from unwanted legal liabilities since instead of buying the corporation (and all its legal risks), you are buying only its assets.

On the downside, an asset acquisition can be very expensive. The asset-by-asset purchasing process is complicated and also opens the possibility that the seller may raise the price of desirable assets to off-set losses from undesirable ones.

The other option is stock acquisition, in which you purchase stock. Among other things, this means you must be willing to purchase all the business assets--and assume all its liabilities.

The final purchase contract should be structured with the help of your acquisition team to reflect very precisely your understanding and intentions regarding the purchase from a financial, tax and legal standpoint. The contract must be all-inclusive and should allow you to rescind the deal if you find at any time that the owner intentionally misrepresented the company or failed to report essential information. It's also a good idea to include a no compete clause in the contract to ensure the seller doesn't open a competing operation down the street.

Remember, you have the option to walk away from a negotiation at any point in the process if you don't like the way things are going. "If you don't like the deal, don't buy," says Troob. "Just because you spent a month looking at something doesn't mean you have to buy it. You have no obligation."

Alternatives to Cash
Short on cash? Try these alternatives for financing your purchase of an existing business:

  • Use the seller's assets. As soon as you buy the business, you'll own the assets--so why not use them to get financing now? Make a list of all the assets you're buying (along with any attached liabilities), and use it to approach banks, finance companies and factors (companies that buy accounts receivable).
  • Buy co-op. If you can't afford the business yourself, try going co-op--buying with someone else that is. To find a likely co-op buyer, ask the seller for a list of people who were interested in the business but didn't have enough money to buy. (Be sure to have your lawyer write up a partnership agreement, including a buyout clause, before entering into any partnership arrangement.)
  • Use an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP). ESOPs offer you a way to get capital immediately by selling stock in the business to employees. If you sell only non-voting shares of stock, you still retain control. By offering to set up an ESOP plan, you may be able to get a business for as little as 10 percent of the purchase price.
  • Lease with an option to buy. Some sellers will let you lease a business with an option to buy. You make a down payment, become a minority stockholder and operate the business is if it were your own.
  • Assume liabilities or decline receivables. Reduce the sales price by either assuming the business's liabilities or having the seller keep the receivables.
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