When I was CEO of Roth Bros., Inc., and we made the decision to sell the company, we opted for a strategic rather than a financial buyer. After the sale, I was still involved with the company for another three years. That time was a challenge I did not fully expect. To prepare you for the after-the-sale experience as CEO, I offer my story.
The CEO’s experience when the sale first goes through
Post sale, the dust settled rather quickly. The announcements were made, the meetings conducted and the phone calls completed. Everyone soon figured out that not much had changed and work, for the most part, remained the same for the majority of the employees.
We had a two-year earn-out and I as the president decided to absorb the new, post-closing corporate realities (which meant attending countless meetings) so my team could focus on the business. I have the attention span of a gnat so sitting through these meetings was a challenge. I was managing independently wealthy people on paper before the sale, but now I was managing independently wealthy people in real cash terms. There is a difference.
Prior to the sale, we were all used to and thrived under an entrepreneurial environment where we called the shots. The deal was negotiated to give us a certain amount of decision making to allow us to do the things we needed to in order to achieve the earn-out targets. But, there still was a difference, especially on the accounting and finance side of the business. We had sold to a strategic buyer, and everyone on the buyer’s team was nice, courteous and professional, but their culture was controlled by their core business—and that was not the business I was in. That is a big difference.
There were many differences, but it came down to many things were changed in a manner inconsistent with how I would have done them. Their way was not right, wrong or indifferent. It’s just the reality of it, and I gave up control when I turned over the keys. At the time, I called it the slow neutering process, and it is something that happens more in strategic buyer purchases vs. financial buyer purchases. And, that’s why it’s healthy for the CEO to exit, in most cases, within 24 months when you sell to a strategic buyer. But that’s also why you need to really think through the strategic vs. financial buyer.
Selling to a strategic vs. financial buyer
You really need to think through carefully the decision to sell to a strategic vs. financial buyer. I realize now that I should have considered the impact more than I did. Selling to a private equity buyer has its own set of potential negative circumstances. However, if you love what you’re doing and want to continue to be productive and work several more years with that same company, I would highly consider a financial buyer.
If we had sold Roth Bros. to a financial buyer, I would likely still be running the company and growing it organically and through tuck-in or add-on acquisitions. I would have taken 80% of my money off the table and had a chance to make substantial gains on the remaining 20% left in the business once the next transaction happened.
My biggest lesson learned is that we should have given more consideration to the financial buyers and understood better the post-closing realities of selling to a strategic one. I tell you this part of the story as a cautionary note so that you’ll take the long-term differences into account as CEO when choosing between the two types of buyers.
The CEO’s exit plan…and beyond
Regardless of the type of buyer you choose, at some point it will likely make sense for you to develop an exit path. A 24-month exit path gives you enough time to transition out of the role successfully and make the adjustment to no longer being “the guy.” Be prepared for this! Do not underestimate the impact of not being the CEO anymore. It was my identity for 15 years and a huge part of who I was, so it definitely had an impact on me. It will on you too.
I also recommend you have your next step figured out before the 24-month transition period ends. That way, you’ll know where you’re headed next and that will help with the transition.
I decided to take a year off and explore things that I did not have the time for previously. During my time off, I continued to mentor CEOs from the Entrepreneurial Organization (EO) in my industry and helped coach them through solving their biggest issues. Being able to leverage my background in finance and running a growing service company to help other CEOs succeed eased the transition for me.
I also scheduled focused sessions by myself to think through what was purposeful to me and what I was passionate about. What would make me jump out of bed in the morning? I’m blessed that I do not have to work so I wanted to make sure that anything I chose to pursue met that criteria. The result of this process was my decision to start a CEO coaching business focused on the contracting and facility management industry. And you’re reading the result of that decision right now. I am excited about my next chapter!
If you’re contemplating a sale of your business in the near future, be prepared for the transition, really think through the strategic vs. financial buyer, and start your planning process for your next chapter before that chapter ends.