When looking for a business to buy, you can forget immediate gratification. Businesses can’t be found under rocks. It’s a more complex process that takes more time than most people expect.
We hear it often: “I’m looking for a business in Florida with $10 million in revenues, making $2 million per year or more. Or I want to buy something with a minimum of $5 million of EBITA (Earnings Before Interest, Taxes and Amortization). Can you point me to one?” Sure, if I could find a needle in a haystack.
There’s no good database or source to search with those types of broad parameters. Even if such a database existed, the “anything goes” approach wouldn’t be in your best interest. It’s not enough to just find any business — you need to find the one that’s right for you, at the right size and price. Institutional buyers verses individual buyers may have different views, needs and wishes.
Some buyers have a pretty clear notion of what they want: a small- to mid-sized business, like a small distribution company or mom-and-pop chain of dry cleaners. In those cases, they can work with business brokers who carry listings like real estate agents. There are a couple of those in every town, and also good websites like BizQuest.com, USABizMart.com and BizBuySell.com that post business-for-sale opportunities. S&P Capital IQ is always a good source for information.
Investment bankers are helpful to those looking for larger businesses with specific and well-defined criteria. These are deals that aren’t listed and require research and knocking on doors, a very disciplined approach.
Private equity firms assign their staff members to search through databases for opportunities and make calls to owners to introduce themselves and gather all the intelligence they can. Again, databases don’t cut it for these types of business searches, as the information is often incomplete, erroneous and/or misleading. In addition to databases, there are many other places to look, such as trade magazines.
Here’s a classic example: A partner at private equity firm called us a few years ago wanting to meet a specific business owner who wasn’t returning his phone calls. Dunn & Bradstreet’s credit reporting showed the business had about $15 million in revenue per year and netted $1 million in profit per year. The owner took my call because he knew my name and was curious how I was related to my sister-in-law who’d taught his child in pre-kindergarten. We had a nice conversation and agreed to have lunch with my client. At lunch, he said his business’ revenues were actually about $80 million per year with more than $10 million in profit. When I asked why the report we had obtained contained a different figure, he said: “So people like you don’t bother me. If I gave the real numbers, every private equity firm and investment banker would be calling me.”
Those interested in bigger businesses can always leverage industry trade shows and hire investment bankers to do the buy-side work and knock on doors. Franchise fairs are a good option for buyers interested in franchises. Don’t forget to look at bankruptcies: Often you can have a good business with a bad balance sheet, and you can fix the business by buying and recapitalizing the business.