It made sense when consultant Julie Keyes said last week that the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the plans of baby boomers who had hoped to sell their businesses. After all, it's disrupted nearly everything else.
The surprising thing was hearing that the boomers aren't necessarily delaying their plans, to let their business recover in a normal economy before selling. Instead many want out now.
The details of their stories are all different, Keyes said, but a common theme is how these business owners doubt they have enough strength left to own and manage a business through another crisis.
They just want to live and enjoy their lives before some other risk emerges. "They are kind of waiting for the hammer to drop," she said.
Another set of family-business owners she described as "just so fried, and so done" that they were willing to give up any shot at realizing proceeds from selling their profitable business.
Keyes sure made owning a business sound like something less than always fun, but she was only responding to questions about why baby boomers who had enjoyed business ownership have been rushing toward the exit. And it's not financial considerations.
The benefits of owning a business — control over your work, building wealth, pride of ownership and the rest — are as true as ever. Yet even in good times owning a business can be a burden.
It could be that the money gets really tight — with personally guaranteed bank loans and capital calls draining the personal checking account — or having to decide which high priority task will never get done just gets tiresome.
We have written about the unique challenges of the last year, too, how even businesses owners who don't rely on the public coming into their facilities had to quickly figure out how to protect employees from a dangerous virus while still effectively serving customers.
The solution, Keyes said, is having a solid plan, which will make business owners sleep easier even if they decide to retain ownership. And if the transition plan is an empty file folder right now, it's time to get busy.
Her advice may sound familiar to homeowners who had been encouraged to keep the house well-maintained and ready to sell in case life circumstances change or new opportunities pop up. The big difference is that recarpeting or putting on a fresh coat of paint can get done in weeks, while getting a messy business ready to sell can easily take years.
The oldest baby boomers started turning 65 a decade ago. But, by some measures, most businesses continue to be owned by boomers.
They might lean on their lawyers or accountants for advice on how to get out, but the field Keyes is in has matured so much there's a professional designation for this expertise, called a Certified Exit Planning Advisor.
A lot of what Keyes knows she learned the hard way, as a principal owner of title-related services businesses for the real estate industry that didn't make it intact out of the Great Recession.
She included some of this story in her book published last year called "Poised for Exit: A Woman Entrepreneur's Guide to Business Transition." She aimed her book at women in part because she couldn't find any other book or guide for women quite like it, and she is convinced women have challenges that the guys generally don't.
That was certainly true for Lori Bauer, a client who joined the interview last week with Keyes to talk about preparing to sell her company, called Climate Makers Inc. and based in Brooklyn Center.
Bauer is 58, at the young end of the big baby boomer generation, and with a background in heating- and ventilation-systems contracting, she bought her company in 2006. She talked about how she had never had a mentor in a male-dominated industry and how even years into her successful stewardship she still was asked about whether it's her dad's business.
It has grown to more than $15 million in annual revenue. And four years ago, knowing she had a lot to learn, she started planning to eventually sell.
Ask any small-business owner about this, and you are likely to hear what a huge challenge it is to capture the value of the business while getting out.
Even options that seem to be the easiest, such as the next generation of family or other employees taking it over, are anything but easy. For one thing, insiders will need to pay for the business, and that often means the selling business owner will be a big part of a financing package.
As Bauer told her story, it's clear she's well down the road on her transition plan. She likes the ability of her team to run the business now without so much of her time, making it much easier for a new owner to recognize the value in the business even if she were to step away.
She knows roughly what the company is worth and how different kinds of buyers would put a value on it, from companies already in the HVAC industry to investor buyers.
She also has realized she has no interest in having some of the sales proceeds come in the form of payments after closing that depend on how the business is performing, payments commonly called an earn out.
One surprising thing about this conversation is that I wasn't catching an entrepreneur just after she had sold the company. She's still the owner.
Climate Makers has a lot of schools and other institutions as clients. While the pandemic disrupted this industry, too, the critical importance of ventilation in containing the spread of COVID-19 meant her customers continued to spend and 2020 was another successful year.
But yet it takes five years to really be ready, Bauer said, and so this won't yet be the year to sell.