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Being a Disney Executive Has Made Me a More Effective Business Broker

What can you learn about business brokerage from Mickey Mouse, Buzz Lightyear and Snow White? What does running the world’s best theme parks and making great movies have to do with buying or selling a business?

Well, a lot, actually.

I spent six years with a division of the Walt Disney company in Orlando, primarily focused on development of new businesses. I had the privilege to be involved with the launch and growth of Disney’s Celebration community, the Disney Institute and Disney Vacation Club. While I was with Disney, I worked with smart, hard working and honorable people. It was a great time, both personally and professionally. I could write a book on the valuable things I learned. But as I reflect on those busy years, I see that much of what I learned at Disney helps me day-to-day in my present role as President of Tennessee Valley Group, Inc. a business brokerage & transition mediation service focused in Tennessee and Kentucky. Whether I am retained to sell a business, advise a business owner through the process of a strategic acquisition, or mediate a business transition, I rely on four principles that come directly from my Disney experiences.

1. THE STORY MATTERS.  Disney is, at its core, a story company. They don’t just have a great roller coaster, they have Splash Mountain. They don’t just do an animated movie about a boy going to college, they have Toy Story 3. The don’t have a boy finds girl, boy loses girl, boy reunites with girl movie, they have Cinderella. Everything at Disney starts with a great story. When I am retained to sell or buy a business, the first thing I want to figure out is how to make the opportunity make sense beyond the numbers. I was recently working with a manufacturer to help them identify a strategic acquisition, and we found a company for sale in Georgia. I contacted the broker handling that deal and asked him to send me information on the company. He sent me a 30-page memorandum that was filled with numbers, charts and industry information. Not a bad start, except the memorandum never explained why the company was special, what distinctive advantage it brought to the table, or why its customers used them over the competition. It was as though the broker handling the sale was hoping the MASS of information would be impressive, when in fact, the more information you throw at someone without a context (story) for that information, the most certain you are to confuse the reader. I learned at Disney, the story matters.

2. KNOW WHAT YOUR BRAND STANDS FOR, and be willing to lose business that isn’t consistent with your brand. My Disney career was focused on helping the company’s senior executives make investment decisions about new business launches. In some respects, my job was easy, we could afford anything….after all, Disney has the financial strength to be in any business it wants to be in. But, it didn’t take me long to figure out that no matter how good of a business idea we had, if it didn’t fit the Disney brand, we would not consider it. Fast forward to today, hardly a week goes by that I am not confronted with a “good deal” or an opportunity that looks to have great long term promise. I decided that I would focus Tennessee Valley Group on two areas of practice: business brokerage and transition mediation for companies in Tennessee and Kentucky. I’ve said “no” to some pretty cool ideas in different parts of the country (and overseas), but I’ll continue to draw on my Disney experience to be true to my brand, which has allowed me to stay true to the business owners I serve throughout Tennessee and Kentucky.

3. SEE THE DOTS, CONNECT THE DOTS.   Before I worked there, I thought Disney was the most inventive company in the world. I remember the first time I saw a automatic-flushing urinal at a restroom in the Disney Village; I marveled at the technology Disney brought to something as mundane as restroom plumbing fixtures. But shortly after I joined the company and went “behind the curtain,” I figured out that Disney usually doesn’t invent anything, but they have made an art out of using technology in inventive, out-of-the-box ways. One old Disney pro explained it this way: “we see the dots then we connect the dots.” There are really two different skills required here. One is the ability to identify opportunity (see the dots) which is particularly hard when you are focused everyday on your task list of meeting budgets and taking care of customers. But my Disney experience taught me to always have my senses open to “see the dots.” But then, you have to be able to synthesize all that disparate information (the dots) and figure out how to put them together in ways that have never been done before (connect the dots). No team of people in the world do this better than the Disney imagineers. Whether it is a new ride in one of the parks or a new design for a themed pool at a Disney hotel, Disney’s creative genius is an example of seeing the dots, then connecting the dots. In my business brokerage practice, I often find myself helping my clients see opportunities they don’t see because they are mired (focused) on the details of running their business.

4. THE VILLAIN NEVER GETS THE GIRL.   Every Disney story has three main characters: the heroine, the rescuer, and the villain. Trust me, watch any Disney animated movie, and you’ll see this character formula, all the way back to Snow White. And you’ll also notice this: the villain never wins in a Disney movie. No matter how dire the circumstances, the rescuer always saves the heroine. I have tried my entire professional career to have a do-the-right-thing, no matter what, policy. Though I’ve fortunately never had to make a life or death decision when advising on the sale or purchase of a business, I can tell you there will always be times when the easy way out is to cut corners, shade information, or not tell the whole story. But I know the villain never wins. Making the right decision is always the right decision.

So thanks to Mickey and all the Disney gang for six great years and a lifetime of lessons.

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Tennessee Valley Group

Jim is an attorney (non-resident status with the Missouri Bar) and though he no longer practices law, he has read and negotiated enough legal documents to fill a cargo tanker. He has an MBA from Harvard Business School and knows how Wall Street and private equity operates. Jim is a Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 31 listed general civil mediator with tons of experience helping business owners (large and small) work through sensitive problems to achieve winning results. He is the author of "Home Run, A Pro's Guide to Selling Your Business, Seven Principles to Make Your Company Irresistible."

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