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Left With Nothing But an Empty Bag

“After 15 years of work, I just wanted to leave something for my kids and grandkids. But it sounds like all I have is an empty bag.

Sandra (not her real name) was not in good health. We met at her house because getting to the office was difficult for her. But what she lacked in physical mobility, she more than made up for with mental mobility and attitude. Sandra had a big smile on her face when I walked in, and she seemed quite sharp. There was no question I asked for which she didn’t have a confident answer.

Sandra told me she had hoped her son would take the business. But he recently got married and moved to Texas because his wife received a too-good-to-refuse job offer from a national accounting firm. Now Sandra was left without an exit plan for her business, but she needed one fast. She told me she has a troubling diagnosis from her oncologist. “I might not be here in a year,” she said, “can you work that fast?

But it didn’t take long in our discussion for me to realize Sandra would likely not be able to sell her business. In 2015, the business generated EBITDA of $750,000 but it had gone down every year since. In 2019, EBITDA was only $45,000. She explained, “You know, dealing with all this medical stuff has weighed me down, I just haven’t had time or energy to turn things around.”

Sandra’s attitude about selling the business and her valuation expectation was based on what the business had achieved in the past. “I bet you know a ton of people who’d like to buy a business that can do $750,000 a year,” she said confidently. This is the part of my work where I feel more like a pastor or grief counselor than a business advisor. “Businesses aren’t valued on what they once did, they’re valued on current performance,” I said gingerly, “and since revenue and profits are on a steady decline, I don’t see why anyone would buy it now for more than the asset value.”

So I’m left holding an empty bag?” she replied, to which I said, “I’m afraid so, with the recent history of declining profits, there isn’t a plausible turnaround story.”

Sandra looked at me for what seemed like several minutes. It was probably only about 15 seconds when she then said, “I thought that’s what you’d say, that’s what my son told me too. I have other retirement assets, I’ll be ok and my family will be ok, I just wanted to get a professional opinion before I shut it down.”

At that point Sandra‘s husband came in with a pitcher of iced tea and they started to show me their collection of silver coins. What started as an awkward meeting about Sandra’s business ended up being a fun conversation about American history and rare coins. She won’t have a bag full of money from the sale of her business assets, but she is wealthy in her attitude about life. I pray her doctors are wrong about her prognosis, the world needs people like Sandra.

 

JIM CUMBEE is President of Tennessee Valley Group, Inc. a retainer-based business brokerage and transition mediation firm in Franklin, TN. Cumbee is an attorney and has an MBA from Harvard Business School. Jim is the author of Home Run, A Pro’s Guide to Selling a Business. https://www.amazon.com/Home-Pros-Guide-Selling-Business/dp/1599329239 .  He has a wide range of corporate and entrepreneurial experiences that make him one of the most sought-after business transition advisors in the state of Tennessee. The principles above are true, but the story, names and fact patterns are changed to preserve the parties’ identities.

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Tennessee Valley Group

Jim Cumbee established Tennessee Valley Group to help business owners fulfill their dreams for life after business ownership. It’s a mission that his 30+ year career history had prepared him well for—in addition to being an attorney, transition mediator and business broker, Jim has been a buyer, seller, and entrepreneur. His broad range of experience gives him unique insight into how business buyers and sellers can achieve their goals.

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