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Why Are So Many Business Owners Afraid of the G– Word?

Wilson (not his real name) took over management of the company from his father, who founded it in 1978. Over the five years Wilson has been in charge, company revenue has doubled. The company is well known in the community, and Wilson is a respected business leader, much like his father was.

Wilson has not retained me to sell his company. At the age of 48, he has no interest in slowing down, much less selling. But he wanted to meet to discuss how he might transition some equity interest to his brothers who aren’t involved in the business. He wanted my experienced perspective on how to do this in a way that combined smart business practice while preserving family harmony.

In the course of our casual lunch, I asked Wilson for his strategy to grow the company. He replied, “By our best estimation, we have 10% market share, so we have a lot of room to grow.” I replied, “That’s cool, but how do you do that?” He replied without missing a beat, “By selling more.”

Since growth strategies weren’t germane to the topic for which we were meeting, I didn’t press Wilson for an explanation. But as I reflect on the conversation, I wish I had asked him for more detail because I sense his answer was a dodge, meaning he likely doesn’t actually have a growth strategy. After all, “increasing market share” is not a strategy, it’s the result of a strategy.

In fairness to Wilson, his inability to describe a growth strategy is not unusual. Having worked with scores of business owners over the years, I can tell you they fall into three categories: about 50% are short-term thinkers (getting through payroll this month), about 40% are near-term thinkers (meeting this year’s budget), and only about 10% are long-term thinkers with a deliverable-driven strategy requiring an investment of time and money. Yes, that’s right, I think no more than about 10% of all business owners actually have a strategy for growth.

Now to be clear, some short- and near-term thinking owners have strong, profitable and growing businesses. But getting those business owners to think and act strategically is very hard. Which can be fine, until they are ready to sell the company.

If an owner has a deliverable-driven strategy to grow their business, their business will be sold for a premium. Guaranteed. Buyers want to see a return on their investment, of course. But if they feel their return is likely to grow, they will pay more. That’s why I help my clients develop and articulate a deliverable-driven growth strategy before we take their company to market. I call it an “if this, then that” plan: if I invest this, then that will happen. Said another way, if we invest this much money this way, then we will have this specific result. Boiled down to two words: proactive intention.

While simple to say, this is hard to do, and that’s why so few business owners can do it. Even the word “growth” scares most owners if, like Wilson, they have to explain it beyond what we’re doing now.

Articulating a tangible if-this then-that growth strategy is the fastest way to improve your business valuation. Don’t be afraid to try.

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. . 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 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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