The Business of Life Chapter 28 – when it’s so much harder than you imagined

Unlike many MBI candidates I had met or heard of who merely waited for a referral from an accountant, lawyer or VC (usually whilst they continued to job hunt) my strategy was concentrated on researching the market to find the hidden opportunities,  those businesses that had yet to be put up for sale that I could convince to sell to me.  So, I was pleased and surprised when I received a referral from KPMG to a business that they knew was being put up for sale.  My months of hard work were beginning to pay off  and it meant that I was being taken seriously as a buy-in candidate.Staying-the-Course (The Business of LIfe)

The company concerned, a paper processor, was housed in an old Yorkshire mill (yet another one) and, as the name suggested, it processed large rolls of paper into toilet rolls, kitchen paper, napkins and the like.  It also had a small trade recycling old clothing into cleaning cloths for the engineering businesses that had once been plentiful in the area (destined to become the legendary oily rags). I can’t now recall the name of the paper processing side but the rags were sold under the trade name of Hyman Wipes, something that has stayed in my memory.  Can’t think why.

My heart sank as I toured the old premises filled with machinery and employees that looked for all the world as if they were from the same vintage.  The finances were not disastrous but the business would struggle to stay healthy and there was no way that it would be able to repay the debt I would have to take on to buy the business, let alone any investment in new equipment.  However, if I could buy not just this business but one or more of its competitors then there would be considerable scope for rationalisation into a small group of businesses in the same sector (with increased profits flowing in due course).

After writing up the notes of my visit and sending these off to Phil, I set about researching competitors that would be likely targets.  I soon had a meeting organised with the owner of another paper processor that seemed a likely target.  He was wary and would not agree to my visiting his premises but instead met me at a nearby hotel.  We played cat and mouse for an hour or so but it became clear that there was not going to be a meeting of minds.  Back in my office I spent more time analysing the sector.  It was clear that the smaller companies in the paper processing industry were under attack from far larger players who would be completely out of my league as acquisition targets being mostly owned in turn by yet larger companies.  I met with Phil, took him through my findings and we agreed this was an area best left alone.

Shortly after I got a call from a partner at Grant Thornton inviting me to an event they were staging at their offices in Northampton.  The evening centred around presentations from a number of experienced representatives from corporate finance lawyers and banks.  This included some useful additional information.  But the real value of the evening was the opportunity to meet other MBI ‘wannabees’.  Many private businesses that came onto the market were retirement sales and it was not uncommon for two or more shareholding directors to be attempting to exit at the same time.  It was impossible at that stage to guess all of the possible functional skills I was going to need in a future business but it was almost certainly going to include a finance director.  So, I was delighted to meet Mark over a coffee during the mid evening break.

Mark was employed as a finance director and wished to become part of a successful MBI team.  He quickly impressed me both with his commitment and enthusiasm for our common goal and with his knowledge of corporate finance.  Some ten years my junior and with a young family, we formed an immediate bond.  With an accounting qualification and PLC experience, Mark seemed to have a good grasp of the challenges of running businesses.  Following a further meeting at which we explored each others values and beliefs in more detail we agreed to team up for the task ahead.  We were also realistic enough to agree that if either of us came across an opportunity that didn’t include the other then we would go our separate ways with no hard feelings.

Despite being based some 150 miles apart we soon fell into a productive working routine.  I continued my processes of identifying likely targets and an initial financial analysis and would send a batch of information to Mark who would challenge my assumptions and verify  (and correct, where necessary) my findings.  I was also heartened to find that Mark was able to offer pertinent comment and ask searching questions across the wider business spectrum.  Together I was convinced that we would make the core of a credible buy-in team.

Meanwhile, I had been having further meetings with 3i and formed an initial relationship and agreed a working methodology with Paul, an investment director and Mark T one of his managers.  The understanding was that I would continue my work in identifying likely targets and would bring to them a short investment proposal on short listed businesses we were intending to approach.  In this way we would know, in principle, if 3i were likely to back a serious bid.  There was a danger in this approach that had been put to me by other successful buy-in managers.  This was that there was a risk that 3i could take the opportunity and go with another (preferred) buy-in candidate leaving me empty handed. I put this possibility to one side, reasoning that I had to build a relationship with 3i that demonstrated my professionalism and commitment to them.  If I demonstrated I didn’t trust them (by floating potential deals around a selection of VCs in an effort to find the best deal as others had advised) how could I expect loyal backing from them?

Having been working on the basis that I would have to do all my own work in identifying targets, I was surprised when I received a call from Mark T.  Would I be interested in taking a look at a business (Halifax Fan) they knew was on the market?  There would be no commitment that they would either support a bid or that they would go with me in the event that they did.  We agreed to meet.  I had previously advised Mark T that, amongst a few other industries, I was specifically targeting the engineering sector.  It had already become apparent to me that many medium sized engineering companies lacked modern sales and marketing skills, often resulting in no or limited export markets.  My believe was that I would be able to bring these skills to such a business.  I was pleased to find that the company in question was an engineering business and it was based in Yorkshire.

We met at the premises of Halifax Fan for an introduction and an exploratory look at the business.  It was an interesting company that specialised in the design and manufacture of fans for a variety of industrial uses often employing unique designs for challenging applications.  It was profitable but what was really interesting was that the owner (who wished to retire) had deliberately constrained the growth of the company as he didn’t wish to have the bother of additional employees.  I could immediately see growth potential plus it also had the ability to grow via acquisition.  Having come away with a great deal of financial information I arranged a further visit to progress matters in a couple of weeks.  Meanwhile, Mark and I started work on our analysis of the financial situation and into the specialist market for industrial fans.  A further meeting with 3i soon followed where I presented our initial findings and plans and got a green light to submit a comprehensive business plan.  Following further adjustments our plan was accepted and we waited anxiously as it went to the investment committee for approval.  A week later I learned that approval had been gained and 3i submitted our joint bid to Halifax Fan.

We knew that other interested parties might be bidding and Mark and I waited anxiously once more following weeks of work.  A phone call another week later dashed our hopes.  We had been significantly outbid.  I was disappointed but I was also heartened that we had been taken seriously by 3i who took the bad news with a shrug and the question, “What else are you looking at?”  Mark and I pushed on with our list of prospects.

I had given up on the lighting industry following many unproductive approaches over the previous months but a chance conversation with an old colleague reawakened my interest.  “Do you know Neville is dying?” was the question that took me by surprise.  Neville had been a customer of mine for many years,  running a well respected lighting distribution business.  I also knew Neville well as I had taken him on a study tour of a selection of US & Canadian electrical distributors some years previously.  Notwithstanding the sensitivity of the situation, I called Neville, conveyed my sorrow at his illness and best wishes and after a brief conversation said I would like to buy his business.  My approach was referred to his chairman who I met some days later and learnt that the business had already been put discretely on the market.  My pitch of venture capital backing, knowledge of the business and personal credentials succeeded in gaining me an acceptance into the process.

Over the next few weeks I met with the management team, collected information,  visited the retail operations they had and burned the midnight oil with Mark carrying out detailed analysis and pulling together our basic financial projections.  We then applied various sensitivity exercises to stress test the model before I wrote up a very detailed business plan which I submitted to 3i.  We agreed an offer, the plan went off to the investment committee and, once approved, our bid was submitted.  I knew that our price was realistic and our plans (including selling off the retail side and acquiring other distributors) were rational.  I had even found time to approach and have initial discussions with our first post acquisition target.  However, a few weeks later our hopes were dashed once more as we received the news that a trade competitor had outbid us by 100%!

During this period (mid 1996) I was still processing large numbers of potential acquisition targets through my financial and strategic appraisal model.  Following this latest setback, I stepped up the pace, extending my networking and research activities.  Over the next six months we worked on dozens more potential targets, analysing them and their markets and got down to the shortlist with several others only to miss out to trade buyers who, once more, heavily outbid us.  It was clear that although many trade buyers had no magic dust to sprinkle on a business they did have the ability to carry out immediate rationalisation and effect synergies with their existing operations.  I was confident that my development plans for our targets were sound and we also had a ‘Buy & Build’ post acquisition strategy to acquire other competitors.  The problem was that we couldn’t (and 3i weren’t prepared to support) pricing the benefits of a potential subsequent acquisition into our initial bid.  I knew this made sense as it would have raised the risk factor sky high.

As 1996 drew to a close I realised I had spent 18 months working to buy a substantial business using venture capital.  I had spent months in the most intensive efforts to locate and analysis targets, reviewing hundreds of businesses in the process.  I had become increasingly more creative in my approaches to extend my networking and increasingly more professional in my research, analysis techniques and business planning.  I had been almost to the altar on three occasions only to be heavily outbid.  Attempting to buy businesses from larger companies was also not working as, once more, competitors were willing and able to pay far higher prices.

So, at the end of my first full calendar year there had been no result.  Instead I was beginning to experience growing tension between the work necessary to bring a suitable target deal to completion & the mundane task of earning money.  To put matters in perspective I was earning at a rate that was acceptable but I knew I could be very much more successful at the role of consultant if I didn’t have to spend time chasing acquisition targets.  On the other hand, buying a business was my unwavering goal but I couldn’t spend the time at it that I needed because of the need to earn money.  This tension was made all the worse by my practice of doing whatever I attempted to the best of my ability.

Before Christmas closed the business world down for the holidays, I put together a detailed presentation for Paul at 3i laying out everything I had done with a detailed appraisal of what was working and what wasn’t and reconfirmation of my goal of acquiring an engineering business.  When we met I shared with him the frustration I had in being diverted from the task by needing to earn money but ended with a commitment to bring them a deal we could complete together in 1997.

The Christmas holiday was a welcome break with the family but it proved just too tempting to continue working as my goal was constantly at the front of my mind.  I couldn’t remember wanting anything in business as much as I wanted this.  I knew I could succeed as a consultant but, although I enjoyed the work and gave it everything I had in the time available, it really wasn’t what I wanted to do long term.  It was becoming brutally clear that I had entered a marathon not a quick sprint.  Could I stay the course in the year ahead?  Or was I chasing rainbows?

 Image courtesy of thebridgemaker.com

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