As an independent agency owner you are part of a community, and when it's time to sell your agency you have to decide what type of legacy you want to leave. Here are five options to consider.
As an independent agency owner, you know what it took to build your business. Your agency is part of your community. It is the name on the front of little league jerseys, the sponsor for the local fundraiser, and the recognizable sign on the block.
You have been the quiet support for your clients during the big milestones and small events in their lives—from first cars to first homes. Your employees are more than just names on your payroll. They have become friends and even feel like family. So, when it's time to decide how to handle the sale of your agency, you are faced with an incredibly important decision. What type of legacy do you want to leave?
Recently, a friend and fellow owner of a fast-growing independent agency was exploring his options to sell his business. He cared about his company, his employees and his clients. He made the decision to sell his agency to another independent agent he trusted.
A mere three weeks later, that company was sold to a much larger firm. He was devastated. His hopes of leaving his employees and clients in the hands of someone he trusted vanished and he was no longer in control of their fate.
As cliché as it sounds, you need to begin the process with the end in mind. Here are five options to consider:
1) Transition control to a family member. The benefits of this option are obvious. After all, you probably trust this person the most. If they have worked in the agency for some time, this person will also be trusted by clients and other employees. They know the agency inside and out and it will be a smooth transition. The perception in your community will remain strong and you can retain the motto of “family-owned and operated" for generations to come.
This choice, however, does come with a lingering question: Are they the right person to lead the business? If this choice is fueled by a feeling of obligation over desire, then it will ultimately be a failure. Additionally, if the perception is that this family member does not deserve the responsibility, then it can create internal tension with other employees.
2) Sell to a member of your team. This person knows the agency well, is known by clients and the community, and is a proven asset.
Some questions to consider are whether this will dilute ownership down the road and create complications. If the new owner has family members of their own, then where does ownership go in the future? Will this create internal conflict if an employee believes they deserve ownership and it isn't offered to them?
Also, consider that it can be a benefit to bring in fresh ideas and perspectives. The age-old phrase, “if it ain't broke, don't fix it," can be a growth killer.
3) Don't sell. This legitimate alternative is the most often overlooked option. If you have spent years—or most likely decades—building your agency and making a profitable living from it, why not hire a CEO to run it?
Someone else may have the desire to run the business better than you can at this point. You can still maintain this asset in your estate and you can still reap the benefits of your hard work. Warren Buffett owns Duracell and Heinz, but has he ever made a bottle of ketchup?
If this is the path you choose, then you need to be ready to let go. You also need to be wary of who you hire to take the reins. Since your name is still attached and you have not received a large payout, the last thing you want to see is this business run to the ground.
4) Selling to a private equity company. There is no shortage of these buyers. The upside to this option is that the transaction can move quickly and you will receive a hefty price. But often, the negatives significantly outweigh the positives.
What happens after the sale of your company? Since private equity firms aim to boost the value of their asset as fast as possible, they are sometimes not a long-term solution for your team or your clients. This transaction is impersonal and your clients and community may feel the same way. These companies need to make the numbers work for them so could do whatever it takes, including letting go of your dedicated employees.
5) Sell to another independent firm. With this option, the pros drastically outweigh the cons. Your agency stays in the community it has been entrenched in for years, your employees' lifestyles stay the same, nothing changes for the clients and their experience, and everyone feels cared for. You are selling to someone with the same outlook as yours.
The market is so rich that independent agencies need to be competitive, so you do not have to worry about leaving money on the table. There is also a lot of flexibility during the transaction and you can work together on a deal that works best for both parties.
You may have the option to stay visible for a period during the transition phase if that is your choice and you can still feel part of the team. You will have the comfort that your employees will have stability and clients will continue to have the same level of care.
You have been there for your clients and your employees for years—even decades. You have been a pillar for your community and a guiding resource for your clients. Selling to a fellow independent agent ensures that this legacy and standards continue when the time comes to step away.
Dave Rivell is agency founder and head of business development at Element Risk Management in West Chester, Pennsylvania.