July 16, 2024
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Prepare for an exodus of business owners


Jim Wisdom

By Jim Wisdom

Throughout their lives, baby boomers have had a profound impact on our society. One key reason for their large influence is the sheer size of their generation, which is estimated to be about 76 million people.

According to John Dini, a prominent exit planning strategist and author of the book “Your Exit Map,” Baby Boomers formed businesses at a rate 250 percent greater than the norm from 1976 to 1985 — a rate that hasn’t been approached since. Dini discovered these statistics after reviewing data from the Small Business Administration, the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Labor.

So, why are these statistics important? Because baby boomers, who are exiting their businesses in increasing numbers while also phasing into retirement, are headed toward a demographic “headwind” that they may not even realize yet. This headwind could severely limit the boomers’ ability to meet their objectives of transferring their business interest when they want, to whom they want, and for the amount of money they need.

Let’s take a look at the staggering numbers. Of the estimated 28 million businesses in the U.S., anywhere from 3 million to 5.4 million are owned by boomers with five or more employees.

The key problem? There are projected to be far more sellers of businesses by boomers in the next seven to 10 years than buyers looking to acquire businesses. In addition, the buyers are likely to be Generation X buyers, which represents nine million fewer individuals and has a different outlook on life and work than that of the workaholic boomers.

The number of boomers that are currently reaching age 65 is about 10,000 a day. That number translates to about 100,000 business owners reaching retirement age each year.

However, the brokerage industry only sells about 8,000 companies a year. The mid-market (M&A and private equity groups) accounts for only another 1,000 per year.

Using the most realistically conservative assumptions possible, we are still short on third party acquisitions by 6,740 a month, or 300 per day for the next 20 years. Boomers can delay their decision, but not indefinitely. They will eventually exit their business — voluntarily or involuntarily. Notes Dini: “Sooner or later every business owner leaves his or her business, and the transition of the boomers will be like nothing ever seen in the small business universe.”

Some business owners believe that an Employee Stock Ownership Plan is a viable exit alternative. While ESOPs can be an attractive exit option for the right seller, the owner has several requirements to meet. ESOPs are an ERISA Qualified Benefit Plan, and they require (among other things) annual audited financial statements, annual certified appraisals and compensation testing. The cost of implementing an ESOP generally ranges between $250,000 and $750,000, as well as $50,000 per year for ongoing compliance.

What should boomer business owners do? Ideally, they should start the exit planning process at least three to five years (or more) prior to their exit. There are two key theoretical exit dates that the business owner should have in mind: the date they stop managing the business on a daily basis and the date they divest themselves of the company. It’s impossible for business owners to effectively plan their exit until they establish at least a theoretical target date for these two events.

Also, the business owner should retain an exit planning adviser who is skilled in coordinating the exit planning process with the other advisers that are integral to the process, such as attorneys (business and estate planning), a CPA, a financial adviser and insurance professional.

In summary, the longer the lead time for exit planning the better. In his book “Finish Big,” author (and columnist for Inc. Magazine’s “Street Smarts”) Bo Burlingham studied business owners who were either about to go through the exit planning process, were going through it at the present time, or had just completed it. He stated that only one business owner identified the right successor the first time. The message: leave extra time for setbacks and surprises, because they will almost certainly occur.

After all, selling one’s business is usually the biggest financial event of an owner’s life. Therefore, it is only prudent for the business owner to properly plan for their own departure.

The success or failure to plan properly could have a major impact on the business owner’s lifestyle in retirement.

• Jim Wisdom is the owner of James L. Wisdom Insurance Services in Westlake Village.