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The Confidentiality Myth
When it comes time to sell the company, a seller’s prime concern is one of confidentiality. Owners are afraid that “if the word gets out” they will lose employees, customers and suppliers. Not to downplay confidentiality, but these incidents seldom happen if the process is properly managed. There is always the chance that a “leak” will occur, but when handled correctly, serious damage is unlikely. Nevertheless, a seller should still be very careful about maintaining confidentiality since avoiding problems is always better than dealing with them. Here are some suggestions:
- Understand that there is a “Catch 22” involved. The seller wants the highest price and the best deal, and this usually means contacting numerous potential buyers. Obviously, the more prospective buyers that are contacted, the greater the opportunity for a breach of confidentiality to occur. Business intermediaries understand that buyers have to be contacted, but they also realize the importance of confidentiality and have the procedures in place to reduce the risk of a breach. Another alternative is to work with just a few buyers. This, however, does reduce the chances of obtaining the best price.
- Another way to avoid this breach is to try to keep a short timetable between going to market and a closing. The shorter the timetable, the less the chance for the word to get out. One way to keep a short timetable is to gather all of the information necessary for the buyer’s due diligence ahead of time. Create a place where all of this material can be consolidated. This can be as simple as a set of secured file drawers. Such documentation as: customer and vendor contracts, leases and real estate records, financial statements and supporting schedules (assets, receivables, payables), conditions of employment agreements, organization charts and pay schedules, summary of benefit programs, patents, etc. should be gathered. It is not unusual for due diligence examinations to look back 3 to 5 years, so there could be a lot of records.
- The above means that the seller has to get organized. Selling one’s business is fraught with paperwork. Set up some three-ring binders so all of the relevant paperwork and resulting documentation has a place. These binders should be kept in a secure location.
- The seller’s employees should be conditioned to having strange people (potential buyers) walk through the facility. One way to avoid suspicion is to arrange to have unrelated people, for example – customers, suppliers, advisors – tour the company facilities prior to placing the business on the market.
- If sellers have not prepared their employees for strangers walking through the facilities as suggested above, awkward situations can develop. A valued employee may question why tours are being conducted. The seller is then placed in the position of explaining what is happening or covering the question with a “smokescreen.” A seller could reply by saying that the strangers are possible investors in the company. If asked directly if the business is for sale, the seller could respond by saying that if General Electric wants to pay a bundle for it – anything is for sale. Once in the selling process, it is also important to minimize traffic by only allowing serious, qualified prospects to tour the operation.
- Keep in mind that confidentiality leaks can emanate from many sources. For example, an errant email ends up on someone else’s email. A fax gets sent to the wrong fax machine or UPS or FedEx deliveries go to the wrong people. Establish methods ahead of time on how to communicate with potential buyers or an intermediary.
- The key to handling confidentiality may be for the seller to retain a third party intermediary. They will insist that all potential buyers sign a confidentiality agreement. They will also be able to advise the seller on how to handle the “company tours” and can insure that only qualified buyers are shown the facilities.
- The “myth” is that confidentiality issues can make or break a deal, or cause serious damage to the seller’s business. The reality is that breaches seldom occur when an intermediary is involved, and if they do occur and are handled properly, there is little damage to the business or a potential transaction.