By Jeff Clark, Managing Director & Principal, Investment Banking
Get out there and make it happen. Tell people, from your accountant to your attorney to your friends and business associates on all your social networks, what you are looking for, and then assign a dedicated deal generation person— or several— to help you find it. Simple block and tackling is all that is required— from networking at events to developing target lists and making the outbound calls to inquire if there’s a willing seller on the other side of the line. There is no magical recipe needed to find good companies to merge with or to acquire. There are some fundamental methods, though, that you can learn to increase your odds of success.
Increasing quality deal flow is the number one goal for improvement cited by many strategic buyers and private equity groups I have spoken with over the years. Why is this so important? Do you really want to marry the first person you bump into? The dating and marriage analogy works well for understanding successful mergers and acquisitions, especially as it pertains to deal sourcing. Why are online dating web sites so popular these days? People want to conduct a thorough search for their Mr. or Mrs. Right and pre-qualify them before wasting a bunch of time and money. The same holds true for M&A with professional services businesses such as our beloved A/E/P and environmental consulting firms. The true assets reside in the people, so here are my top methods for finding and attracting the best potential mates or acquisition candidates.
- Be high energy. Go after what you want with unbridled enthusiasm and alacrity. There is no reason to act like you are too cool or too aloof to meet with a smaller firm, for instance. The best things can sometimes come in small packages. Many of the deals I’ve done have brought in $1 million to $10 million in revenues and have proven extremely profitable. The same attitude holds true for larger prospects. No one wants to be approached by a lethargic suitor simply going through the motions, despondent to their questions, when they are looking to sell their firm. Even if you decide it isn’t the best match in the end, at least close them on giving you their financials, and one of the best ways of doing that is to overwhelm them with positive energy in everything you do. I met with a buyer once who wanted me to represent the firm in its acquisitions, and I told him he would have to do a better job when re-telling the firm’s history than he did with me. Tell them your story and try not to bore them to death.
- Exude confidence. If you’re a hot firm, then don’t be afraid to show it. Showcase your assets. Downplay your weaknesses. Give them the sense of security that being with you means the sky is the limit. Opportunity comes to those who believe in themselves. If you talk about how they probably want to consummate a deal with “so-and-so” and how surprised you were that they were willing to meet with you, I think your attempted humble approach is more like shooting yourself in the foot. You are the solution to their problems. You have the prescriptions to the source of their pain. You are the Romeo to their Juliet.
- Be creative. Find different ways to reach out to your top prospects, in addition to the basic block and tackling of repeat phone calls, until you get executive breakthrough discussions with the right decision-maker. Send them a hand-written note inviting them to meet with you, forward an article or press release about your most recent acquisition success, or perhaps attend an event where they are speaking so you can approach them in person. I don’t recommend sending flowers, but you never know what type of gift might make sense to get their attention. (I’ve known buyers to have some success sending a baseball bat with a note saying that doing a deal with them would be a homerun.) An invite to one of your building opening receptions may be a great idea so they can get a sense of the quality of your work and the type of client and contractor relationships you have.
- Build trust. Do what you say from start to finish. If miscommunication occurs, then address it right away. Seeds of doubt are more often than not created by a lack of action, rather than any misperceived action. Acknowledge some of your own firm’s failures and get them to open up and feel comfortable speaking candidly with you. The only way to right a wrong is to learn from it. Never let the sun set on an argument.
- And last but not least, know your mojo. There has to be something charming about you and your firm that attracts clients, employees, and others to do business with you. Embrace whatever core elements there are that make your firm desirable and display those to potential sellers at all times. Yes, no one is perfect, but you don’t want your first date to reveal all the good, the bad, and the ugly. At some point, you will lay bare before your partner and you have to feel good about yourself, especially if it’s for the long term and the big “M” for merger or marriage.