by Scott Bushkie, CBI, M&AMI

First, a quick look back and ahead. As predicted, the M&A market was strong in 2014.  In the U.S., year-end deal volume was up 43 percent over 2013, the highest on record, according to Dealogic.

Deal volume increased in both the Main Street and lower middle markets.  However, we did see continued polarization of these sectors.  More Boomers are selling, and they’ve somewhat flooded the Main Street market.

In the lower middle market, buyers out-number sellers.  Private equity activity remains strong and we saw more and more family offices come on the scene as well. With aggressive financing options and low interest rates, the stars aligned for lower middle market sellers.

In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that if you’re thinking about selling in the next three years, I would go to the market now. I don’t see valuations moving much higher.

Whether you’re planning to sell or not, I’m recommending the following to-do list for business owners.  Add this to the checklists you’re making for the year ahead:

Meet with your financial planner. Go through the exercise of figuring out what you’d need to net out of the sale of your business to live your ideal lifestyle.

If you’re thinking about selling in the near future, this will tell you if you can take advantage of this peak market or not. But if you’re not planning to sell for a while, you’ll be better prepared to set future goals.

Review your tax scenario. Talk to your accountant and get an understanding of what your tax treatment would be when you sell.  The tax situation could be significantly different for an LLC and S-Corp vs. C-Corps, so it’s important you understand what you’ll be taking home at the end of the day.  If you own a C-Corp you could have approximately double the tax liability than an LLC or S-Corp in certain scenarios.

Dust off your buy-sell agreement. If you have partners or investors, make sure your buy-sell agreement is up to date.

I’m serving as an expert witness in a partnership dispute.  One of the partners died, and his widow has been fighting for two years to get what she thinks is rightfully hers.  All that cost and conflict would have been avoided with a well-written and up-to-date buy-sell agreement.

Find out what your business is worth.  Get a professional estimate of value so you can make informed decisions about estate plans, insurance, and your buy-sell agreement.  Do you have sufficient life insurance to reflect the current value of the business? Is it set up to allow the remaining partner(s) to buy out the deceased’s heirs without negatively impacting the business  (i.e. putting jobs at risk or risking your own legacy and chance of future success)?

Review your exit strategy. Once you understand the value of your business in today’s market, your tax liability and what you need to “net” out of your business, you will more accurately be able to determine if a business sale now would allow you to live your ideal lifestyle for the rest of your life. If not, you will know just how big the gap is and be able to focus on a new goal.

Work on the big picture before you get caught up in the day to day.  You got into business to create wealth and set yourself up for the future, so take some time to figure out if you’re on track.

Scott Bushkie is Principal of Cornerstone Business Services, an M&A Advisory firm. To request a book with advice on the exit planning process, or to discuss other confidential options, contact Scott at (920) 436.9890 or [email protected].

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A thought-leader in the industry, Scott developed the Cornerstone Process to offer investment banking M&A-level services to the lower middle market. The result is a closing ratio that’s more than double the national average.