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What I learnt from selling a business without advisers

Updated: Jun 24, 2022

Selling a company without adviser assistance is one of the most challenging tasks that a person in business can face. In today’s post, Firebird Director Chris Thompson describes his experience of selling Ski Famille adviser-free in 2013, and shares the results of his own steep learning curve.

I bought into Ski Famille in 2004, after getting to know the company as an employee. As is the case for many firms in travel, Ski Famille had started as a lifestyle business, sitting alongside other business interests of its founders. I was brought in to add a dedicated focus and create momentum. There was plenty of room for the company to grow, and we had our eye on a possible future sale.


In around 2012, the board made the decision to actively work towards selling the business. We created a revised business plan and had specific goals in mind that we aimed to achieve over a three-year period. However, before we even started to think about marketing Ski Famille as a sales prospect, we were unexpectedly approached by a potential buyer.

"No one on our board had ever been part of a sale in travel - yet a brilliant opportunity had landed at our feet"

The buyer who came to us was credible and serious; he knew what he was looking at, and had more than 20 years of experience in acquisitions in our sector. No one on our board, conversely, had ever been part of a sale in travel – yet a brilliant opportunity had landed at our feet. We decided to grasp it, and agreed to start the required discussions.


Because we were a small company, nervous about spending money, we collectively opted not to engage a business adviser. In hindsight, this was a mistake that would cost us many times over in terms of added stress, lost time, and ongoing uncertainties about doing it “right.” It may also have cost us money. Not knowing then what we didn’t yet know, we embarked on the process, and, supported by two of my other Directors, I took the lead.

"The drawbacks of not having a knowledgeable, dispassionate adviser on our team soon began to show"

The drawbacks of not having a knowledgeable, dispassionate adviser on our team soon began to show. Though I was by then an experienced MD, having spent many years in the directorial role, I was daunted by the challenges that arose. I was also so emotionally invested in things going well that I couldn’t always see the bigger picture.


There were the difficulties of repeated seller-buyer negotiations – par for the course in any deal like this. There was the exhaustion of juggling the sale alongside the everyday stresses of running the company. There were basic things, too – like needing to reformat and resend information in a way that fit the buyer’s expectations – that simply would not have affected us had an adviser been in the mix to handle them. Without an adviser onside, however, these hurdles took significant time away from bigger priority tasks, and added to the draining nature of the process.


No doubt to the bemusement of my team, I began to spend more and more time pacing up and down the car park outside the office, conducting sale-related business on my mobile phone. There were also lots of mystery off-site meetings, and the need to explain why previously unknown accountants were coming in to “do an audit.”

"The process was proving to be one of the most emotionally exhausting experiences of my life"

Though things continued to head in the right direction, and our buyer was taking all the traditional steps, the process was proving to be one of the most emotionally exhausting experiences of my life – and was growing all the more stressful because of everything I had riding on it. Nor could I take any time away, since I’d made myself such an integral part of the deal.


With my wife's due date for the birth of our second child, and the anticipated completion date for the deal rapidly converging, I was pushing myself to the limit, and it was tough. “The due diligence process is like going to the dentist every day for three months,” our buyer had confided in me, during the early days. Only later did he reveal the punchline: “I forgot to tell you it would be for root canal work!”


Even when we passed the finish line, the period of instability wasn’t over. Suddenly there was new ownership to consider, as well as the evolution of my role. I was thrilled that the sale had completed, and now felt in a strong position to accelerate our growth, taking Ski Famille to a new level. But was I truly ready for what came next? Emphatically: “No.”

"The value of an experienced adviser who has your corner is virtually incalculable"

We were lucky. Things did work out for Ski Famille; the sale didn’t fall through (though, as with many sales, we had a few touch-and-go moments!). And, indeed, sales clearly can work when you’re going it alone without specialist advisers. To my mind, however, the value of an experienced adviser who has your corner is virtually incalculable.


I know now, as a direct result of that time, and of subsequent experiences as an adviser, how crucial third-party input is to smoothing the way for all parties involved in both a sale, and the build-up to a sale.


With an experienced adviser supporting us, our board could have substantially benefited from:

  • The counsel of an expert to make sure our financial ducks were all in a row – and potentially generate some competitive tension in the process

  • Robust management of our expectations, in terms of likely obstacles, costs and outcomes

  • Support sourcing an appropriate lawyer to suit our type of deal and type of buyer

  • A buffer between ourselves and the seller, only filtering through what we needed to hear, guiding us through each stage, shortening the timescale, and reducing stress

  • The wisdom of someone who could remain separate, objective and pragmatic, telling us when to stand firm, and when to compromise

  • The freedom to stay one step removed from the process, preserving valuable time and energy

  • Clarity around the bigger picture, including what would follow the sale, and how best to build value from that point

My advice? If you’re thinking of selling your business one day, take steps now to ensure you’re in a strong position. As my experience demonstrates, it’s impossible to know when the ideal buyer might come knocking. When they do, you want to be ready to meet that opportunity head on – with a trustworthy and experienced expert beside you.


At Firebird, we offer bespoke support for business growth, acquisitions and strategy in the travel, leisure and education sectors. Find out more about us at www.firebirdpartnership.com


Chris Thompson has been a Firebird director since 2020. A seasoned adviser, he has accumulated almost two decades of business experience, with a core focus on strategy, value creation, team building, ski, winter sports and technology.


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