Commentary: Know when to sell your restaurant

June 7, 2011

By Mike Handelsman

Timing the sale of a business can be a stressful process. In today's tenuous economy, it's nearly impossible to predict your business's financial future, let alone its value on the open market. But smart business owners also know that timing is everything. Selling either too early or too late can lead to a substantial amount of money being left on the table. So while you won't be able to control the economy, there are certain steps you can take to make sure the timing of your sale maximizes the selling price.

Being ready to sell when that time comes can lead to more interest from buyers, more offers and ultimately, a higher selling price. Whether you are looking to sell soon or further down the line, here are some considerations on which you should focus.

Sell at Peak Value

Selling at "peak value" is, of course, easier said than done. Most business owners will find it hard to consider selling when things are going well, but that could be precisely the best time to get out. A growing, expanding, smoothly running business will be most likely to attract multiple buyers, creating an auction-like atmosphere that will often lead to a high selling price.

Too many owners wait until a major customer or key employee is already lost before trying to get out as well. Buyers will be aware of these types of situations and may use it against you in the negotiation process. The key to getting the most money is selling when the buyer can find few flaws.

While that is the ideal situation, many business owners have been dealing with declining numbers for the past few years, giving them little leverage for a sale. This has created a backlog of business owners waiting to sell, meaning there will be more competition as the economy improves. We are just now starting to see signs of that recovery - all the more reason you need to be thinking about the timing of your sale.

Even if you don't plan on selling for many years, the time to start building value is now. This includes everything from organizing your financials and improving the physical state of the building to training capable employees to manage the business in case of your departure. These preparations will prove especially important if an unforeseen personal or business crisis forces a quick sale.

Pick the Right Season

Just as with any industry, your restaurant business varies depending on season. Be sure to take this into account as you get ready to sell. You should know better than anyone when your financial situation will look the best each year. A typical business sale takes 8-10 months. Plan that timeline into your strategy. Make sure you're hitting your busy season just as potential buyers will be checking details and beginning the negotiation process. This may also fit with planning for transition to a new owner during a less busy or important time of year, when the new buyer will have time to learn the business without the potential to make costly mistakes at the outset.

Time the Tax Implications

There were many business owners rushing to sell their assets in 2010 in fear of pending legislation to increase to the capital gains tax rate. However, late in the year, the federal government extended the existing tax rates for two years, giving business owners more time to take advantage of lower rates.

But the current rate may increase eventually, potentially in 2013, and the hike may have a dramatic effect on the proceeds of your business sale. For example, a capital gains increase from 15 percent to 20 percent would increase taxes (and decrease your after-tax proceeds) by $100,000 on a $2 million sale. To mitigate the effect of these tax increases a business owner needs to grow their top and bottom line by an appreciable amount just to stay even. So if you feel emotionally and financially ready to sell within the next two years, then now is the time to start talking with your advisors about how to best position your business to maximize the sale price before a potential capital gains tax increase.

Selling a business is something almost every owner will have to experience at some point. Whether you are planning to retire or to start another business venture, it's important not to rush into the sale process. Take your time to plan an exit and make sure your business is heading in the right direction come sale time. As they say, timing is everything.

Mike Handelsman is group general manager for and, online marketplaces that list more than 75,000 businesses for sale at any given time. Both sites feature business valuation tools that draw from the databases of sales comparables for recently sold small businesses. For the past 15 years, Handelsman has had extensive experience dealing directly with start-ups and early-stage businesses. He is a graduate of Duke University, and holds a MBA from the Harvard Business School.

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