Can I retire if I sell my business?

Not every business owner wants to retire, but most do, someday. And in my experience as an M&A advisor, when an owner is ready, they want to move quickly. However, for business owners who have most of their net worth tied up in an enterprise that they personally manage, retirement planning is more complicated.

If you are a business owner, obtaining answers to two simple but powerful questions will bring clarity to your retirement plans.

Question 1: What is the asset value I need to retire?

This question isn’t unique to business owners, but since your business is your most valuable asset, understanding your total net worth is more complicated.

Find out how much your business is worth by having a business valuation expert or M&A advisor do a reasonable amount of analysis on the company to determine the most probable selling price range. It helps to select a valuator who also sells businesses and is not just a theoretician.

You’ll need a CPA or tax attorney to help you understand the taxes on a sale of the business and develop strategies to minimize or defer taxes. Experienced M&A and financial advisors can often introduce tax minimization strategies, but you need a licensed professional to dial this in.

Then you should sit down with a financial advisor to run the numbers on your retirement assets and your desired lifestyle, and estate and philanthropy goals. Investment returns depend on the type of assets you hold and expect to hold in retirement. Income sources may include installment payments, Social Security, deferred compensation payouts, pensions, dividends, annuities, and rental income. Is the income sufficient or will you need to liquidate holdings in retirement? There’s a lot to consider and having the right financial advisor(s) is extremely helpful.

When there is a gap between the current value of your retirement assets and the value you need, owners often look to the business to fill that gap by increasing sales and net margins, and driving out business risk. A seasoned valuator can point to opportunities to improve the value and marketability of the business, and make it more attractive to target acquirors. They can help you understand market conditions, and when the time is right, they can represent you in the sale process and help you obtain the best deal available in the marketplace.

Do this sooner than you think. Best is 5 years before your target retirement date. The sooner you start to plan, the more knowledgeable you become about your situation, your exit options, and the financial and operating metrics that you must achieve to launch the sale process. If you find you have a valuation gap, it can take time to close. Also, you never know what market conditions are going to be, or what investment returns will be in retirement, so best to have a comfortable asset value safety margin.

Question 2: How well will the business perform without me?

Business valuation, whether performed by an independent expert or a potential acquirer, is a function of expected future cash flows and risk. The lower the risk the higher the value. Changing management introduces risk for the next owner. Whenever an owner’s efforts drive business performance, the future of that business without that owner is riskier.

For some business owners the question of how the business will perform without them is an easy to answer. They’ve worked themselves out of a management or key contributor role and the business can reasonably be expected to perform just fine without them. However, most small and medium sized businesses are significantly dependent on the talents, experience and/or relationships of the owner(s).

The way to overcome this is to grow the business, build a strong management team, groom your successor, and have an org chart that makes good sense to prospective buyers. Absent that, it helps to be willing to stay on for a period after the sale (typically 1 to 3 years), at a normalized salary, until you replace yourself. The first option is usually far better from a valuation perspective.

When choosing a valuator, find one with general management experience and years of M&A dealmaking experience to receive an objective assessment of your management organization and get actionable advice in this area. Remember, the goal is to sell and retire, not just sell and keep working!

You may have to revisit these two questions multiple times before initiating a sale process. And your business valuator, if you find the right one, should become a trusted advisor for you as you go forward.

These are just two of many questions to answer when assessing the value, marketability and sale readiness of a business and deciding if market conditions are right for a successful sale. See Exit Strategies Group’s blog for hundreds of articles on exit planning for business owners.


Al Statz is CEO and founder of Exit Strategies Group, Inc., a lower middle market business valuation and M&A advisory firm with offices in California and Portland OR. For further information or to discuss your retirement goals and circumstances with an M&A advisor and valuation expert, privately and confidentially, contact Al at 707-781-8580 or alstatz@exitstrategiesgroup.com.