Business Exit Planning: Essential Steps to Safeguard Your Legacy

Written By:
Ben Woods, Senior Stewardship Advisor

Business exit planning is more than just a retirement – it’s fortifying your legacy.  

You've worked tirelessly to build a successful business. Your exit strategy must be carefully planned, whether you're considering selling your business to a third party, passing it on to family members, or selling it to a key employee or employees.  

As we discuss business exit planning, we’re looking at the essential steps to safeguard your legacy – the financial gains from the sale, tax implications, the continuity of the business itself, and your future retirement aspirations.  

As you navigate this critical phase, equipping yourself with knowledge and working with a Certified Exit Planning Professional will empower you to make informed decisions and embark on a successful transition that reflects and honors your hard-earned legacy.  

Understanding business exit planning

Business exit planning refers to the process of creating a comprehensive roadmap for the eventual transition of ownership and management of a business. It involves considering various aspects such as financial, legal and operational elements to ensure a smooth and successful transfer of ownership. Effective exit planning is crucial for business owners looking to secure their legacy and safeguard the future of the business beyond their involvement.

Successful exit planning requires a thorough understanding of the business's current state, future goals, and the owner's personal financial objectives. By evaluating these factors, business owners can develop a clear vision for their exit strategy and take proactive steps to address potential challenges and opportunities. Exit planning should start five to 10 years before the exit, and often the buyout occurs over several years rather than a one-time lump sum payment.  

This proactive approach can greatly impact the transition's outcome and ensure the business continues to thrive in new leadership. It also gives the buyer, especially if it’s internal employee or family member, time to finance the purchase.  

The importance of business exit planning

We often talk about helping business owners protect their purpose as it relates to their business and the people in it, their life outside of the office, and the future they’ve worked hard to build.  

Business exit planning puts the exclamation point on a career. The proceeds of selling a business become the main source of income in retirement. It also ensures your employees still have a business to work for after you’re gone, and it sets up your successor with an opportunity to grow and thrive in your stead. We want to help keep local businesses in business – and it’s why we are so passionate about comprehensive business exit planning.  

The importance of your exit plan cannot be overstated, especially when considering the long-term sustainability and prosperity of a business. Without a well-defined exit strategy, the transition of ownership or management can be fraught with uncertainty, leading to potential disruptions in operations and financial instability. By prioritizing exit planning, business owners can protect their legacy, preserve their wealth, and maintain the continuity of the business's operations.

Proper exit planning also allows business owners to proactively address potential tax implications, legal considerations, and family dynamics that may impact the transition process. By taking a proactive approach, you can mitigate risks and maximize the value of your business, taking chips off the table as you go vs. walking away with a major tax burden.  

Key considerations for successful business exit planning

Successful business exit planning encompasses a range of key considerations that are essential for laying the groundwork for a successful transition. These considerations include, but are not limited to:

  1. Identifying potential successors. This typically falls into three buckets: selling to family, selling to a key stakeholder or multiple stakeholders, or selling to another company.  
  1. Timing of the transition. Again, you often don’t just sell a business a walk away right away. Exit planning is best thought out over years – as many as 10 years before the transition.
  1. Assessing the current market value of the business. There are dozens of strategic moves you can make today to increase the value of your business – from debt reduction to higher EBITA to strategic hiring. We can work with you to set a plan to maximize your value.  
  1. Understanding the legal and regulatory requirements. Not only are you transferring ownership, your often transferring bank accounts, loans, property and numerous legal documents.  
  1. Financing. If you’re selling to a family member or stakeholders, you’ll likely want to spread the sale out over multiple years and take chips off the table as you go. There are financing options available to help the new owners in the transition, as well.  
  1. Tax implications. If you’re selling a business, expect a large tax bill. However, there are strategies to help spread out the burden and lower the overall tax hit.
  1. Develop a comprehensive financial plan. After the sale of the business, it’s time to create a wealth management plan to put your dollars to use for the longevity of your retirement.  

Additionally, business owners must carefully evaluate their personal and professional goals to ensure that the chosen exit strategy aligns with their vision for the future. By addressing these key considerations, business owners can create a robust exit plan that accounts for all critical aspects of the transition, minimizing potential obstacles and maximizing the likelihood of a successful outcome.

Evaluating different exit strategies

When it comes to business exit planning, there are various exit strategies to consider, each with its own advantages and implications.  

Common exit strategies include selling the business to a third party, passing the business on to family members or key employees, merging with another company, or orchestrating a management buyout. Each exit strategy presents unique opportunities and challenges.  

For example, if you are selling your business to your son or daughter, will you discount the price or maximize your valuation? How will your loved ones react to your decision? When and how will you communicate that plan to them?  

Another example is if you’re selling to a management group of your current employees. You’ll need to decide who will serve as the CEO or president in the new leadership structure, how the ownership percentage will be broken up, and a contingency plan if one or more of those managers leave the company.  

Financial and tax implications of business exit planning

Business owners must consider the potential tax consequences associated with each business exit strategy, as well as the financial implications of transferring ownership or management. By engaging in comprehensive financial planning, including valuation of the business, assessment of capital gains taxes, and structuring the transition to optimize tax efficiency, business owners can minimize potential financial burdens and preserve the value of their business.

There are dozens of ways to finance the sale of a business:

Cash at closing: The buyer pays cash and the capital gains tax for the seller is contained to one year. However, unless you are selling to another company or investment firm, it’s not common for a buyer to have the full valuation in cash at closing.

Seller financing: The seller finances a portion of the sale. This involves the buyer making regular payments to the seller over an agreed-upon period, often for a small interest rate. It can be an attractive option for buyers who may not qualify for traditional loans or prefer a more flexible arrangement.

Bank loans: Traditional bank loans remain a viable option for financing a business sale. Buyers can approach banks for a loan based on their creditworthiness and the financial health of the business. Interest rates and terms will vary, so it's essential to shop around for the best deal.

SBA loans: The Small Business Administration (SBA) offers loan programs to facilitate business acquisitions. SBA loans often come with favorable terms and lower down payment requirements, making them an attractive option for buyers. However, the application process can be rigorous.

Private equity: Buyers can seek financial backing from private equity firms interested in acquiring businesses. Private equity investors may provide capital in exchange for equity or a share of future profits. This option is more common for larger transactions.

Earn-out agreements: In some cases, sellers and buyers agree to an earn-out arrangement where a portion of the purchase price is contingent on the business achieving specific financial milestones post-sale. This can reduce the upfront financial burden on the buyer.

Lease financing: If the business owns valuable equipment or real estate, lease financing allows the buyer to use these assets without purchasing them outright. This can be a creative way to structure a deal and reduce the initial financial outlay.

Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs): For business owners looking to sell to their employees, ESOPs provide a mechanism for employees to acquire ownership through a trust. This method allows for a gradual transition of ownership while providing financial benefits to employees.

Finding the right structure for you – and, equally important, your buyer – often takes thorough communication and strategy. Working with a CEPA certified financial advisor who can develop a strategy and connect you with financing options is ideal.

Creating a comprehensive business exit plan

Creating a comprehensive business exit plan involves integrating all the key elements of exit planning into a cohesive roadmap for the future transition. This plan should outline the specific steps, timelines, and milestones involved in the transition process, as well as the allocation of responsibilities among key stakeholders. A well-crafted exit plan provides clarity and direction, ensuring that all aspects of the transition are carefully coordinated and executed in alignment with the owner's objectives.

A comprehensive business exit plan should include contingency measures to address unforeseen challenges or changes in circumstances. By anticipating potential obstacles and developing proactive solutions, business owners can enhance the resilience and adaptability of their exit plan, ultimately increasing the likelihood of a successful transition.

Your plan should begin five to 10 years before the sale of the business and be extremely thorough on timelines, valuation goals and projections, responsibilities of both the buyer and seller and a financing plan. This will be your roadmap for how you’ll operate the company going forward, including when and how the seller will reduce their role in the company to allow for the business to operate without them.  

Legal and regulatory aspects of business exit planning

Navigating the legal and regulatory aspects of business exit planning is a critical component of ensuring a smooth and compliant transition. Depending on the chosen exit strategy, business owners may need to address issues such as business contracts, intellectual property rights, employment agreements, and compliance with industry regulations. Engaging legal counsel with expertise in business transitions can help business owners navigate these complexities and ensure that the transition is conducted in accordance with all applicable laws and regulations.

Addressing the legal and regulatory aspects of exit planning can mitigate the risk of potential disputes, litigation, or regulatory challenges that could disrupt the transition process. By proactively addressing these considerations, business owners can safeguard the integrity of the transition and minimize the potential for legal complications that could impact the business's future stability.

When you think about business exit planning from a legacy perspective, you don’t want major disruptions and legal feuding to tarnish what you’ve built.  

Seek professional assistance for business exit planning

Given the multifaceted nature of business exit planning, seeking professional assistance is not only advised – it’s often required by the buyer.  

Professional advisors, such as financial planners, tax experts, business valuation specialists and legal counsel can offer invaluable guidance and expertise in navigating the complexities of exit planning. Finding a financial advisor who is a Certified Exit Planning Advisor will give you the assistance and planning you need, as well as their network of legal and financing options.  

Your advisor will provide insights and recommendations to help you make informed decisions, optimize your exit strategy, and address potential challenges with confidence.

Common challenges in business exit planning and how to overcome them

Despite the importance of exit planning, business owners may encounter various challenges that can complicate the transition process. Common challenges include family disagreements regarding the succession of the business, difficulty in finding a suitable successor, valuation discrepancies, and unexpected changes in market conditions.  

To overcome these challenges, business owners should prioritize open communication, seek professional guidance, and remain adaptable in their approach to exit planning. Your CEPA advisor has likely dealt with these issues in the past and can provide strategies to overcome them.  

Addressing potential challenges proactively and developing contingency plans can help mitigate risks and ensure that the exit planning process remains on track. Additionally, maintaining a flexible mindset and being open to alternative solutions can empower business owners to navigate unforeseen obstacles and make informed adjustments to their exit strategy as needed.

Securing your legacy through effective business exit planning

In conclusion, safeguarding your legacy through effective business exit planning requires a comprehensive and proactive approach that addresses all critical aspects of the transition process.  

By understanding the importance of exit planning, evaluating different exit strategies, addressing financial and tax implications, creating a comprehensive exit plan and working with an experienced advisor, business owners can position themselves for a successful transition that safeguards their legacy and secures the future of their business.

Ellerbrock-Norris Wealth Strategies is a registered investment adviser.  Information presented is for educational purposes only and does not intend to make an offer or solicitation for the sale or purchase of any specific securities, investments, or investment strategies.  Investments involve risk and, unless otherwise stated, are not guaranteed.  Be sure to first consult with a qualified financial adviser and/or tax professional before implementing any strategy discussed herein. Past performance is not indicative of future performance.