First-class coach

I've just sold my small company to a large Plc group. I'm finding it hard to make the transition from entrepreneurial owner-manager to being someone who must answer to a board of directors and to shareholders.

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

I'd like to increase my credibility with the new owners, but don't wish to be seen as a 'suit' by my former colleagues and employees.

A: Yours is not an easy position. You're in the middle of two potentially conflicting stakeholders: your acquirers and your staff and colleagues.

Satisfying both sides can be difficult. There are lots of potential points of tension: processes, expectations and culture, to name the obvious.

From the acquirers' point of view, the mismatch of processes, particularly financial, often causes the greatest problems. Strong prompts for purchase are economy of scale and tighter financial controls, and the management accounts of a typical SME are often much less detailed and rigorous than they require. Adapting to the detail and the frequency of financial reporting can be painful, and the acquired can feel swamped by bureaucracy. Some realism from you about the new rules of engagement will be helpful.

Then there is your role in the new set-up. A common criticism from acquiring companies is that few founding partners have a vision or plan for their earn-out period and beyond. As a result, the very people who built the business can become a destructive force. Some fail to create strong successors and insist in heavy involvement in the business. Others lose interest and become de-energised, turning into an expensive overhead rather than a resource.

Consider how you can add maximum value to the company while you remain involved. What would your ideal exit strategy be? If you want to reach the end of your earn-out and leave, maybe you're suited to launching and running small businesses, rather than being part of a much bigger, more impersonal enterprise. Or you might prefer to stay on, or even move within the group.

Work out your preference and what options your new owners would consider.

Some groups regard purchases as an opportunity to acquire talent to enrich their group resource, while others prefer to ditch senior management as soon as possible and replace them with people they've groomed for stardom elsewhere in their empire.

Looking at it from the point of view of your colleagues, the most frequent grouse I hear from managers in acquired companies is that the founder, having gained a handsome sum in selling the business, is now interested only in maximising their earn-out and so focuses on the short term and the bottom line. Marketing and people development budgets are cut, along with other expenditure that generates goodwill but not revenue, thus endangering prosperity.

Senior managers can be de-stabilised by the acquisition process; they feel sold into slavery, bound to work for new masters they don't know, may fear and who don't know them. Your role is to be an 'umbrella' leader, sheltering your managers from the worst that rains down from above and leaving them to operate without interference.

It's important not to conceal the skills and talents of your team from the new owners. Such exposure will make your team feel appreciated as well as provide post-purchase satisfaction to the acquirers, endorsing their choice and perhaps buying you leeway in your dealings with them.

Keeping the loyalty and enthusiasm of your people is in the mutual interest of both parties. If the talent leaves or is working grudgingly, your management can change from an asset to a liability. Both sides want a business that continues to flourish, so it contributes to group profits but also provides job satisfaction to its employees.

The most important thing to do now is communicate well. Listen to both parties, be honest about the requirements of the new owners. Try to increase your knowledge of group activity, so you're aware of how your business can contribute expertise to other parts of the business. And get to know more about the resources the group has to offer. Then you can use your understanding of both organisations to ensure each gains the maximum benefit from your association.

And, finally, don't expect to be universally liked. If you reach earn-out respected by owners and colleagues, you'll have done well.

Miranda Kennett is an independent coach. If you have an issue you'd like her to cover, e-mail: miranda@firstclasscoach.co.uk.

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