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Episode 167: The Temptation of Private Equity
The Temptation of Private Equity

This week, Shawn Busse, Jennifer Kerhin, and William Vanderbloemen discuss private equity. Both William and Jennifer have been getting emails and calls from representatives of PE firms who come promising all kinds of gifts—connections, expertise, money to invest in the business, and money to take off the table—which is why the temptation can be great. “If anybody even just offered me a three-day vacation, I think I would jump at it,” Jennifer jokes. But of course PE firms do exact a price, possibly including control of what used to be your business, which is why Jennifer says she wonders whether she should even take the phone calls. Entering the conversation, she says, feels a little like entering the Garden of Eden. Do you take a bite of that apple? Plus, Shawn thinks he’s found a better way to manage his company’s credit cards, and Jennifer gives us an update on her new website.

I Didn’t See All the Danger Signs

This week, Mel Gravely—the newest addition to our podcast team—tells Shawn Busse and William Vanderbloemen how he bought a Cincinnati construction business in 2005 even though the company wasn’t doing well, even though he knew nothing about construction, and even though the company had been shopped to everyone who did know construction. As you’ve probably guessed, things worked out just fine for Mel, who is now focused on putting a plan in place that’s designed to keep Triversity Construction in business for 100 years. That goal, Mel explains, can mean taking some counterintuitive steps, including not always maximizing profit and not planning to stay in the CEO job as long as he might have preferred. Plus: we learn why the construction industry is unlikely to be an early adopter when it comes to AI. And William tells us how he did this year on his mission to make himself less essential to his own business.

Bonus Episode: When Private Equity Comes for Your Industry

This week, Dr. Randy Spencer talks about the changes that have been roiling the vet business. For one thing, that pandemic puppy boom we all heard about has brought additional stress to veterinary workers who had already had more than their share. For another, there’s been a wave of corporate money and private equity flowing into the industry. That sounds as if it could be a good thing. And in fact, Spencer says he’s been dodging a constant flow of acquisition inquiries for years. But the big money has also engendered considerable turnover and disruption, and in response, Spencer decided to sell 100 percent of his business, 1st Pet Veterinary Centers, to an employee stock ownership plan in 2021. The transition to an ESOP remains something of a work in progress, in part because veterinary people tend to be more focused on pets than they are on profits. “Veterinary medicine,” Spencer says, “is just the best profession in the world. In a way, it's a service industry, but we get to serve pets. That's why veterinarians get into it.”

The Toughest Conversation

This week, Paul Downs, Jay Goltz, and Laura Zander don’t hold back. Laura and Jay both say their sales are coming in well below expectations. Not surprisingly, Jay has a five-point checklist that he’s using to assess and address his shortfall. Laura’s situation involves a marketing team that she says has been feeling stressed and is coming apart, with lots of crying and arguing. “They’re just collapsing,” she tells us. Paul, meanwhile, says his sales aren’t bad, but he’s got one employee who’s been holding them back. The employee, who’s been with Paul for 10 years, has been spiraling of late, says Paul, who’s dreading what he calls “the toughest conversation,” a conversation he fears will leave the employee devastated. In such situations, Jay says, he’s found it helpful to rank himself from one to 10 on the hardass scale: If Mr. Rogers is a 1 and Jack Welch—the take-no-prisoners former CEO of GE—is a 10, where do you want to be? “If you pick four or five,” Jay says, “you're probably gonna go out of business.”

When Business Owners Burn Out

This week, Shawn Busse and Jay Goltz discuss a recent Business Journal report that a lot of business owners are feeling burned out. Why is that, and what can owners do to avoid it? And have either Shawn or Jay been there? Plus: Shawn brings us up to date on the leadership transition he’s initiated, and—believe it or not—Jay has had another revelation about ESOPs. Also, do business owners need better regulation or no regulation? And which regulations are annoying Shawn and Jay the most right now? For Shawn, it’s the nightmare of having employees in multiple states and having to figure out and comply with the various rules of each of those states.

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Can I Go Dig a Hole?

This week, Liz Picarazzi, Jennifer Kerhin, and Sarah Segal talk about whether they ever wish they could go back to their corporate lives. For Liz, there was a period during the early days of COVID. For Jennifer, it was when she made the transition from a consulting business to an employee business. These days, none of them can imagine going back—although Sarah did have a rough week recently when she lost two clients. “It's just the way of the world,” she tells us. “When businesses are looking to cut costs, it’s outside agencies that go first. But when it's two of your largest clients in the span of a week, it's like, ‘Really? Can I go dig a hole, put myself in it, and just stay there forever?’” What she’s actually doing, as we discuss, is figuring out some new ways to attract more clients. We also discuss whether everyone needs a business plan and whether the three owners ever wonder if someone else would do a better job running their businesses.

What’s Going to Happen to My Business?

This week, Jay Goltz tells us that, on second thought, he did learn something important watching HBO’s “Succession.” He still wants to work as long as he can—even if that means dying at his desk—but he now realizes, thanks in part to Logan Roy, that he needs to put a plan in place in case he were to get hit by that proverbial bus. This realization was also furthered by hearing the story of a 51-year-old entrepreneur who died in his sleep recently, leaving his wife to figure out how to keep their bank from calling its loans. As part of his hit-by-a-bus plan, Jay says he’s crossing streets very carefully, but also considering creating a board of advisors that will be able to offer advice to his survivors. But that’s a little tricky because, as you may have noticed, Jay’s not exactly a board-of-advisors kind of guy.

Escaping the Valley of Death

This week, Shawn Busse tells Jay Goltz and Jennifer Kerhin that he’s realized that his business, too—like Jennifer’s—is stuck in the valley of death that we first discussed a couple of episodes ago. Shawn’s realization prompts a discussion of what it takes to cross the desert and get out of the valley. We also have a surprisingly entertaining and enlightening conversation about insurance that makes clear why you should occasionally review what policies you have and why you have them. “I have something called directors insurance,” says Jennifer, “and I don't really even know what that is.” Shawn notes that he found a company that helped him reassess several of his insurance lines. “What I like about that,” he told us, “is that while insurance brokers are incentivized to oversell you, because they make commissions,” this company sells its expertise and not policies. Plus: we start the episode with Jay explaining why binge-watching HBO’s "Succession" brought back all of his worst nightmares about owning a family business.

Bonus Episode: The Long Journey to Really Understanding ESOPs

If you’ve been listening to this podcast, you know that we’ve been taking periodic dives into the world of employee stock ownership plans. We started down this path because Jay Goltz was thinking about his own succession issues. In a series of podcast episodes and conversations and seminars over the course of more than a year, Jay progressed through the three stages of ESOP discovery: First, he had his eyes opened. (“Wait a second. If you’re an ESOP, you don’t pay taxes?”) Then he got a little euphoric. (“I think I can make more money owning 70 percent of the business than I do now owning 100 percent.”) And then he confronted what I’ve been calling the ESOP industrial complex—the big firm lawyers and consultants who sometimes seem inclined to make ESOPs as complicated and expensive as possible. (“They want to charge me a ‘success fee’ for finding a buyer even though they didn’t find the buyer.”)

That introduction to Big ESOP occurred at a conference that Jay and Shawn Busse attended in Portland and that left Jay convinced that ESOPs are probably right for a lot of people but not for him. And yet, it was also at the conference in Portland that Shawn and Jay met Phillip Hayes, who takes a decidedly different approach than the industrial complex gang. What immediately stood out about Phil, who calls himself The ESOP Guy and who has his own podcast, Journey to an ESOP, is that he doesn’t view his mission as selling owners on ESOPs. His goal is to help owners figure out which solution is best for them, whether that’s an ESOP or something else. Which is why Shawn and I decided to sit down with Phil and have a conversation—brought to you by our sponsor, the Great Game of Business—about his approach.

Is Anybody Listening to Me?

This week, Shawn Busse, Paul Downs, and Jennifer Kerhin talk about the challenges of communicating with employees, especially in the post-pandemic world. It’s hard enough to get aligned on mission and vision, but how do you connect with an employee you’ve never actually met in person? Is that even possible? We also discuss Jennifer’s realization that she has over-performed on sales but under-performed on marketing, which is part of the reason she’s re-doing her website. “I need a higher level of prestige,” she tells us, “so, better copy, better photographs, an all-around more sophisticated look. What we had was mom and pop. You know, Wix.” Plus: the panel tackles a question posted on the small business subreddit: “How large can my margins become before I'm ripping off my clients?”

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