SELLING YOUR BUSINESS: INTERVIEW WITH GORDON GOWER – THE IMPORTANCE OF SYSTIMSING YOUR BUSINESS
Perhaps one of the most difficult decisions that many entrepreneurs will ever make is deciding to sell their business. For today’s guest, Craig of The Project Guys, interviews Gordon Gower, who has been able to set his business up and sell it without much of the stress that came with it.
Gordon and his wife Joan, were both involved in their business, distributing Ecomist products in Taranaki. Ecomist is a producer of fragrances and aerosol products for insect and pest control. Interestingly enough, Gordon was in the frozen food business with a partner but decided to sell his share in that business. As they were looking for something else to do, they stumbled upon a business idea. During the summertime, they noticed that there were a lot of flies in the house. They wanted to get somebody to help them with this problem but they were told that the kids couldn’t play on the floor for a couple of weeks. Both Gordon and Joan were not too keen on that. A couple of months later, they saw an advertisement in the papers
that said, “Natural Insect Control.” It so happened that the seller had Ecomist products and was based in Nelson. He had bought the rights to distribute Ecomist in New Zealand. When they met him, they decided to get into the business. They found the idea to be unique. They then bought the rights to distribute the products in Taranaki.
They initially started selling commercially, using the contacts they still had with restaurants and food service places. They gave out samples and free trials to people. After a few weeks, when he visited them, they would tell him to leave the dispensers there because it works. Working with retail customers also worked for them when they implemented a referral system that gave customers free refills for referring a number of other customers.
Earlier this year, Gordon made the decision to sell his business. He also talked about how it was to handle the business’ ups and downs over the past 20 years. He mentioned that changes that have led him to adapt and change his business direction as well as his systems.
One of Gordon’s strengths is knowing his business so well that he was able to harness these to his advantage. Knowing that his business relies on follow-ups and customer service, he made sure he maintained customer contact. At first, he used a card system. Eventually, however, he migrated to doing this on the computer. Working with his wife, Joan, Gordon was able to focus on adding new clients and servicing old ones while Joan kept the back end of the business such as the office work and providing administrative support. This was all done out of their home. By the time he sold the business, he had about seven to eight thousand customers in their database. Another strength was looking for other things to sell during the low demand season to get their business through slow times. While running the business during, Gordon made sure to attend several self-development courses, which helped him up his game in the business.
Time finally came when Gordon decided to sell his business. He wanted to enjoy his grandchildren and doing things he enjoyed. He had gotten offers previously and that gave him the idea but he was mentally and psychologically prepared for this. At some stage, he knew that he would have to sell his business or close it down. His children were not interested in taking over and running it, so he didn’t have a successor.
What steps did Gordon take as he transitioned from being a business owner to being retired?
- He took self-development courses that allowed him to take a step back and really look at his business. This got him started to think about an exit program.
- He had to sell it as a business and not as Gordon Gower. Although he was still involved in the day-to-day operations, he took a step back.
- He wrote the operations manuals. This made it easier for the buyer to take over the business.
- He put the systems in place. He had monitoring systems for call backs and ordering that were already set-up.
- He made sure that the documentation was in order. He had purchasing histories of his customers dating back to 20 years.
- He benchmarked using the sale price of other similar businesses to determine the value of his business.
- He knew his numbers and used that to his advantage.
For Gordon though, his business was bought by his office manager, who had worked with him for many years. Although he helped them a little bit financially, he then sold the business to her and took a step back.
When asked what he would do differently, he said he would have insured his wife with the Key Person Insurance. The hardest person to replace was his wife. He said it would have saved him a lot. He would have had the resources to pay somebody else to take her place, when she passed away due to illness.
Among the common mistakes business owners make is the lack of self-development. He found that people get too tired after they get home from work to take care of themselves. They don’t develop themselves. According to Gordon, the courses he took taught him how to delegate and to ask himself things about his business.
Gordon’s pointers for those who want to eventually sell their businesses are:
- Have a good financial history..
- Be transparent.
- Be able to explain what happened during good and bad years.
- Have your operating manuals on hand.
Gordon is currently working as a consultant for Ecomist. He travels around the country and look at franchises and franchisees, to provide manuals, their callback systems, and their processes to delegate those. He can be reached through LinkedIn or he can be emailed.
THE RIGHT WAY TO SELL YOUR BUSINESS: AN INTERVIEW WITH GORDON GOWER
In today’s interview, Craig of The Project Guys interviews Gordon Gower, previous owner of the Ecomist franchise in Taranaki. Gordon brings up several interesting things for small business owners to consider when making this tough decision about their businesses.
So can you just tell us a little bit about the business you had? What it was, what it did, what product you sold, etc.
Gordon: Well, the business was Ecomist Taranaki. It started off just as a distribution business. Just selling and distributing aerosol products mainly for insect control, fragrance, and odour control. That’s in washroom areas and waiting rooms but the major part was insect control. We were one of the first people to do that with insect control. There’s lots of people doing the fragrance and odourneutralising thing in washrooms but we became drawn into this market with using pyrethrum, which is a natural product.
When did you start doing that? How long ago was that?
Gordon: I started in 1995, so that’s 20 years ago. They came up in 1990 where they came up with the dispenser idea and there was nothing new with the dispensers but they actually developed a valve that misted the product just right and it’s still patented that valve and it’s quite unique to dispensers around the world.
So, how did you get into that business?
Gordon: Well, I’d been in the frozen food business with a partner and we sold our share out to them and my wife and I were looking for something else to do. We had a small family, a young family and it was summertime and there was a lot of flies in the house. So we got a go around to spray it. In the course of the conversation, he said, “Hey look, the kids can’t play on the floor for a couple of weeks.” So he said lift the windows or whatever and so neither of us were to keen on that. And a couple of months later, we saw an advert in the local paper saying, “natural insect control” and a phone number and so we rang the guy and it was Ecomist. He was based in Nelson. He bought the rights to distribute it around New Zealand and so we went down and met him. We thought, “Hey, this is a good idea.” And the fragrance that they had along with the insect control, Ecomist was doing a range of fragrances and I mean a range, there’s over a hundred. All sorts of things, proper french perfumes and we said, “Hey, this is quite unique. It was different, we had the natural thing to the insect control. Let’s give it a whirl.” So we bought the rights to Taranaki.
I know most people have those Ecomists or some descriptions in their house as a portable one. Do you market residential? Or commercial? How is it split?
Gordon: Well, initially, I started with commercial because I’d been working in the food industry. So delivering to restaurants and food service places. So I had contacts there. So I started there by giving free trials to people because it was quite unique and I’ve still go a list today where I would put out 10-15 dispensers and everyone would buy them after two weeks. So, go back and say, “Yeah, leave it here. It works!” And then, I’ll have a few who’ll say, “Yeah, it doesn’t work but we haven’t got flies.”
Oh wow and when did you sell?
Gordon: I sold this year in April.
How did you build your business up? Can you give me an idea how many staff, clients you had?
Gordon: Our staff, when I sold, was an office lady and I had a number of part-timers and that, went up and down because it was seasonal. At one stage, I had 8 part-time people working for me and then we consolidated deliveries and things like that. Things I had to do. Various things happened within that 20 years that changed the business direction and how we did things. But initially, I started off with this girl in Hara and she used to sell on commission and she would keep her customers supplied and there was a little commission paid and then we got one of her girlfriends who said, “Hey, I wouldn’t mind doing this is Altham.” So, we ended up with girls going around the province doing that. I worked out quite early in the piece that this business, the product was good but the reselling of it was all about customer contact and that we would contact our customers at least once a month or at least once every three months but initially, it was monthly because the refills last about a month. But if we didn’t ring them, sometimes, they wouldn’t ring us until there were blow flies on their roast on Sunday, you know. So, we developed a phoning system. It was purely phoning and what these girls would do is have a list of their customers. Initially, we worked on a card system. Somebody bought, somebody changed the date, moved the card at the back of the box. But quickly, computers were coming in and I’d used a customer database system and our previous business was really quite crude but I met a guy in Hamilton who was writing a program and he developed it around what we needed. So, we soon had a database that we could roll over monthly and the girls would bring their customers and go around.
Well, what happened at the same time, I was out there selling these things and I was ringing customers. But then I got to a stage where you couldn’t sell service and ring. It just wasn’t enough hours in a day. So, to keep it going, to keep our customer service, we started taking on these part-timers in the areas and they built it off and we had referral cards. And so, if a customer got their neighbour, they would get a free refill. So, I had one lady, she never paid for a refill. She just keep on referring. So, it built the business.
Going back to your original question, at the end, when I sold, we had probably seven to eight thousand people on the database. They were not always using but all of them, at one stage or another, had bought a dispenser or two or whatever.
This is all done selling one product.
Gordon: One product. Simple. And I always look for other little things to add on because all these people have bought a piece. I’ve never come up with something quite as good but we always got add ons. So I also introduced instant hand sanitiser in Taranaki. I was the first one to sell that here, you know, which is quite unique. I sold a bit about coffee beans in the early days. But they’re all little things to get me through the winter cause it was basically a seasonal product in the early days until we built up the fragrancing end, which was a bit nice.
So fast forward to the last couple of years. Tell us about the decision itself. What made you decide to end it or when to sell?
Gordon: Well, I’d been doing it for 21 years. I have a number of grandchildren who I felt I started to miss out on. I’ve had a couple of people approach me about the business and so that sort of put the idea in my head. I had a couple of firm offers and sat down with people and then a bolt out of the blue. Someone I knew who had worked with me, I’d never even thought of. She said, “Hey, I really like this business.”
I knew a long time before that one day I would have to sell the business and neither of my children were interested in taking it over and running it. So I knew, at some stage, I’d either have to sell it or close it down. I knew if I sold it, that if I really wanted to sell it, it had to be as a business and not as Gordon Gower and that I had to be separate. It was my business but people weren’t buying me. So, a long time ago, I worked out systems to run them because we started working from home. We were one of the first businesses in New Plymouth that was actually working from home that wasn’t a doctor or something like that. That was actually a distribution business. So we had to work systems to work it with. The timing system, the callback system was part of it.
Tell us a little bit about the systems because they seem to be the key to your successful sales. What do you mean by systems?
Gordon: Basically, the system was the callback system to contact customers. That’s how we started. We knew that people already bought this, when they needed it. We needed them to buy regular so we had ongoing income. We couldn’t make them come and buy. We worked that callback system for customer contact.
We had a history also. A purchasing history of each customer. We had that. My wife did all the office business in the business over the years and I was out on the road doing the selling, servicing, and repairs. Unfortunately, she got sick and before she passed away, she was able to write processes for the office. How things were done there. So we had an office manual. So when we got someone in, they would look and say, “This is how I’d do the banking. This is how I’d do the purchasing.” We had that all computerised and listed.
Talking about this business, how do track the process for everyone?
It was a step by step process of how that was done. I developed the servicing part of it and also, for the girls that we brought on board, a manual on how they did the phoning and the delivery. So we had a job sheet for each job. So anyone coming in, if I got sick, anyone coming in can say, “Oh, this is how it’s done.” And so, I ended up doing that for nearly every job in the business and I had it written down and processes of how to repair each type of dispenser because over the years we had all the dispensers look the same but were different. So, we write little process on how to identify them, how to fix the idiosyncrasies.
Did it help that writing these things down? Did someone prompt you to do that? Or did you say that that’s what’s going to be needed? Many people who own small businesses do that but never get around to doing it.
Gordon: In as much as I’d been in business 4 or 5 years. I needed to develop the business and so, what I did, I did a couple of self-development courses. I did one called Results in Business at that time and I did one called Entrepreneural success program and both of them certainly lifted my game. It made you sit back and look at your business. That’s when I first started thinking about an exit program. I had no plans for it but I knew from what I was learning that if I ever want to sell this business, I’d better be able to say to someone, “Here. Here’s the business. Here’s the book. Give me the money. Here’s how you do it and then you make whatever changes you want.” And that’s exactly what happened when I did sell. Over the last few years, I consciously made an effort not to be the face of the business. I was always there. I would go and see our customers two or three times in the season just servicing so they knew that I was there but I had people out doing…
The service people and stuff like that. So that when I was ready to sell it, someone looking at it could say, “Well, I could do that.” Or “I can sit back and manage it.” Or “I can buy this part of my existing business.”
How long did it take you to develop the systems?
Gordon: Probably over a year. In the early days, the winters were quiet for me. So I had that time to do it. I loved the time spending the time with the family but I wrote those processes during the quiet times.
When you were approached by others, what do you think made them interested to buy your business? What made them come to you and offer to buy your business?
Gordon: We were approached by businesses that my business would complement, to either or. Cleaning supplies, other pest control type businesses where my business would be in line with theirs and that’s what I’ve always expected cause they could see, they could buy without increasing their staff levels. It would be a nice add-on to the bottom line.
How did you value your business?
Gordon: Well, I was lucky in two respects that the person who finally bought it had worked for me for 10 years as my office manager. So she knew the ins and outs of the business anyway. In the previous two years, Ecomist Taranaki has always been connected to the biggest Ecomist Taranaki. Ecomist in several markets were sold. So there was a price at the market. The last three years, Ecomist sold 30-35,000 refills. We were about at the 25,000 consistently for 3 years, so it increased the price on that. It’s really hard to do valuation especially in businesses 20 years in the making with a database of 75,000. But there’s always the history and the systems. We could look back at the purchasing of each customer for nearly 20 years.
Yes, so there’s recurring revenue.
Gordon: So that’s where the value was as well and that little bit of history.
Your office manager knew that.
Gordon: And she knew too that probably anyone who purchased it would keep her on and squeeze the knowledge out of her. Her and I have talked because we were close friends anyway by working together. And I’d say, “So and so has rung me up with an interest in buying and I’m not sure.” So we talked about that for two years, probably, off and on and I knew that one day I’d have to do it. So, she’s always been thinking about it and never said anything to me until I approached her and said, “Hey look, I’m gonna get serious about putting in on the market. I’ve written an ad and putting it on TradeMe and I’m gonna ring up all those people that have approached me and see if there’s an interest still.” So we go the ad on TradeMe one day and her husband came to see me and said, “Hey look.”
So the structure itself was full cash up front.
Gordon: I helped a little bit in the financing but not too much but to help make it easier for them. Half the time, they couldn’t squeeze it all but it would have put a strain on them. I knew business people that had enough on their plate. Carrie was fine but Geoff had a lot to learn and take in. I’d been back a couple of times just to help him with just repairs. Nothing major.
In hindsight, would you do it differently?
Gordon: Not really, no. The only thing that I would ever do differently and what happened to me was insuring the main person and the Key Person Insurance. I had that on myself and at that time I said to the insurance guy, I don’t think I’m the key person in this business. I think my wife is because she ran the office and the business end of it and he convinced me, “No. You’re the main man, Gordon.” You’re out there. When it came to and Joan’s demise, she was the hardest person to replace. I was easy. You can get a service person to go out and do that but the hardest part was replacing someone at the office. I mean, I new the prices but I’m not an office manager. I’m a guy that gets out and talks to people. Knocks on doors and I would think now, you know that would have saved a lot. But I did have a bulk of dough to pay somebody else. I often think about that and guys were terrible because we think the business is all about us. I had a mate and his wife says, “He thinks it’s all about him.” “Yeah. You do really important things.”
So you’ve been in business for a long time. What are the key business mistakes you see business owners make?
Gordon: Well, I’m going around a lot of franchises and there are a lot of franchisees. Basically, what I have found is people get too tired after their business to take care of themselves. They don’t any self-development of themselves. And I mean, I’ve been and it was so good to me when I look back on the courses that I did with Results in Business where I stick outside of the square and put pressure on myself to delegate. And then after that, it was not only business things, you put pressure on yourself by trying and learning how to speak to your suppliers. You do something about yourself, about developing something in yourself. I sat down and that’s one of the first think I ask them, “What are you doing for yourself?” “What can you do about the business?” What can you do in this business? What are you learning about how it’s done?” And then you can call them and ask someone to do it. But you know how it’s done.
Also, I’ve learned very early to pay someone to fix my computer. It’s like my own brother-in-law, he’s an old school person and he changes his own tire. It takes him all day to do it but he won’t bring it into the shop. It would probably cost a couple of hundred of bucks. It’s just old school.
So what are some of your advice for people who plan to sell their business in 1 year, 2 years or tomorrow?
Gordon: They need to know who their customers are. They need to know who their best customers are, who their worst customers are. They need to have an idea of their business processes and their monthly process. They need to have some sort of structure in place where they can see where their cash is coming from. Then, there’s the day-to-day running of the business.
What do they need to do to make it easier to buy the business?
Gordon: Well, they need to have a good financial history. No use having books that don’t show how much money you’ve made for the last 2 or 3 years. When you sit down and look at the business, I look at, How has it been. There’s always good years and bad years and usually, they’re explainable. But if you haven’t got a history, you’re pushing them. You’re not telling them you put half the money in your back pocket. If the person buying it doesn’t know, you can’t sell that.
To anyone buying so that they know that the business has got some structure and it helps them down the road. You’re buying that manual. I know how much a manual from Ecomist systems cost. You have to have knowledge of the business.
So what are you doing now that you’ve retired?
Now, I’m doing a bit of consulting work for Ecomist as a whole around the country and look at franchises and franchisees and to provide manuals, their callback systems and their processes to delegate those. I’m not saying everything but it’s gotta be done. I don’t want to call them non-value time jobs because the servicing of my customers was the most important part of the business. The value you got as a customer. It was a lot easier to keep them. It’s easier to go and service them but you’ve got to have someone to do this. A lot of business owners can’t delegate those jobs.
In business, you might lose 5 or 10 customers over the year. So you need to take care of that. Some customers would drop off but some of them would come back on. In the early years, we lost a lot of customers when competition comes in because they were cheaper. There were always cheaper options for people but we plugged away with our service. We stuck it out and a lot of customers came back.
How can people reach you?
They can call me or they can email me. I’m on LinkedIn. They can find me on there. Easy to find.