As published in The Bergen Record
Entrepreneur Howard Greenberg bought his first business, a print shop in Manhattan, when he was just 26 years old. Between 2001 and 2003, while still running the shop, he bought and sold a couple of other businesses.
One was a GarageTek franchise in Chicago.
GarageTek, which he bought in 2001 and sold about a year later, is a company that sells organization systems for residential garages. He also bought, and later sold, a direct mail franchise, RSVP, which he ran out of his print shop. By 2003, graveyard-shift foolishness of certain employees got to be too much of a headache so he decided to get out of the printing business.He wanted to switch to something that would allow him more freedom, more autonomy. He wanted to use what he had learned about buying and selling businesses.
| AJR Business Advisors
Business: Merger-and-acquisition intermediary for small- and mid-market privately held companies.
Owner: Howard Greenberg
Projected 2006 transaction volume: $20 million
So he became a business broker, opening AJR Business Advisors in 2003.
“It was something I enjoyed doing,” he said.
It’s an industry that’s very behind the scenes. And in New Jersey, nearly anyone can be a business broker. No license or special training is required.
Greenberg said he hopes that will change because a few “bad apples” — rogues who like to deceive both buyers and sellers in negotiations to pump up their commissions — give the industry a black eye.
Business brokerage rewards can be huge.
The average commission on the sale of a small business is 10 percent, and Greenberg and his partner expect to close $20 million in deals this year, though some of the nearly $2 million in commissions will go to other brokers who participated in deals and to overhead.
AJR Business Advisors at 15 Prospect St. in Paramus, within view of the Holiday Inn Express and Ikea on Route 17, operates from a no-frills office building with a UPS box in front. It is one of about a dozen businesses sharing a second-floor receptionist and conference rooms.
Greenberg and his partner, Steven Chiger, work primarily for business owners with sales ranging from $1 million to $25 million, businesses that are generally too small for the investment banks to bother with. They include small manufacturers and distributors, business-service providers, hotels and restaurants, franchises and, to a lesser extent, gas stations and convenience stores. Often, it’s the buyers who come to them first, and send them looking for businesses that might suit them.
They belong to a service network based in Buffalo, N.Y., through which business brokers share listings and commissions. The network also provides referrals to non-bank lenders who specialize in small-business deals. Typical buyers include private equity firms and “corporate people” — semiretired executives and middle-aged entrepreneurs with cash from retirement funds or severance packages. Like most real estate brokers, business brokers serve the sellers who pay the commissions from the proceeds of the sale.
The most important service AJR provides is bringing serious buyers to the table. They also help sellers determine the value of their business — though they are not licensed appraisers. But they do have experience analyzing balance sheets and income and cash-flow statements as well as recognizing value in real estate, equipment, and personnel. And like Realtors, they often use comparable sales to get a ballpark estimate of a company’s value early in the process.
To determine if they are going to accept a listing, they review the books to determine if it’s a profitable business. And they turn more than a few away.
“We get approached by a lot of people whose businesses are unsalable,” Chiger said.
A business that is profitable is much more in demand than one that is not, he said.
“The philosophy is work only with good businesses and don’t take on more than you can service,” Greenberg added.
Recent AJR deals include a hotel franchise and an indoor skate park. The whereabouts of those businesses remain confidential. “Confidentiality is a big part of what we do,” Greenberg said.
Sellers demand discretion. They don’t want their customers or employees to know the business is on the block. Meetings are often held clandestinely.
“We have everybody’s cell number,” Greenberg said.
Listings are advertised by direct mail, trade journals, newspapers and the Web. But the ads are vaguely worded so the specific business could not be identified without going through the broker. Like real estate brokers, they sometimes spend months and months on a deal only to have it unravel. It might be a dispute over lease terms, a problem with financing or simply a change of heart.
“It just comes with the territory”, Greenberg said.
Greenberg said he is careful to disclose to the buyers that he serves the best interests of the sellers who pay his commission. “Due diligence is the buyers responsibility,” he said.
“When I sit down with a buyer, I tell them they need an accountant and an attorney with experience in business transactions,” he said.
“We do everything on the up and up. We’re both sticklers about that.”