M&A is an area with a lot of money involved. This inevitably attracts a**holes.
Of the brokers, PE firms, strategic buyers, and other exited founders that I spoke to when selling my business, only a couple were a**holes. But unfortunately, I chose to work with one. In spite of my intuition telling me not to. I learnt my lesson the hard way- apparent competency and experience should never be an excuse to work with an a**hole.
The person in question is a broker with a lot of experience in the space. He's brokered many transactions like mine and is well-connected. The market analysis that his firm publishes is tight and deep. People I like and respect promote him at their events and podcasts.
We started speaking about him potentially representing my company in an asset sale. Over the course of our conversations, I could tell that he and I were different people. Not a problem. I work well with folks that come from different backgrounds and have different perspectives. Their unique facets can compliment my own.
What appealed to me about this broker was that he appeared biased to action. Someone who got things done. With all of the horror stories I'd heard of long M&A processes falling apart before closing, this was a strong plus.
What did give me pause was how he handled negotiations over a clause in our potential agreement. He didn't listen to my concerns, and didn't budge one inch. The way he approached this made me doubt that he was on my side, as a partner in what for me would be a life-changing transaction. It seemed as if he was putting his own interests, exclusively, first.
At this point I should have listened to my gut reaction, and found someone who'd be on my team. Instead, I convinced myself that his hard ball negotiating style was a positive: if he played hard ball with me, surely he'd do a great job in getting me the highest asking price when negotiating with buyers.
Really, this was just the first sign that he was a selfish a**hole.
And more signs came along. The initial valuation he presented was too low. I could see that from my friends who'd exited and speaking with potential buyers. I made it clear to him that I would not sell at that number. His response was to cajole me forward on the promise that he could get to the number I presented once we dig into the company finances.
There was a lot of work to do to get the materials together for him. I invested months of time in a back-and-forth with him, with me compiling and developing this information.
As anyone who's been through this knows, it is a lot of work, and exhausting. The day came around when he was ready to present his proposed valuation. His valuation came out, no surprise in hindsight, exactly the damn same. 20% under my view of market value and no explanation from him as to why.
Bizarrely, he didn't think I'd have a problem with this. I referred back to our email and phone calls where I explicitly said I would not sell at that price. No response from him, only that there was no reason in his opinion to change the original valuation. He was clearly taken aback when I said no; perhaps he had been able to wear other sellers down with the slog of collating company information.
Another example that we're dealing with a self-interested a**hole here.
You may say at this point, okay, he doesn't seem like a great person to do business with, but calling him an a**hole is a stretch. I agree. It wasn't clear to me at the time that he was an a**hole. Until what he did next left no doubt.
When he accepted that I was not going to work with him at that valuation, he asked why I needed to sell at the price I did. This was a false premise, since I wanted true market value, whether I needed that or not, but hey I entertained the question. I explained that even though the lump sum was there, the capital should be large enough to generate an income stream to maximize my long term financial outcome.
To his credit, he got this. But what came next blew me away.
He presented an opportunity where I could use some of the proceeds to invest in a holding company that acquires businesses like mine. It distributes profits to investors and has done well historically. It sounded like a decent opportunity, but it set my alarm bells ringing.
Guess who owns the holding company? He does! Here we have a broker, purportedly acting for the seller in a transaction, who also owns a holding company as a buyer. I'm not a lawyer, but if that's not a conflict I don't know what is.
It all became clear. My business clearly fit the profile of his other holding company businesses. He priced my business at 20% below market. I wonder who would come out from behind the curtain and acquire my business?
At that point I understood his game and cut all ties.
I'd love to end here and say that this is the end of the story and it was a close call. But a**holes don't give up.
I moved on. After a lot of legwork, I found an excellent buyer for my business. The business that I'd worked extremely hard over 7 years to build up. And yes, I sold it for 25% more than the broker wanted to sell it for!
Due diligence, closing, and handover was smooth.
Several months later, an email lands in my inbox from no other than... the broker. Subject: Congratulations!
You can probably guess that his email was anything but congratulations.
A couple of empty sentences patting me on the back, then the audacity to ask for the sale price so he could send his invoice for some fee. What a fucking asshole. He wanted a fee for a business he had never marketed, hadn't found the buyer, had played no part of the sale in, and that I by myself had sold for 25% more than his best case.
That he popped up many months later after we parted ways and demanded money from me for something he was no part of tells you everything you need to know about him.
Look, I get it. For him, the optimal financial outcome was to try to extort money from me. As we said at the start, M&A involves a lot of money. This attracts a**holes who want some of the pie, whether they've done any work for it or not.
A**holes will always do the right thing for themselves. Non-a**holes will consider doing the right thing by others too.
He could've realized that he had nothing to do with this sale and be genuine in his congratulations.
That's why I will never work with an a**hole again. When a situation comes where they have to choose, they'll always choose themselves and screw you over without a second thought.
It is irrelevant if they are 'good at their job', 'get stuff done', or 'are the best at what they do'. I will never work with a**holes again. They are a ticking time bomb.
Do we have a happy ending after that email? Somewhat.
If he had acted for my company, his fee would be a drop in the ocean of his many other deals that year. For me, I'd spent hard 7 years building my company from zero. The sale proceeds were rightfully my money. But in spite of being a small amount to his firm, but a lot for me, he couldn't let it go.
Lawyers got involved. My lawyer's advice was that it would be very hard, if not impossible, for the broker to receive any money if this went through the courts. On top of that, I had a strong case.
The court route, which was what we were looking at, would take years. During that time, I'd have to put elements of my life on pause. More than that, I'd be carrying the burden of a substantial court case in my head.
With a young family and a new life beginning, I did not want to ruin the limited time I have on this earth with my loved ones being a dad whose head is somewhere else, rather than enjoying these moments together. This a**hole wasn't worth it. I paid him off to leave us alone.
But you know what- I still made substantially more from the deal than if I'd retained him as a broker.
As I've shared my story I've been asked many times who this broker is. You probably want to know his name too. I'd love to share it, but I won't. I'm sure he'd try to sue me on some other trumped up basis again. And that's not even the point of this story.
Number 1 - it's that I've learnt to never work with a**holes. No matter how good they may look, the reputation they supposedly have, or even if they do great work. If and when the chips are down for them, they will screw you over. They aren't interested in win/win deals. Only themselves.
Number 2 - lawyer up early on in M&A. When there's substantial money involved, many folks are just out for themselves and throw ethics away. Understand who you're working with and their incentives.
Number 3 - the most precious thing we have is quality time with our loved ones, doing things we enjoy. Optimizing for that creates a rich life.
Peace and love to everyone out there.
Including the broker.