Isn’t It Time You Bought Your Competitor Lunch?
For me, business has always been about dominating the competition – not just beating them but seriously overpowering them. Personal enmity has never driven this approach but rather a kind of institutional loathing underpinned by the idea that there is a finite number of customers worth battling for. I have never sought my inspiration from business books, but rather from centuries-old classics like The Art of War.
One of the most surprising aspects of selling our family business in early 2007 was how effortless it was to bury the hatchet with the competitors who bought us. In some peculiar way I think our “dominate our sector” attitude made us oddly attractive to our competitors. “Attractive” may be the wrong descriptor – perhaps “irritating” better captures the essence of why they bought us. It would be awfully tempting to imagine that our purchaser was enamored with our technology, our marketing moxie, or our nimble turn-on-a-dime management style, but in moments of clarity it seems reasonable that they simply wanted us gone.
And so it was on a cold, gray February day in 2007 in a downtown Toronto skyscraper that we closed the deal. I remember my father – founder, chairman – being handed the check and making an inspiring, heartfelt and sincere speech. There were no quips about nailing the deal of the century, no comment about how much fun he was going to have golfing, traveling, and indulging his passion for his new vineyard – there was none of that.
Instead, I watched and listened to a founder methodically wish his acquirers well with his business. It was real, it was touching and everyone in the room felt it – the junior law clerk across the room shot a look to a colleague that told me she knew she had just witnessed something rare. Little did I know that six months later that poignant moment would help guide my pen as I wrote Every Family’s Business.
From Warrior to Poet
That short, powerful, emotional speech didn’t frame the deal as win/win. It was utterly devoid of spin, politics, and ego. It was instead a speech full of hope, promise, gratitude, and humility. Only a business founder who truly understood the essence of commerce, who understood the role of business, could have given that speech.
It got me thinking how utterly amazing it was for a founder to make the transition from warrior to poet. It got me wondering how many business owners will never get to experience that beautiful moment when a check crosses the boardroom table, a life’s work monetized, because for them business will forever be war. As long as the buyer of a business is cast as the victor and the seller as the vanquished, too many business owners will miss their exit and miss the opportunity to experience the bliss of being both – which is precisely what they are when they sell.
One of the clear takeaways from our exit from the business is that we chose the time, the place, the buyer, and the price. We exercised control and we exchanged our company – our market share – for money. Business has always been about control; you either have it or you don’t. And exercising control over one’s exit takes introspection and clarity about what your business represents. If your business defines who you are, if it represents your identity and your family’s identity, chances are your exit will be emotionally tough, bitter, and acrimonious – and most of all, postponed.
For business owners who never lose sight of the fact that a business is an instrument of wealth creation – nothing more and nothing less – there’s a good chance that they have already bought their competition lunch and explored their exit precisely when that exit is neither desired nor feared.
As an advisor, have you encouraged your business-owner clients to buy their competition lunch? Have you bought your own competitors lunch?