Up Your Business is an exclusive GEARS Magazine feature in which I share stories, insights, and reflections about real business and life challenges.
Lately I’ve received a number of inquiries for information about retirement and transition planning. This isn’t surprising when you consider the rising average age of the typical shop owner, and that our industry is now in its seventh decade.
If you’re a young shop owner and think this doesn’t apply to you, keep reading. Retirement isn’t the only reason business owners leave their businesses.
Many business experts believe that, before you open your business, you need two plans: a business plan and an exit plan. The Small Business
Administration reports that less than 1/3 of today’s small business owners have an exit strategy: a plan for when and how to gracefully, securely, and happily get out of business at the right time.
This is part 1 of a 2-part article focusing on the “when to get out” aspect of leaving your business. I’ll cover how to get out in detail, including a variety of creative exit strategies, in upcoming articles. The options are simply too broad and varied to include in these first two articles.
As you probably already know, I’m notorious for having retired more times than Bret Favre. In fact, GEARS Managing Editor Rodger Bland gave me a Bret Favre jersey to commemorate this fact. At any rate, it’s my hope to spare you the mistakes I made and the frustrations I experienced before and after selling my businesses.
I struggled to the point of hiring a life coach to guide me through the transition. Much of what follows comes from his wisdom and coaching.
THREE CRITICAL QUESTIONS
As I look back over the months of coaching, it’s clear to me that the secret of when to leave your business or retire lies in the answers to three critical questions:
- Have I had enough?
- Do I have enough?
- Will I have enough to do?
Now let’s examine the first question independently and interdependently; we’ll look at questions 2 and 3 in the next issue.
HAVE I HAD ENOUGH?
Of these questions, “have I had enough” is likely the easiest for you to answer and it’s perhaps the least interdependent of all three.
For many, this is as simple as just recognizing that it’s time to move on… turning the page and taking the next step into the rest of your life. There’s little emotion and more logic involved. You’re no longer passionate about your business and you realize you’ll be happier doing something else or simply retiring.
It might even be totally based on economics: The business is consistently losing money or no longer meeting your financial needs. On some level, you just aren’t being fulfilled by and through your business.
For others, it’s highly emotional and it’s reached a critical point. I’m not talking about mood swings… we’ve all experienced days or weeks when we would be willing to let the business go for a song.
I’m talking about reaching the point where all you can think about is getting out. You’d rather do just about anything else. The business has become an obstacle to your happiness or, worse yet, the source of your unhappiness. It’s also negatively affecting the most important things in your life, such as relationships with family, friends, employees, customers, and others, as well as your health and finances.
I’m reminded of my late cousin, who owned and operated a farm and garden implement company that was passed down through three generations. The business was so established that its financial stability was never in question.
But he once told me how much he despised the business. It was all he’d ever done and all he knew, and it had become like a prison to him. He summed up his feelings with this statement, “If it wasn’t for the suppliers, the employees, and the customers, I’d be happy.”
Sadly, less than three years after that conversation, my cousin passed away from internal disease processes that his doctors believed were brought on by lifestyle choices, stress, and depression.
If you think you’ve had enough, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time to get out. It might just mean it’s time to do something about it. But you do need to make a change. You can change yourself, change your business, change your career, or yes, even retire. But you need to change before you lose the important things in life: your health or your life itself.
Many times changing just one thing will set off a domino effect that leads to resolving multiple problems within your business, and you might even change your mind about getting out.
It might be that you need to look no further than the person in the mirror. Your problem might be physical, psychological, or lifestyle related. In any event, it’s worth seeking some help from outside experts. After all, you must have loved your business at some point… maybe you can get that back.
Start with your doctor to see if you’re suffering from a medical problem. Many minor illnesses can cause fatigue and stress-related syndromes that, if left unattended, can lead to serious, life-threatening situations.
If he suspects depression to be at the root, don’t be upset or put off by this. Depression is not a sign of mental problems or personal weakness. It’s commonly a medical problem related to a chemical imbalance that can be treated effectively with medication and therapy. However, just like a transmission problem, if left untreated it’s likely to get worse.
Lifestyle changes include such things as getting more exercise, eating healthier, losing weight, developing new hobbies or interests, or giving up bad habits like drinking or smoking. We all have things we can do to improve our lifestyles.
Or maybe you just need some downtime: Consider taking a few weeks off for a nice vacation or simply taking some long weekends. Some shop owners have found that cutting back their days or hours spent in the shop has helped. Many times a break from the business is all you need to recharge.
You might find that, once you’ve fixed yourself, most or all of the problems with your business seem to resolve themselves, your feelings toward your business improve, and you might even fall back in love with it.
CHANGE YOUR BUSINESS
Many times business owners become frustrated by the way their businesses are treating them. Maybe my cousin wasn’t so far off the mark when he observed that suppliers, employees, and customers were the cause of his stress and unhappiness.
All three of these potential sources of frustration can be fixed if you develop a plan to do so.
Eliminate supplier frustration — Frustrations with suppliers are often fixed by simply changing from one to another. If you’re like most shop owners, you have a long relationship with a supplier and feel some degree of loyalty to them. If so, you owe it to yourself and to them to confront the issue.
First identify what needs to be fixed… not how to fix it, but what needs fixing. Tell them you’re frustrated with (describe it specifically) and why it’s a problem for you. Explain that you’re giving them the opportunity to retain your business, but unless they resolve the situation, you’ll find another supplier who will.
Resolve employee issues — If issues related to employee nonperformance or attitudes are the cause of your frustration, you must resolve them. There are four primary ways you can respond to employee nonperformance or misbehavior. They’re often referred to as the 4 T’s:
- Train — If the employee is underperforming because he lacks the skills or knowledge to succeed, you could offer training.
- Transfer — If the employee can do another job successfully, transfer him into that position.
- Tolerate — This is most likely what you’ve been doing and why you’re frustrated, so this isn’t a good option. As with the supplier conversation, tell the employee that you will no longer tolerate the situation, but you’re giving him the opportunity to retain his position.
- Terminate – Just like the supplier, if he can’t do the job and eliminate your frustration, terminate and replace him with someone who can.
It’s amazing how many times I’ve seen the entire morale and atmosphere of a business turn 180 degrees — from negative to positive — by eliminating a cancerous employee.
Eliminate problem customers — Changing customers is more of a long term process. It often requires changing your business model and marketing message to attract the kind of customers you’d rather do business with while eliminating those that you’d rather not.
It might involve adding or eliminating certain products or services, adjusting your price structure, altering your advertising message, or even putting a new face on your shop.
Often, by making these changes, you’ll find that the very customers you thought you didn’t like suddenly become model customers.
CHANGE YOUR CAREER
If you’re unwilling or unable to do what it takes to make any of these changes, it’s time to consider getting out. Depending on your situation, that might mean a new career, buying or starting another business, semiretirement, or full retirement. Your answers to the questions: “Do you have enough?” and “Do you have enough to do?” will greatly affect your alternatives.
The most important thing to acknowledge when you’ve “had enough” is that doing nothing usually isn’t a wise choice. When you choose to do nothing, you choose the consequences of potentially losing relationships, your business, your health, or your life.
Next month I’ll continue with the interdependent nature of the questions “Do you have enough?” and “Do you have enough to do?”
Share Your Stories
If you’ve personally experienced a weird or unusual customer dispute and wouldn’t mind sharing it to help your industry, please contact me. You just tell me the story and I’ll do all the heavy lifting to write it.
We can make it an article about you, or you may remain anonymous. The main thing is we want to share stories that will help others avoid similar problems. Call me at 480-773-3131 or email to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author
Thom Tschetter has served our industry for nearly four decades as a management and sales educator. He owned a chain of award-winning transmission centers in Washington State for over 25 years.
He calls on over 15 years of experience as a certified arbitrator for topics for this feature column.
Thom is always eager to help members of our industry and continues to be proactive in pursuing ways to improve your business and your life.