One familiar saying among business brokers is that any buyer who asks for an opportunity where they just collect the money and don’t do any work, should be advised to join the Mafia.
The point of the joke is to suggest there is no legitimate business that doesn’t require some investment of time and attention to go along with the cash used to buy it. A more realistic answer, however, would be that most business opportunities on the market in California are opportunities for an individual to "buy a job." Whether the company is involved in the fast food or dining industry, is in retail, provides a service or is engaged in some other small business function, the owner will have to perform some of the work that produces the revenue. That's the economic reality for nearly all small businesses.
Here's why: For most small businesses to succeed, they must offer their products or services at a competitive price. That means the auto repair shop that has not priced itself out of the market, is collecting enough income through its hourly rate and parts mark-up to pay its employees a fair wage, handle the expense of purchasing parts, supplies and materials, and support overhead costs such as rent, insurance and utilities. If the owner is not on the premises during working hours, he or she will have to hire someone in the shop or the office to do the work performed by the owners in other, similar businesses. That owner will have to pay a manager's salary to a person who has the business experience, knowledge of the industry, ability to handle customers and other attributes necessary to keep the shop running smoothly. That salary is the money the owner would have received as a working member of the team.
That’s the basic economic model applicable to most small businesses. If the owner expects to cover all expenses and then take three, or five, or ten thousand dollars a month out of the business, to reward himself with an "absentee" fee, it almost always will require substantial price increases charged to customers. The figures might then work out on paper, but the owner is likely to soon find that the customers have decided to obtain their repair services at a company with more affordable, market-rate pricing.
Similarly, the absentee owner of a fast food operation will need to charge eight or nine dollars for a meal that competitors sell for six. And unless there is something really special in the hamburger, the business isn’t sustainable with that pricing. This model is also applicable to the dry cleaning business and most other service companies, as well as food purveyors and the majority of wholesale and retail product sales firms.
But, Aren't There Exceptions?
Most every business buyer is aware of someone who is, or seems to be taking money out of his or her company without having to do any work. Examples of these absentee businesses include:
- A large car wash in Southern California generates about four to five thousand a month for each of its three absentee owners who invested about $160,000 each to purchase it. Each of them spends his time pursuing individual interests, but they meet once a week to review income and expense reports and ask their well-paid manager about any unusual expenses or fluctuations in the number of part time employees who run the half-block-long wash line and handle drying, waxing and other needed duties. Each owner considers his return on investment to be about 30% per year and after non-cash deductions the taxable income is far less than that.
- Coin operated businesses, such as laundromats, often can be operated with little involvement by the owners. Many owners even hire a part-time employee to keep the facility clean and remove cash from the locked boxes in machines or from dispensers that collect money from customers and provide “value” cards used to activate equipment.
- Fred is an owner of three taco stands in Central California. Stewart owns several dry cleaning agencies in Southern California. Both make a good income from their businesses, when adding together the discretionary earnings from each location. And they’ll tell you they are absentee owners because they don’t spend time behind the counter or interact with customers at any of their locations.
- Sandy spends almost no time at the pie shop she purchased. Instead, she works with employees at her bakery where they produce the pies and cakes provided to her shop and sold to wholesale customers. Without working in the shop, she still collects an income from it.
- The owner of a building in a retail district located in an Oakland suburb purchased a women's fashion boutique from one of her tenants. She's not at the business very often, paying employees to operate the shop. Yet her income is nearly $40,000 a year.
- The absentee owner of a print shop in Southern California does not take any money out of his business, but expects the payoff to occur in a few years, when he sells it for much more than he paid.
By examining the details of these absentee businesses, the astute observer would discover the fellows with the car wash enjoy a better return but face greater risks than had they invested in a completely passive vehicle, such as in the stock market. And they’ll soon need to come up with about $75,000 each to overhaul and update the facility if they want to maintain their level of business. The coin laundry owner has a sweet deal going if he doesn’t want to work, but had he invested a little more into a service business that would have required his full time involvement, he probably would have enjoyed a much larger income than that provided by the automated laundry.
Some of the many California entrepreneurs who own two or more businesses in the same field and the same general area are proud to say they are making an income from each business without working behind a counter or providing service for customers. Yet their involvement supervising several businesses is really a full time job. They aren’t absentee owners at all.
Sandy's income as absentee owner of the pie shop actually comes not from the sales generated by that business; it results from her work creating products at the bakery. The income is realized in the sales at her shop. And while the absentee owner of the dress store is collecting money from operation of the business, it is because the business is not charged with any rent or other overhead expenses. Her gain as the business owner is balanced by the loss of income from her property.
In the final example, the print shop's absentee owner may be able to sell for a higher price than the amount he paid. But if the company's increased value is largely a result of business growth at the pace of inflation, the owner has not really gained financially. He didn’t work in the business, and he did not enjoy any real income or a real increase, after adjustment for inflation, in his balance sheet.
These examples illustrate some of the decisions that business owners make that involve a trade off in working hours, risk incurred and income received. Yes there are real exceptions of business owners in low risk businesses able to collect revenues while assuming a truly absentee role. But they are rare and usually result from extraordinary - often temporary - circumstances.
For most buyers, however, the smart choice is to determine what he or she is interested in achieving, keeping in mind the tradeoffs required. And try not to spend too much time and energy chasing the dream of a profitable, low risk business that does not need the owner to do any work.
About The Author: Peter Siegel, MBA is the Founder (of BizBen.com) & the Director Of the BizBen California Network (founded in 1994!) consisting of business buyers, owner/sellers, business brokers, agents, intermediaries, and advisors (there are over 90,000 users, and 8,000+ listings posted on BizBen.com). To join (FREE) the BizBen California Network, phone Peter Siegel direct at 866-270-6278 - get signed up for business for sale listings (Email Alerts) before they hit the market, view requests from serious business buyers - wanted notices, notices about upcoming FREE online webinars on the topic of buying and selling California small and mid-sized businesses and much more! Call 866-270-6278 to get info about small businesses for sale in your area.
|Helpful Resources To Assist In Selling And Buying California Businesses|
|Helen Yoo: Escrow & Bulk Sale Services - Southern California
New Century Escrow, Inc. is a fully licensed & bonded independent escrow company. Over 20 years combined experience in handling bulk escrow transactions. Multi-lingual staff that speaks your language, including Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese. Call Helen Yoo direct at 626-890-1151.
|Diane Boudreau-Tschetter: Escrow And Bulk Sale Services
California Business Escrow, Inc. is a full service independent escrow company serving all of California and has expertise in a wide range of escrows. Our team prides itself on providing an exceptional escrow experience. For more info phone Diane Boudreau-Tschetter at 888-383-3331 or 209-838-1100.
|Willard Michlin, CPA, Certified Fraud Examiner, Due Diligence Services
Willard Michlin, CPA #106752, offers buyers step by step training & assistance in doing Due Diligence Services when they are thinking of making an offer, or are in process of investigating a business purchase. He helps to determine the actual net profit even when there is cash. Call 800-864-0420.
|Janet Carrera - Escrow & Bulk Sale Services - SF Bay Area
Redwood Escrow Services, Inc. is a full service, licensed independent escrow company. We are EAFC Fidelity bonded, fully insured & licensed with the Department of Corporations. Committed to offering our clients the most comprehensive variety of escrow services available. Phone Janet at 510-247-0741.
|Mark Chatow, Esq.: Legal Services For Buying, Selling Businesses
Mark has a broad range of small business purchase & sale experience from analyzing potential acquisition targets to successfully guiding buyers and sellers through the purchase & sale of small businesses. Mark can assist with contracts, negotiations, legal matters, etc. Reach Mark at 949-478-8393.
|Elizabeth McGovern: Escrow Services - SF Bay Area
McGovern Escrow Services, Inc., is a leading independent escrow company. We are a trusted partner with our clients, assisting them through the tangled bulk sale & liquor license transfer process. We provide attentive, quality & innovative customer service. Phone Elizabeth McGovern at 415-735-3645.
|Brad Steinberg, Broker - Laundromat Specialists
Laundry specialists - founded in 1968 by three laundry professionals, PWS is a family-owned corporation. Through the years it has grown to become the largest vended laundry equipment distributor in the United States. Call Brad Steinberg at 323-721-8832 to sell or buy a coin or card laundromat.
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