Business Exit Strategies - ‘Internal’ Transfers versus ‘External’ Transfers

Oct 19 15:23 2007 John M. Leonetti Print This Article

In this article, John M. Leonetti, Esq., M.S. Finance, CM&AA compares the ‘internal’ transfers of businesses to the ‘external’ transfers of businesses, and why it is important for business owners to consider both Business Exit Strategy alternatives.

Most business owners believe that an ‘external’ sale of their business is their only (or at least best) Exit Alternative.   Typically this is because business owners know that their employees and/or fellow family members don’t have the type of money required to secure a successful exit plan for them.  So often times,Guest Posting business owners approach (view or see) the topic of Exiting a business as meaning that they need to sell their business to an outside buyer with enough money to pay them what they want.

So while an ‘external’ sale is intuitively appealing, it’s my experience that an understanding of ‘internal’ transfers will help open up a very good dialogue with a business owner so that they can understand all their options and make a well informed decision.  In fact, analysis of an ‘internal’ transfer of the business can be a powerful alternative to a business owner looking for an Exit Strategy.  And, depending upon the business owner’s motives, it may be the best alternative available.

‘Internal’ transfers of ownership in a business are often times overlooked because they are not intuitively understood by the business owner and/or the business owner’s advisors.  So let’s examine some of the ‘internal’ transfer methods that are available to a business owner to illustrate the benefit of a well-conceived Exit Strategy.

‘Internal’ transfer methods include Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOP) Transfers, Management Buyouts (Sales to Family and Management), Gifting Strategies, Private Annuities, Family Limited Partnerships, and Charitable Transfer Strategies.  The three (3) primary differences between these ‘internal’ transfer alternatives versus (and the)  ‘external’ transfer alternatives are:

(i)                  the corporate assets, including future cash flows, are leveraged to achieve these strategies,

(ii)                the driving force behind these ‘engineered’ strategies is a business owner’s motive of passing the business to someone other than an outside buyer, and

(iii)               the business owners will frequently be considering tax planning and estate planning along with their Exit Strategies.  ‘Internal’ transfers, as a general rule, allow for more flexibility in these areas than ‘external’ transfers.

A business owner considering an ‘internal’ transfer can set the price and terms for the transfer and say to their family and/or management team, “Here is what I want/need for my business”.  For this reason, ‘internal’ transfers are often referred to as ‘controlled’ transactions because the business owner is working with ‘assets’ that they already possess in structuring their Exit from the business.  So if those ‘assets’ are sufficient to achieve that business owners’ goals (based on their motives), then it is worthwhile to examine an ‘internal’ transfer.

This is in sharp contrast to a business owner attempting an ‘external’ transfer because they are often subject to a process that includes outsiders investigating their potential investment in the ‘Target Company’ and then telling the business owners, “Here is what we are willing to give you for your business”.  So, the Exiting business owner can expect to lose quite a bit of control over the process.  And, because many business owners possess a unique psychological mix of independence, intelligence and control orientation, losing control to an outside buyer often leads to ‘choppiness’ in a deal.

Mergers and Acquisitions professionals will often advise business owners that if the business owner wants to set the price for the deal, then the outside buyer will be setting the terms for the deal.  A deal is struck when each party is ‘equally happy’.  Or, as one dealmaker said, every successful ‘external’ deal is a “little miracle”.  

So, one will naturally ask, “What’s the downside of an ‘internal’ transfer versus an ‘external’ transfer”?  Quite simply, negotiating with family members and key employees can be inherently dangerous.  These individuals (and their advisors) will require detailed and confidential information from the business owner in order to fully understand all the risks inherent in owning the business – really no different than the ‘external’ buyer.  And of course, most business owners are not anxious to share all their information with their employees; it goes against the nature of the relationship amongst workers and owners.

So then, how does one go about negotiating an ‘internal’ transfer?  The answer is “very carefully”.  And, the most cautious first step that a business owner can take is to engage an intermediary – which can be any one of the existing advisors to that business – to assist with the transaction.  Having trusted advisors involved in the process raises the level of objectivity and lowers the level of emotions when negotiating the transfer.

Because, after all, if the ‘internal’ transfer does not work out, it will not add a lot of Value to the business to have [further] frustrated employees due to that business owner’s own doing.  It’s easier to place blame for a failed transaction with a third party advisor so that all parties involved can amicably return to the business of running [and not transferring] the business.

Yet another downside to an ‘internal’ transfer is the loss of potential for extraordinary gain on the transfer.  As a general rule, ‘external’ buyers for businesses include ‘Strategic’ (or industry) buyers and ‘Financial’ (such as Private Equity Groups) buyers. 

A Strategic Buyer of a business stands to offer the selling business owner the highest total Value in buying the business because that buyer can apply ‘synergies’ to the valuation of the deal.  In other words, a buyer who is already in the same business as the seller, can eliminate duplicate expenses and acquire new customers for their existing products.  These ‘synergies’ help raise the Value of the transaction to the Industry buyer,  and a good M&A intermediary will argue for the sharing of those synergies with the selling business owner.  This synergistic value is likely not available with an ‘internal’ transfer.

So to summarize my original point, a business owner who wants to Exit their business should be aware of the various methods by which an Exit can be directed.  Thereafter, consideration should be given to that business owner’s motives.  In other words, what is most important to that Exiting business owner and how can it best be accomplished? 

An Exit Strategy is defined as ‘The written goals for the succession of a businesses’ ownership and control, derived from a well thought out and properly timed plan that considers all factors, all interested parties, and the personal goals of the owners in a manner and time period that is accommodative to the business, its shareholders, and potential buyers.’  Accordingly, knowing the pros and cons of ‘internal’ and ‘external’ transfers is a critical step in establishing an Exit Strategy.  

Exit Strategies are hard to design and even harder to properly execute.  I am pleased that you are pursuing a pro-active interest in Exit Strategies because a pro-active approach to an Exit Strategy is the only approach to a successful Exit Strategy.

© 2007 John M. Leonetti

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About Article Author

John M. Leonetti
John M. Leonetti

Specializing in Business Exit Strategies, John M. Leonetti, Esq., M.S. Finance, CM&AA founded Pinnacle Equity Solutions, Inc. to provide advisors with the tools they need to incorporate Business Exit Planning into their advisory practices. To learn more about John’s Exit Strategy Services and to receive a FREE copy of his special report, “How To Incorporate Exit Strategies Into Your Advisory Practice”, visit 

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