Could you sell your business during lockdown? You can if you communicate like this

By Jim James,

Founder EASTWEST PR and Host of the SPEAK|pr Podcast

Communication is a major aspect of every business. Exiting a company takes a great deal of skill in communication, and Brian Hill shares his expertise on just that. Brian founded a company called Jones Hill, which is a financial advisory service in the UK, and he recently sold his business in spite of lockdown and in spite of being 1,000 miles away from the buyer of his company. 

At Jones Hill, they had been working on a sale for a couple of years. As Brian says, they had kissed a lot of frogs along the way until they eventually found a buyer that would suit them. They had two main problems, the first of which was that he was living in Italy with his family, as they had left the UK in 2018. That meant that he was working from a distance. The other issue, of course, was the coronavirus. They were living in a regulated place called Lombardy, and they were very much in lockdown. They were 1,000 miles away from their business and trying to sell it, so it was a big, big challenge. Eventually, they did manage to find a way through this, and on the fourth of September, the deal was successfully transacted where they sold their business with 150 clients to another British company and with their staff remaining. 

The clients

The target audiences for Brian were the clients, the employees, and the company buying the business. They were working with a lot of people that they had to communicate with. What makes this such a fascinating SPEAK|pr story is that the clients are the ones Brian put first. He knew that he really needed to communicate with them from the perspective of, "What’s in it for them?" He made them the center of the story, and he shared with them how they were going to be better off after this transaction. And so, he made a point of sharing his news with them from their perspective.

He worked with Peter Rolliston of The Progress Shed, and they spent a lot of time crafting the messages so that it could be delivered in a way that they felt was most appropriate. They made a short three-minute video, and the video was just of Brian. He had a photograph of himself with his university mortarboard, his degrees, and with his parents, because he wanted to demonstrate that he’s going to be leaving the business to start his doctorate. He thought very carefully about the messaging by the way that the photography was profiled in the video. He also just used a regular handheld video. He didn’t want it to seem too posh or anything overly professional. He wanted to talk to the camera and to the clients as though they were one-on-one. He was in his home setting, and that was important, because he felt that that’s where his clients could relate to him, because they would also be at home watching this. The video was sent out on a Friday evening, and the next morning, the letters arrived from the business that had purchased his company. He had a video in advance, and then he had a letter the next day, so it was tightly organised with no gap over the weekend.

The perspective of the customer was always held central, and the feedback from the clients was excellent. There was no spectacular revolt. There was no concern that he was leaving the business and leaving them alone. They were all supportive of his move on to his doctorate, and the business were still, therefore, getting the clients. Another thing he had also worked on with Peter Rolliston was some FAQs. In both the video and the letter, they placed questions that they knew would be asked by the clients. They talked about things like whether people could still go to the Bradford Upon Avon offices, what’s happened to Brian, and more. There were around 20 questions and answers. They also offered the possibility of a meeting or a phone call with Brian if they wanted to, to make sure there’s continuity, because any kind of change or crisis management is all about business continuity. The main challenge for Brian was that he couldn’t see people because of lockdown, but video was a great way of overcoming that. Interestingly enough, lockdown was almost the perfect cover, because he was able to send 150 emails to people without needing to justify why he was sending them. He was careful not to use any alarmist words in the video or letter as well, and they made it a very calm, relaxing, and reassuring email.

The team

Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

In preparing the messaging for the team, the issue was that the staff knew they were in negotiations, and Brian knew that they needed to tell the team once the documents had been exchanged and the sale had been agreed upon, but due to lockdown, they didn’t know when that would be. They had already prepared a number of scenarios and lines that they were going to communicate with the staff, because the business was of value to the buyers because of the customers but also because of the people that were in place to look after those customers. And so, Brian and his advisory team put together some messages that would give the existing staff some reassurance. It was all well-planned. 

What was not planned for was when one of their members of staff said they had seen on a business broking website the Jones Hill business. It wasn’t named as such, but the size and the sector were detailed, and their staff member said, "There are only two companies like this in the whole of Bradford Upon Avon. Is that us?" Brian was put in an awkward position where he had to decide what to do there and then.  So, he went through the scenario with this member of staff, and he said, "This is what’s going to happen for you. This is the timing. This is what you can expect." He explained that he had managed to secure the client’s financial future and the jobs for the team. It was not going to be perfect timing to tell them like this, but he knew that once one person knew and once there were expectations out there, everybody had to know straight away.

Brian had been in the business for 15 years with a high profile in the profession, so for him to step back from the business and indeed go into another area altogether was, for the team and for the clients, quite a big surprise. Brian wanted to make sure that it was all managed as well as possible, so that the team members would stay with the company. He also wanted to ensure that they would stay on the same terms as though they had not had any break in service with Jones Hill. Brian managed to do that which is a credit to him, really, and also a sign of the importance of integrity, that a business owner has that duty of care to their employees and the business partners who have trusted him/her to lead them and to manage the business effectively. 

The buyer

Photo from Price Waiter

When it came to communication with the potential buyers, of which Brian mentioned there were around 29 companies that he spoke to over the three-year period of the transaction, he always made it a point to respond very quickly when he was asked for information. He made sure that he already had all the financial information well in place. He made sure that there were non-disclosure agreements in place as well, so that if anyone did have information, and of course, they would all be from the same industry in order to be interested in this, that there would be no leakage. Brian said that momentum was really the key. The second that they needed to get the information, he would share that, and he would keep things going with a timeline, so that the deal and the transaction didn’t drift. The key parts for him were the compliance, due diligence, and speed to ensure that the communication was done clearly, but with momentum that there was a known goal and timeline. 

When things were going slowly, they would say that the accountability and the decision of the delegation, of who had which tasks to do, was paramount, especially during lockdown when people were not coming to the office. They had to have this process clearly identified, the roles and responsibilities clearly identified, and the documentation to safeguard the privacy of the numbers they were sharing, as well as to make sure that they had enough disclosure that the other party could find out whether they did or did not really want to carry on with the business. If someone were to take the information and use it to their own ends, Brian said that would pretty much be professional suicide, because it’s such a small industry, and anybody that did take time or did take the materials away from the deal and didn’t delete them, as Brian asked them to do once they decided the deal was not for them, would be negligent.

The three audiences

The communication tracks of the three stakeholder groups that Brian had spoken with, his customers, his employees, and the potential buyers, were not sequential. They took place in parallel. The striking element about Brian’s descriptions of the work that he did was that he had the three tracks very clearly laid out. In the SPEAK|pr methodology, it talks about the need to address three different audiences: the internal, the partners, and the external. It also talks about personalisation of the message by identifying the avatars and looking at the different interest areas and the different kinds of people. The customers want to know that their money is safe. The employees want to know that their job is safe. The investors want to make sure that their investment is safe. Brian truly did a great job of having all of these scripts already in place with the help of technologies like MailChimp and YouTube to send out the video announcements to people. Brian understood that integrity was going to be a key part of the success of this whole negotiation. How he dealt with his customers would determine whether they would stay or leave. How he dealt with his staff would determine whether they would stay or leave or try to sabotage the deal. How he dealt with the investors would colour their interest in the investment. 

Brian dug deep and shared what the DNA of a sale or transaction communication is. Now, he is running a new business called Kinetics, which provides training to all professionals in nonverbal communications. In fact, he has postgraduate qualifications in that, and now he’s going on to do his doctorate. He’s also a ski instructor. He’s bilingual and was a former British Forces officer. Clearly, Brian is a man of many talents, one of which is knowing how to communicate during a commercial negotiation. So, if you’re in the midst of a transaction, I suggest you take some of Brian’s advice to heart and remember that above all, it’s integrity that really sells.

This article is based on a transcript from my Podcast SPEAK|pr, you can listen here.

Cover Photo from FTAdviser

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