Shifting Gears from Selling Your Business to Merging

MarkKingsdorfBy Mark Kingsdorf, MBC™, ABC Florida state coordinator, Clermont, Fla.

Several years ago, I made a very personal decision to make a long-term plan to relocate, slow life down a little bit and move away from being a business owner. As a sole proprietor, as many independent planners are, I found there were very few options of what to do with the business, since, in many cases, sole proprietors are the business.
I had no interest in closing my business and, as most of our team loved planning but did not love the business side of it, looking to them to take over the company was not a great option. Merging, however, became a very viable option when I found the right partner.  For me, the perfect option was right under my nose and happened quite by accident after a casual conversation with a wedding professional with whom we had a great working relationship. As we shifted gears and began to merge, we learned some very valuable lessons about the right way to merge.

Find the right fit
When looking at merging two companies, whether with another wedding planner or, in my case, with a décor and special event planning company, you need to find someone who complements your services and your personal business style. Many of us became wedding planners because we have an entrepreneurial spirit—we like thinking for ourselves and making our own decisions without discussing with a partner. Your business is your life, your baby. You gave birth to the idea, developed a brand identity, grew the marketing and visibility, and developed relationships. Turning it over to any random person is out of the question. In my case, merging with a third generation, family-run décor company who had done many corporate, nonprofit, and non-wedding event planning was the perfect complement. We had referred many clients to them for wedding décor and worked with them on numerous events, so I knew the quality of their work and I also knew that the owner’s temperament, personality, and values were complementary to my own. I knew that she would take care of my “baby,” would care for my team and my brand just as I had. We were a good fit.

Define the roles and procedures
This was actually easier than we thought it might be. My company had such a strong, widely recognized brand that the decision was made to keep it intact. The name, logo, and branding remained as the wedding planning division of the larger company. We also decided that, while we could offer the convenience of full-service décor to our wedding planning clients, it would never be a prerequisite. Clients would always have the option to work with whichever decorator in the region they chose. While this might sound counterproductive, we knew that many of our clients were referrals from previous clients and other wedding professionals in the region. That means that they may come with an existing relationship with another decorator.  We, as independent planners, had more than a decade of solid relationships with decorators across the region, and we wanted to preserve those.

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In essence, many of the administrative, accounting, and financial elements of my planning business moved over to the parent company. All incoming inquiries, intake interviews, contracts, billing, client payments, and payroll were handled by an administrative function of the parent company, along with some great internal support. Having a parent company with an internal graphic designer, floral design studio, as well as internal props and linen rentals became a huge perk when it came to creating ads, visual displays for bridal shows, and dressing up meeting spaces. All day-to-day sales meetings, staffing, training of interns and assistants, client interaction by planners, wedding-day execution duties, social media and blogging remained intact and relatively unchanged. Fortunately, because of very similar brand vision and business values, the decisions regarding marketing and advertising seemed to flow seamlessly. Co-marketing was a great way to brand ourselves as a tour de force in planning and event design.

Look for added benefits
Other huge perks of the merge were the opportunity for our team, which previously focused on planning only, to offer clients invitation services, gift bags, and favors as the parent company has a retail sales license. Additionally, planners were able to gain experience by cross-training in floral design and production as well as planning and execution of corporate events, large festivals, and smaller social events on which we had never previously focused.

The important part of a merge is finding a company with a compatible vision, with whom you can communicate openly and who offers a compatible service so you can divide responsibilities and establish policies and procedures. As in growing any relationship, there is give and take. You need to give up a little of your solo identity but, hopefully, the benefits outweigh the independence you give up. When merging, proceed with caution.

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