|This month’s Courtside Stories takes us to the bucolic town of Steamboat Springs, CO where a local entrepreneur leveraged his business acumen, empathy and leadership skills to make a strategic acquisition of a complementary business. While the reasoning behind the acquisition was quite clear, the path to a successful close and post acquisition integration was anything but. Keep reading to learn how patience, emotional intelligence and the advice of a special advisor helped Chris Edwards build a sustainable competitive advantage, improve employee morale and create a more profitable enterprise.
Affordable Flooring Warehouse (AFW) was purchased by Chris Edwards about two years ago. While new to the home improvement industry, Chris worked in consulting and private equity prior to acquiring AFW in 2020. He’s a passionate entrepreneur and was drawn to the opportunity of creating a profitable home improvement enterprise in Steamboat Springs, a city poised for rapid growth in the coming years.
Affordable Flooring Warehouse sells a variety of flooring products to both retail and wholesale customers. AFW’s neighbor is Granite Haus (GH), a provider of custom countertops. The two organizations frequently worked together to serve customers throughout the Steamboat Springs community. Employees overlapped between the two organizations and the co-owner of Granite Haus is related to the previous owner of Affordable Flooring Warehouse. This close relationship between the two organizations provided Chris with a vantage point to see both the potential of closer integration and a close up look at the issues that were inhibiting growth and prosperity at Granite Haus.
The positives were easy to spot. Granite Haus had a dedicated workforce and a capable installation manager. However, the relationship between the installation manager and owner was tenuous at best, and the organization was poorly run from an operational perspective. Tensions were high and many employees reported low morale at work.
Chris started to think about a potential acquisition of Granite Haus. The benefits of a well-structured deal were immediately apparent. From a cost savings perspective, integrating the flooring and granite operations would yield savings on labor, software and administrative fees. In addition, the new entity would be differentiated from competitors focusing solely on granite or flooring offerings. Profitability enhancements through the bundling products and services to common customers were another driver. Chris also saw the potential for Granite Haus to thrive under new leadership.
Chris knew the co-owner was open to selling and that he was the most logical buyer. However, he also knew an aggressive approach would backfire. The owner took a lot of pride in his role at Granite Haus and might perceive a hostile bid as an impeachment of his capabilities. So Chris used this time to focus on what he could control, and put his energy into growing AFW. He maintained his close relationship with GH’s installation manager and looked for opportunities to partner with Granite Haus whenever he could. About six months after the sale of AFW, Granite Haus’s co-owner approached Chris to discuss the possibility of selling his 50% ownership stake.
“A Shock Absorber, Not A Shock Amplifier”
Unfortunately, the initial conversations did not go well. Granite’s owner led with his emotions and insisted on a valuation that was way above market. When Chris countered with what he believed to be a more fair number, the owner got upset and resorted to yelling and name calling. During one particularly heated conversation, he called Chris a “predatory capitalist” and stormed out of the room. In Chris’ own words, “the seller is/was a highly emotional and inexperienced person. Needless to say, there were moments where I thought the deal was going to fall apart. He was asking way too much money and didn’t have realistic expectations”.
Although it was difficult, Chris maintained a level head and relied on his emotional intelligence and the sage advice of his wife to keep the negotiation moving in a positive direction. According to Chris, his wife “…was critical to helping me think through the acquisition process. She helped advise me on the negotiation process and personalities involved in making it work”.
For Chris, persistence eventually paid off. After nine months of on-again, off-again negotiations, the two parties reached a deal. Chris was now a 50% owner in Granite Haus.
A lot of acquisition stories end at the close of the deal. However, for Chris, the hard work was just beginning. He was now an owner of a struggling business with no long term growth plan, poor operational performance and low employee morale. So, how did he turn the corner?
o que achas?
Chris started by building strong relationships with his employees. Given the majority of his workforce was Brazilian, Chris brushed up on his Portuguese, learning a few basic phrases (including o que achas, which means “What do you think?”) and made a concerted effort to connect with his team. He often asked their opinion on operational issues and was frequently impressed with their suggestions. He also worked hard to build trust with the installation manager, whom he viewed as critical to the long-term viability of the business. By leading with empathy and treating his team with the respect they deserved, the situation improved quickly. Employees embraced the changes that led to enhanced profitability with an open mind. Those who contributed to the success of the business were praised and rewarded. With the help of his rejuvenated team, Chris rewrote the standard operating procedures for all aspects of the company, which has led to increased customer service, reduced waste and greater profitability.
A few months in, things are much better at Granite Haus, but Chris isn’t taking a victory lap. He’s still focused on improving operations, acquiring new customers and growing his team. He’s currently building out his management team and will be looking for additional acquisition opportunities as soon as he believes he has the management capability to support new growth.
While the Granite Haus acquisition is certainly a success story in every aspect, I believe the learnings from this case go beyond M&A. Any leader looking to improve their organization could learn from Chris. My personal takeaways from Chris’s story include:
- Patience is always a virtue, but even more so in business. You can’t force a seller to sell before they are ready. You can’t force a buyer to purchase your product before they are ready. Waiting for the right timing, and letting the deal come to you can make the difference between a successful and unsuccessful outcome.
- Emotional intelligence is crucial at all times, but especially during a negotiation. When emotions get charged you have to be a shock absorber, and not get derailed by personal insults, bad language and other unprofessional conduct.
- In stressful times, having a trusted advisor is critical. In our story, Chris was able to discuss his frustrations with his wife, and her sound advice helped him navigate a stressful negotiation. Whether it’s a spouse, friend, CPA, or other trusted advisor, having a sounding board helps leaders stay focused during stressful times.
- The best leaders always treat their employees with respect. They ask for advice, share information freely and ensure their team feels appreciated. Simple gestures like saying thank you, calling out exceptional customer service and/or rewarding employee suggestions go a long way towards creating a culture that supports the growth of the organization.
The G-Spire Group helps companies grow through acquisition. If you are looking for a trusted partner to facilitate the acquisition process, let’s talk!