Is It Time to Close Shop?

May 17, 2023
Thinking about selling your shop? Here’s what the process might look like.

When Marty Long opened Hills and Dales Auto Care in Canton, Ohio, his focus was on building a business based on honesty, integrity and ethics.  

Long previously ran a service facility for a larger auto chain, which he felt didn’t live up to those principles. “They were pretty ruthless with their labor rate … A lot of it just didn’t feel ethical,” he says. So, Hills and Dales Auto Care was born.  

And when it came time for Long to begin the process of selling his business—he had always intended to step away after 25 years, after his current lease ended and his daughter was out of college—those principles continued to be a guide.  

Whoever would take his place had to be the right person for the job, someone who would take care of his employees, treat his customers right and take care of business responsibly.  

Long eventually found the right fit, and after months of meetings, months of negotiation and months of working through the legal paperwork, Long sold his business — a few years ahead of his May 2025 out date.  

“The numbers were right, so I decided I’d take an early out,” he says.  

Long always intended to sell his shop when the time was right, but deciding to sell the business—and when—can be murky for many shop owners. It can be an arduous process that can be difficult to navigate, but there are many indicators to tell that it’s the right time.  

What's Your Situation

Ron Ipach, the co-founder of Maverick Shop Owner and a longtime industry coach, describes a few different types of owners looking to sell: There’s the shop owner who finds out that owning a business just isn’t for them.  

There’s the owner who’s struggling to stay afloat. And there’s the owner like Long, who had a successful and profitable business but has decided that it’s time for a new chapter. 

Your situation, in part, dictates your options when it comes time to sell.  

But before any of that, Ipach recommends that an owner should take some time away when they’re considering selling. Make sure it’s what you really want, and not a decision made on impulse.  

When times are tough, it’s natural to look for an escape, and it can make it easy to walk away. But it’s crucial to come to a decision that’s best for everyone long term.  

'Get Your Books in Order'

 Selling a business can be a learning experience, and among the things Long learned through the process was to make sure you know your numbers. He says you have to be able to show a profitable business. You can’t pocket all the cash you’re making or have liens on your equipment. Take care of your vendors and ensure you don’t have outstanding money owed. 

Ipach agrees with that assessment. “You got to get your books in order because, as somebody who’s in the process of buying businesses, you want to know the health of this business, so I can make an offer,” he says.  

Ipach also notes the importance of normalizing your profit and loss statements, including avoiding using the business to pay for personal things like your phone bill. Any costs that could potentially reduce your profits can devalue your business as its valuation is based on a multiple of profit.  

 “If your business is not doing well or it’s been going downhill, you’re just not going to get a lot of money,” Ipach says.  

 You have to be able to show that’s not the case.  

Take Your Time

Long’s search for a buyer was directed by his principles. He had to know any potential buyer was above board and didn’t have any red flags. When going through the process, he’d regularly have lunch with his eventual buyer to ensure he’d be the right fit.  

“I would grill him, and you know, I call it dating because it’s like I just want to make sure,” Long says. “And after a couple of months, two or three months of meeting, I could tell he was a good guy and he was gonna do the right thing for my employees and the right thing for my customers.”  

“It’s all about relationships when it’s time to sell,” he adds. “You just have to start asking good quality people if they know anybody that’s interested in buying.” 

For Long, it was his accountant who directed him toward his eventual buyer. 

And remember, it’s not a race to the finish. Ipach says the typical timeframe for a sale should be three to five years. You take time to consider the decision, vet potential buyers and, perhaps most importantly, make sure your numbers are where they need to be.  

“I always suggest to everybody that you start marketing like crazy and build your business so it’s never looked better and more attractive to the potential buyer,” Ipach says.  

Telling Your Team

Once the decision is made comes an important step: telling your employees and making sure they’re taken care of. 

When Long was going through the sales process, he wanted to make sure his employees were hearing it from him and not through the grapevine. That was in part because it came as a surprise, as Long was always very open about his timetable of intending to sell around May of 2025 when in reality it came about two-and-a-half years earlier.  

Long’s sale was a good example of a success story: All of his employees stayed after the ownership switched hands.  

Like Long, most owners would like to ensure their employees will be taken care of. A benefit of working in the auto industry, at least in the current market, Ipach says, is that potential buyers are likely to retain a majority, if not all, of the current staff.  

Ipach notes the demand for techs, and even front-of-office staff and service advisors, is so great that any employees who would need to find new employment after a sale, should it go that route, would pretty quickly find a new opportunity.  

Lessons Learned

After selling your business, there are always going to be things you’ll see in hindsight. When you’re no longer in the thick of it, it’s easier to see things through a different len, and oftentimes owners may ask themselves why they didn’t do this or that.  

It can turn into guilt or regret; an owner might go down a rabbit hole of ideas, seeing all the things they could have done to improve the business once they’re out of the everyday grind. They could even have been simple things.  

The lessons learned are going to be different for every shop owner. Some may learn that they don’t want to be a business owner ever again and would rather work for a paycheck. Others may have loved being a business owner but were in the wrong line of work.  

Sometimes, it’s just time to sell. And that’s OK.  

“One of the things I tell people is: ‘Don’t feel like a failure if you have to close the doors and get out of business,’” Ipach says. “Because, as the saying goes … ‘Failure is an event, it’s not a person.’” 

And sometimes, it’s not a failure at all. In Long’s case, he always knew the day would come when he’d sell his business, and he found the right person at the right time, even if he had expected to be owning and running his shop for a few more years. 

While he’s no longer dealing with the everyday grind, he remains involved at Hills and Dales Auto Care as a consultant for the new owner.  

It’s a change. And while change can be nerve-wracking—it’s natural to be fearful of the unknown—a lot of the time it can be for the better.  

“It’s really odd. It’s really different. You know, it’s hard stepping down and not being the guy in charge,” Long says. “But it’s—between myself and the new owner, we have a really, really good working relationship. And you know, it’s just a perfect—it’s a perfect situation for the both of us.”  

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