Acquisitions: The perfect union

Chris Ingram has considerable experience of building and managing rapid-growth firms and is widely regarded as the inventor of the modern media agency. According to Ingram, buying a business is the easy bit - it's what you do after that counts.

‘Let’s assume that the business you have bought needs to be integrated with yours and that you want the management to stay. This is the highest-risk stage of the whole operation. You might destroy the business or unwittingly lose so much value at this stage that it’s soon worth much less than you paid for it. Don’t be surprised if you do – it’s what happens to three out of four business leaders. So, how do you maximise your chances of success?

‘Well, it isn’t easy, but I’ve worked in people businesses for more than 40 years and after a lot of deals, I’ve developed a 15-point process.

1. Start with a shared vision
Hopefully you already have a vision for your business. Now’s the time to revisit and refresh it.

It’s vitally important that, if the key people are staying in the acquired business, they buy into your vision rather than feeling they’ve sold out. This process should have started in the courtship stage when you were starting to persuade the owners to sell to you.

2. Shared empowerment
Any successful leader who wants to grow something big has to learn not just to delegate, but to empower his key people.

This spirit of empowerment must be applied to the incoming executives. However, if your business is successful, there’s no way you are going to hand it over immediately to people who’ve not proved themselves to you, even if they’ve been successful elsewhere. The trick is to create teams at every opportunity that are deliberately a mix of their people and yours.

3. Create a common identity
If the company is joining your group, but is not being physically merged, you need to try to get the best of both worlds – their brand name and reputation in that market, but with a clear demonstration that they have joined your group. Of course, if they have a stronger brand than yours, then you must be prepared to convert to theirs.

4. Integrated marketing
All material: press releases, brochures, credentials, websites, and so on must flag the new acquisition, embracing it as much as possible. This is a quick win. It needs to be a priority.

5. Internal familiarisation
Executives in the companies need to know each other’s people and services/products. This can be done quickly, for example via an email newsletter, but with the aim of developing an intranet. The idea is that newcomers feel part of your family.

6. Movement of people
The movement of people between offices is an essential part of creating a common culture. There is no better way for your executives to understand each other’s perspective.

7. Shared services
Here, you are looking for services that have been developed by each company to see which ones may be suitable for introducing into the other. An integrated team (‘their’ people and ‘yours’) must be put together to do this.

You may also look to this team to propose new services drawing on the best of each company.

8. Shared processes
What can you learn from each other to make your businesses more efficient? Again, this is a task for an integrated team.

9. Shared pitches
The vast majority of acquisitions are done in order to be more competitive in their marketplace; to attract more business.

In that case, if the action is taken as above, then you will be ready to pitch for more and/or bigger clients. This is great team-building; winning, and even losing, together.

10. Shared clients and projects
At this stage, any additional business that can be won from existing clients by working together has a totally disproportionate benefit; morale leaps and newcomers quickly become an accepted part of the team.

11. Shared rewards
Bonuses and other rewards need to be integrated and, even though the absolute numbers may be different, the principal and pro rata benefit should be the same. However, an extra bonus should be paid to those who successfully cross-sell across group companies.

This will send out a very clear message to all your execs: ‘Think “group” and
help each other if you really want to get on here.’

12. Shared success
Celebrate success very visibly, particularly anything that one of the integrated teams has done.

13. Shared ownership
If you want senior people to think beyond their own business, there is no better way than giving them a sense of involvement in the whole business. In the last two businesses I’ve started, I’ve had share option schemes from a very early stage and ensured that executives had share options in the parent company. There is no clearer way to show that we are all in this together.

Note that there’s one thing you don’t ‘share’ and that’s the finance function – there can only be one boss and you bought them, not the other way round.

14. Common culture
If you have done all the previous steps you will find that you have created a common culture in your organisation that now extends across and includes the acquired business.

15. The right attitude
Let’s assume that you have instilled the right attitude in your own company. The fear is that there are a group of cynics in the acquired company who belittle all initiatives and assume they’re going to fail.

You have to find these people out and break them up (or fire them) – left in a group, they are lethal. This is a vital by-product of having project groups mixing up the personnel in your company with the acquired business.

See also: Financing the purchase of a small business – Here, we provide some options for people thinking about buying an existing company.


John Bromley

John Bromley is Head of Digital Media at Vitesse Media plc.

Related Topics

Mergers & Acquisitions

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