Remote working challenged buyers and sellers to get acquainted with each other online, leading to several deals being struck
For sellers, entering discussions for a company to be acquired can be a lot like entering the dating market.
If the early stages of M&A can be likened to courtship, then Volaris Group has always seen itself as looking for committed, long-term relationship. Compared to other suitors, like private equity or venture capital firms, Volaris vows to take a strategic-long term view of businesses it acquires, and hold companies forever after buying.
Despite the restrictions caused by the pandemic, Volaris managed to close more than 20 acquisitions in 2020. But during a time when buyers and sellers had no choice but to work remotely, helping sellers reach the stage where they felt comfortable saying “I do” was uniquely challenging.
Building relationships virtually
An initial roadblock came at the onset of the pandemic, when nearly everyone was coping with the impact of mass pandemic restrictions and absorbing abrupt changes in day-to-day business. This meant that ongoing M&A discussions required major adjustment from buyers and sellers, who were accustomed to having some conversations in person.
“Hands down, the absolute best way to get to know a prospect is over dinner and drinks,” says Trey Drake, Group President at AssetWorks. “That informal, almost familial setting allows an unguarded, easy opportunity for both sides to get a sense of each other. Sometimes a seller will invite his wife or close friend, and it's always an interesting interaction when you’re meeting more than just the CEO, but also the folks that person surrounds themselves with, which tells you a lot about them.”
He says mastering the art of virtual relationship-building took time.
“Initially, it just seemed so foreign and strange to move those aspects of the conversation online—I'm a Gen Xer, so I never did online dating or any of that. I wanted to be in front of that person,” Drake recalls.
From being acquired, to acquiring during COVID
Jay Hoffman, Group Leader at Volaris Group looks back on his own journey selling his company to Volaris, and says there was a marked difference in how his own experience compared to his acquisition of Charity Dynamics, which closed remotely during the pandemic in 2020.
“Comparing the experience to when my own company was acquired by Volaris close to nine years ago, the acquisition team came to where I was in New York. We went out for lunch. I met the person that I would eventually report to. That was great because over the course of the visit, I realized I really liked the team and we could have a good relationship,” he remembers.
“But during COVID, we weren’t able to meet prospects in person, so we had to create that same feeling.”
To meet that challenge, Hoffman’s team held several meetings via Zoom calls to get acquainted with Charity Dynamics CEO Kathy Kempff and her staff. Kempff says that approach worked well.
“Through these calls, our team became comfortable with the overall approach and proposed transition plan. Once we got closer to the due diligence stage, we were able to align on how the acquisition was going to unfold and ensure that we had a smooth transition,” Kempff says.
Strengthening online interactions during COVID-19
Matt O’Donovan, CEO of WiFi SPARK, is another owner-operator who agreed to join Volaris during the pandemic.
“What Volaris did especially well was consistent and regular communication. I had dialogue regularly with the M&A team, who would phone me up just to ask ‘How are you doing?’” says O’Donovan.
“The reassurance and affirmation every step of the way ensured that we never felt lonely, and I was really made to feel that there was no such thing as a stupid question, and nothing was too much trouble,” he says. “It’s been a really good experience.”
Despite these adjustments, Hoffman and others, like Lumine Group’s Vice President of Business Development Elliot Yunger, say the key value propositions of Volaris still shone through to prospects.
“It’s our ecosystem of customers, partners and employees that prospective sellers can tap right into to help accelerate their growth,” says Yunger. “That's the number one reason why people choose Lumine Group.”
But Yunger says the COVID environment necessitated their move to put more marketing materials online because prospects were doing more of their own research.
Similarly, Drake’s team invested in improving online marketing by creating personalized landing pages for prospects using account-based marketing tactics.
“We’ve done a better job pushing out content that helps prospects understand we’re a different kind of acquirer. We've leaned in to content that provides some self-service to help people more easily find answers to questions they have.”
“The reassurance and affirmation every step of the way ensured that we never felt lonely, and I was really made to feel that there was no such thing as a stupid question, and nothing was too much trouble.”
- Matt O'Donovan, CEO, WiFi SPARK
Other leaders within Volaris have experimented with virtual alternatives to in-person events.
“We’ve held some virtual beer evenings, as a replacement for what we would usually do, eating good food in different parts of the UK. We’ve had great take-up—I think there was only one person out of all the invites that couldn’t make it,” says Rob Turner, Group Leader at Volaris and Group Leader of Kinetic Software.
Turner also points to the fireside CEO sessions conducted where his team brought on industry experts in the education vertical, which were well-received.
Planning for a return to travel post-pandemic
Many are looking forward to the return of some travel, which is crucial for what can’t replicated via video call.
“It's a bit like how people say the real work happens in the corridors, not in the meeting room,” says Turner. “In a normal situation with face-to-face interaction, you can see people’s body language, and understand what they’re comfortable with or need a better understanding of.”
Lawrence Rosedale, Director of M&A at AssetWorks agrees that creating an emotional connection is key.
“Sellers ask themselves: Is this person generally someone I can trust, someone I can relate to and understand and work with daily? Is this a work environment that is going to be fun? Am I going to enjoy developing my business here?” he explains. “If you can't chat in anything other than a formal business environment, that’s difficult to evaluate.”
"I always say to prospects—this is a forever marriage. The worst thing we could do is for both sides to get hitched without really getting to know each other very well."
- Trey Drake, Group President, AssetWorks
Despite a yearning for the return of travel across the board, many leaders say that some of the travel in the early stages of a deal could be scaled down to allow both sellers and buyers to focus on other crucial aspects of reaching a deal.
The beginning of forever
If making a deal is like a marriage, leaders within Volaris emphasize that their support for sellers and their businesses won’t disappear after the courtship is over and the deal is done.
“I always say to prospects—this is a forever marriage,” says Drake. “The worst thing we could do is for both sides to get hitched without really getting to know each other very well.”
“To make the business successful, post-transaction, we want hints that partnership is going to work. So I equally want somebody that's in this forever, who wants that commitment and long-term outlook.”
Key tips for sellers during COVID-19:
Turn on your video to get virtual face time with prospective buyers.
Attend virtual events, just as you would in real life.
Virtual communication doesn’t mean less information or dialogue. Ask for support or clarification from prospective buyers when you need it.
Don’t be afraid to express any concerns to help the person on the other end understand your position.
Discuss plans to meet in person post-pandemic, once travel restrictions ease.