Julie Levi, founder and Co-President of Progressive Promotions, a WBENC-Certified promotional merchandise agency, offers advice on how to build a successful exit strategy and maximize the value of your women-owned business.
Like you, my business is my baby. I started it in college and for the next 34 years grew it into a global, award-winning creative promotional merchandise agency serving blue chip customers including American Express, KraftHeinz, and TEVA.
WBENC Certification and the supplier diversity community helped to fuel this growth, and we value these relationships highly. When it came time to prepare for an exit strategy, finding a buyer who understood this value was an integral part of my plan.
Before I could create a plan, however, there were some important questions I needed to answer. First, did I want to step back completely or just change my role to something less than 24/7? Were my children interested in taking over the business or I did I need to look for an outside strategy? How in the world was I going to tackle that process? And what, really, was my company worth? How was I going to protect my biggest financial asset, and plan for my future?
Know your worth – and use a professional. This can be your accountant, a company that specializes in business valuations, or an investment banker. When business owners value themselves, the standard deviation can be 60% 
Get your house in order. Shore up and document your processes and systems, for an easy transition to new ownership. I had to take a deep look the into the internal workings of my company and make sure that:
- The company was not dependent on me. It was essential to train my team to step up and be more engaged and independent and to have them manage the front-line client relationships.
- Our processes were all up to date and documented to ensure someone stepping in could take over seamlessly – this included financial records, employee handbooks and operational processes.
- We didn’t have “all our eggs in one basket.” Client diversification was necessary in order to reduce risk. What if we lost our biggest client? How much of the overall revenues did this client represent?
- Our unique strategic advantage (USA) was clearly defined as a differentiator from our thousands of competitors.
- Our bottom line was fully maximized. Buyers are looking at the profit not the gross sales, so scrubbing our excess expenses and becoming lean and mean was essential.
Target your type of buyer, but not too narrowly. I also wanted to hold true to being a certified women-owned company. I was approached by many people who wanted to buy Progressive Promotions, but they did not share my core values and they didn’t want to keep my employees – they were going to bring in their own management teams.
Finding a potential partner that will value – not devalue – your women-owned status can be a challenge.
My goals were to remain true to our core values – being women-owned, keeping my employees intact, staying on in a leadership position and spending my time doing what I love, bringing in and growing enterprise level accounts. Therefore, I was only talking to buyers who were willing to do those things. Who had the foresight to see the huge upside potential Progressive Promotions had if backed by a larger organization?
Our growing clients were requiring more sophisticated data security systems, greater global presence, more warehousing and fulfilment programs and constantly changing tech requirements. We had the brand name and clients would benefit from these expanded services.
Eventually we decided to join forces with Consolidated Marketing Services (CMS). Lead by powerhouse Charleen Smotrycz, I knew PPI could grow exponentially. We shared a vision of partnership and a deep understanding that our combined entities would help us grow, not only existing corporate client relationships, but also bring on tons of huge new ones. It has only been two months since we closed on the deal and I can honestly say it was a great decision. I love being Co-President and sharing my years of expertise with our new team and welcoming a new way of looking at our business. I know that WBENC has been an amazing resource for me and now, in the end, I am thrilled to be able to stay on and become one of the largest women-owned promotional merchandise companies in the industry.