I can sell my businesses for more money than I ever thought possible. But then who will I be?
I can sell my businesses for more money than I ever thought possible. But then who will I be?
It's odd what happens when you've been in business as long as I have. The company becomes a part of your identity, even your personality. You're no longer quite sure where the business ends and you begin. I'm talking about you the individual, the person your mother gave birth to, the human being that exists apart from what you do. You don't know where the boundary lies between that individual and the business you've created. In fact, you're not even sure there is a boundary. You start to wonder, is the business me or am I my own person?
Such thoughts have been on my mind lately as I contemplate the possibility of selling my three businesses. I was 36 years old when I started the delivery business in 1979 and 47 when I launched the records storage business in 1990. I began that one with a single truck and 27 boxes that a customer had asked me to store for him. Today we have a fleet of almost 100 trucks, and we store more than three million boxes in seven warehouses on the Brooklyn waterfront. When people come to see us for the first time, they can't believe their eyes. They are overwhelmed by the sight of the boxes stacked up, row upon row, all the way to the ceiling almost 60 feet off the ground. "You built all of this from scratch?" they ask, and I'm reminded of what it took to get there. There are a lot of stories behind those boxes, and when I look back, I feel a certain anxiety at the thought of separating from the business. What will be left of me if I no longer own it?
You may find all of this a little surprising if you know me only through these columns. After all, I do have an identity outside the business. In some ways, it may be stronger than my identity inside the business. In fact, I often run into readers who have no idea what business I'm in. Some don't even know that I'm in business. They think I'm a writer. "I read your stuff all the time," they say. They're amazed when they drop by my place and discover I have a substantial company that takes up most of my time. But for me, the column is an enjoyable sideline. It's not who I am. Losing it would not give me an identity crisis. Losing the business would be another matter.
Part of the problem is not knowing what I'll do if I do sell the business. I certainly won't retire. I would be miserable if I did. I don't play golf, and I already do all the fishing, skiing, and traveling I want to do. I'll continue my pro bono work, advising people who are trying to start or build businesses, and I might get involved financially in a venture or two, but I will never call myself a "consultant" or an "investor" as a lot of retirees do when they stop working. They're asked, "What do you do now?" and they don't want to tell the truth--that they do nothing. Me? I'd rather say, "I do nothing." You will never see the words consultant or investor next to my name.
Not that I intend to do nothing. It's just that I don't know what the something will be, and that's a little unnerving. In the short term, I'll no doubt keep working at the company. The people who buy it would want me to stick around for a couple of years after the sale, and I'm willing to give it a try. But, beyond that, I'm just not sure what I'll do. I could imagine myself starting another business. Or I might develop one of the ideas we've had in the past--like setting up a real estate investment trust made up of properties like mine. Meanwhile, I have a book in the works with my co-author, Bo Burlingham. I'd like to keep writing this column and doing some public speaking, but how much credibility will I have if I'm not running a business anymore? I wonder about that.
Given all these concerns, some people will ask, "So why not just keep the business?" It's not as if I have to sell it. I'm in good health. I love what I do. I enjoy my life as it is. I work with great people. I have the time and the resources to do whatever I feel like doing. I have spent a lifetime getting to this point. Why throw it away?
That's a good question. Is it just about the money? I don't think so. I already have all the money I'll need for the rest of my life and then some. This decision would actually be easier if I did need the money. Years ago, when I first began contemplating the possibility of selling the business, I came up with a number that I thought would give me and my family absolute financial security. I've already put that amount in the bank. If the deal goes through, I'll wind up with much more money than I'll ever be able to spend on myself and my loved ones. So, for the first time in my life, I'll have to make a major decision in which money is not the principal consideration. That's very disorienting. With money as the yardstick, you can measure how you're doing. Dealing with identity is much trickier. I find myself spending a good deal of time daydreaming--thinking about how it would feel not to have the business anymore.
I'll give you an example. A couple of months ago, my wife, Elaine, and I went to a Frankie Valli concert sponsored by my friend Marty Markowitz, the Brooklyn borough president. He seated us in the third row, right behind the Brooklyn police chief and his wife. We greeted one another warmly. The chief and I are friends. He attends the party I give every Fourth of July, which winds up with the spectacular fireworks display that Macy's puts on right across the East River from my property. As I sat there behind him at the concert, I couldn't help thinking that his life may change after he retires. I mean, he's a really great guy, and everybody likes him. Although people in his position don't make a huge amount of money, they have a lot of power and command a lot of respect. But when he's no longer the chief, he may not get the same treatment. He may not be seated in the second row anymore. And then I thought, "Oh, man, is that what's going to happen to me when I sell my business?" That's the frightening part: going from a somebody to a former somebody. I guess it has to do with the prestige you have and the respect you get when you're the guy in charge. Anybody who knows me will tell you, I have to be in charge. How would it feel if I weren't?
When I'm in that frame of mind, I say to myself, "Omigod, look what I'd give up!" And yet, I have to admit I'm considering the current offer much more seriously than I did any of the previous ones. Why? I can come up with a number of solid, rational reasons. To begin with, the buyers are good people who would keep the culture we've created; in fact, they say they want to import our culture into the rest of their company. They would also be buying all three companies, which solves the problem of what to do with the delivery business. The money is at the high end of the range of possible prices. The timing seems pretty good from a number of different perspectives. Elaine's feelings are a factor as well. She really hopes the sale will go through because she has other things she wants to do in life, though she recognizes that the decision has to be mine. If selling the business makes me miserable, her life will be miserable as well.
But I actually feel okay about the future when I'm not focusing on what I'd lose by doing the deal. Like most entrepreneurs, I'm an optimist. I think things generally turn out for the better. Although it sometimes takes a while to get there, I know from experience that even bad things can lead to good long-term consequences if you're willing to persevere. So I'm really not frightened by the unknown. I tend to see it as an adventure. Granted, it's easier to take that view when you're financially secure. Then again, even when you have money, there's always change to contend with, and change is inherently scary. It creates problems. It disrupts lives and businesses. Yet change is also inevitable. You can't avoid it, no matter how much you might want to. Indeed, by trying to avoid it, or by ignoring it, you leave yourself vulnerable to the worst possible outcomes. You're much better off trying to anticipate it, and then embracing it.
I'm at a stage in my life where I can see some big changes approaching. I also know that my business is nearing a major crossroads as well. If I don't sell it, I'll have to figure out very soon what to do when we run out of space in our warehouses late next year. In addition, I'll have to deal with the city's plan to turn my land into a park at some point. It could happen next week, or it could happen 20 years from now, but I know it will happen eventually, and--when it does--whoever owns the business will be responsible for moving it to another location, which will call for creating a whole new business, a moving business. I'd prefer that to be someone else's problem instead of mine.
So, in a way I really want to do the sale, and in a way I really don't. I'm about as conflicted as a person can be. Of course, the issue may yet resolve itself if the would-be buyers change their minds, or if they can't raise the money they would need to complete the deal. For now at least, I'm inclined to stand back and let events take their course, waiting to see if the moment arrives when I have to make a decision. What will it be? I have no idea. What would you do? You can give your opinion by writing to shouldNormsell@inc.com.
Norm Brodsky (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a veteran entrepreneur whose six businesses include a three-time Inc. 500 company. His co-author is editor-at-large Bo Burlingham.