Floating the company you founded on the stock market is the dream of many entrepreneurs. After all, what’s not to like? You can free yourself from the grind if you want, make lots of capital to reinvest, own shares that could be worth millions in the future, and potentially see your business go on to new heights.
But many great founders have resisted the temptation; entrepreneurs such as Johan H. Andresen founder of the Ferd Group, Andrew Nisbet founder of The Nisbet Trust and Fernando Simões, CEO of family-firm the JSL Group. All doubtless had the opportunity to go public, but for various reasons decided to keep their businesses privately owned.
Here are just three reasons to think twice about floating your business, however tempting it might seem.
You’re at the mercy of your shareholders
It might seem obvious but when you float you effectively lose control of your business and almost every big decision becomes subject to shareholder approval. This is a significant issue and most privately held companies understate the impact. It’s worth being very clear in your mind before you float that shareholders often have a very different view of how the company should develop in order to turn a profit.
Many companies that float have been turning a good profit for years but suddenly they have a whole new set of pressures to deliver short term. Most shareholders, certainly the smaller individual investors, want to see returns quickly, and they have considerable power to veto many strategic decisions that are designed for steady long-term growth.
This can undermine cash flow and reduce overall profits. As a private businesses, this is not such an issue. But when you have a bad year as a PLC everyone will know about it, which can lead to increased media scrutiny, and negative press. This is no small matter. As soon as you float, you become the public figurehead of your business, and many entrepreneurs have found themselves subject to unwanted attention.
You’re also at the mercy of shareholder activists, and if they feel like you’re making the wrong decisions, or even accidentally aligning your company with unethical suppliers, you can find that you’re subject to a takeover bid.
Costs and regulation increases exponentially
Floating is an incredibly expensive undertaking, costing up to something in the region of £300,000, or 25% of the cost of money raised in the IPO. It’s not an inconsiderable sum. Plus the paperwork is huge. One well-quoted executive of a company that listed its shares on the London Stock Exchange reckoned he had processed around 200,000 sheets of paper in the form of documents during the process.
Before you go public you’ll also need to undertake a whole raft of expensive procedures. These include in-depth due diligence reports, analysis of all your supplier contracts, disclosure of your financial forecasts and making public your directors’ pay.
But even if that’s doable, once you’re a public company you become subject to a huge amount of new regulation, which can trip you up at any point down the line. Your reporting functions will need to grow to accommodate statutory financial and governance reporting; every six months as well as ensuring any changes or events are reported on an ad hoc basis.
You are no longer running a private family business
One of the key reasons why firms do not float is that many founders think very long term, and are drawn to the idea of creating a legacy. In fact, the majority of private business owners are happy to keep things in the family.
According to the Institute for Family Business, as it stands today 85% of all the private sector firms in the UK are family owned and operated, and they account for 50% of private-sector employment in the country. In the US, the figures are similar: there are more than 5.5 million family businesses and they employ more than 63% of the workforce.
These numbers speak for themselves. Most business owners are happy with the state of play, they don’t want to float their companies and they don’t want to lose the ability to create a multi-generational business that they can pass down through the family.
So at the same time as you consider the obvious positives surrounding taking your business public, and there are many, don’t forget to factor in what you’ll lose too.
A warm thank you to Sharon Fishburne for this contribution.
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