In the male-dominated world of M&A, Sharon Heaton is a force to be reckoned with. The CEO of sbLiftOff, a national M&A advisory firm, she has over 30 years of experience in the industry. She has closed deals worth millions of dollars and advised some of the biggest names in business.
But Sharon is not your typical M&A advisor. For one thing, she’s a woman in a male-dominated industry. For another, she’s based in Herndon, VA – far from the major financial centers of New York and Chicago.
In a recent interview, I asked her what it takes to be a successful M&A advisor. Here are her top three tips:
1. Be Empathetic
Sharon says that one of the most important qualities for an M&A advisor is empathy. “By putting yourself into the other party’s shoes, you can better predict how things are going to happen because you’re looking at it from their perspective,” she said, explaining that while buyers and sellers often have different objectives, both parties want to feel like they’ve gotten the best possible deal.
She adds that certain sellers, like founding owners, are often reluctant to give up control of their companies and may need some hand-holding through the process. “Founder owners are a special unique breed of people,” she said. “They’ve been working on their company as long as they’ve been raising their children. And having an objective view of their company is hard.”
2. Be Persistent
M&A is a complex process, and Sharon says that one of the most critical qualities for an advisor is persistence. “We think persistence makes a difference,” she said, adding that M&A advisors must be able to pivot when things don’t go as planned.
She recalls a recent deal that fell through twice due to financing issues and capital market conditions. But Sharon and her team kept working on it and eventually got the deal done.
“The third time was the charm,” she said.
“We came up with yet another buyer, and we did it within three days of the second deal falling apart. We were able to present it to the seller. The buyer and the seller worked extremely well together and were able to close that transaction. Would everybody have been happy if the first deal had worked out? Absolutely. But sometimes, it doesn’t work that way. Sometimes you just need to be persistent. Stay at it. And you’ll eventually get over the line,” she added.
3. Think Outside the Box
Sharon says that another important quality for M&A advisors is creativity. She provided an example of a company that was installing ATMs in walls, but buyers were hesitant to invest because they considered ATMs a declining industry.
However, Sharon and her team thought outside the box and rebranded the company as the expert in “installing technology in static places.”
“They happened to be putting ATMs in the wall, but no reason could not be putting computer monitors on the wall,” she said. “When you go to New York, and you see [a screen that says]This bus is going to be arriving in three minutes. It’s the same thing. When you go to a parking lot, and you serve an automated way of getting in and out of the lot, it’s the same thing.”
She added that this changed “the perception dramatically by buyers. They said, Oh, I understand. That’s a growth industry. So we went from trying to sell what was being perceived as a buggy whip and turn that into something that was being perceived as a growth industry.”