Buying an Existing Business Due Diligence Checklist

August 30, 2023

Adam Hoeksema

If you are looking to start or buy a business, you understand the allure of buying an existing business. From instant brand recognition to established operations, the benefits are undeniable. However, just as there are advantages, there are pitfalls and challenges as well. Due diligence becomes the bridge that helps you understand exactly what you're getting into. 

In this article, we will delve into the following:

Why should I do due diligence before buying an existing business?

Undertaking due diligence when considering the purchase of an existing business can be likened to obtaining a comprehensive health check-up. This crucial process provides transparency by unearthing any hidden issues, ensuring both parties engage in a fair and informed transaction. It grants financial clarity, making certain that the value you're paying genuinely reflects the business's true worth. Additionally, due diligence plays a pivotal role in risk assessment, helping prospective buyers understand potential challenges and formulate strategies to counteract them. Lastly, it serves as a means to gauge strategic alignment, determining whether the business aligns with an entrepreneur's vision and long-term aspirations.

Add a Quality of Earnings Report to your due diligence checklist for an in-depth look at the business's financial health before acquisition.

What are the Pros and Cons of Buying an Existing Business? 

Pros of Business Acquisition

Established Operations: Purchasing an existing business means inheriting its operations, customer base, and market presence, allowing for immediate revenue generation.

Brand Recognition: Established businesses often come with brand awareness, which can be advantageous compared to starting a brand from scratch.

Existing Customer Base: An existing customer base provides immediate cash flow and offers insights into customer preferences and behaviors.

Lower Risk: Acquiring a business with a proven track record can be less risky than starting a new venture.

Skilled Workforce: Acquiring a business often means inheriting experienced employees familiar with the company's operations.

Easier Financing: Lenders might be more willing to finance the purchase of an established business with steady revenues compared to a startup. It's worth noting that many entrepreneurs turn to the Small Business Administration (SBA) when buying a business. Learn More: How to Get an SBA Loan to Acquire a Business.

Cons of Business Acquisition

Higher Upfront Costs: Purchasing an existing business can require a significant capital outlay compared to starting a business.

Hidden Liabilities: There might be undisclosed debts, potential lawsuits, or other liabilities that the buyer inherits.

Cultural Challenges: Integrating your own management style or making changes can lead to resistance from existing employees.

Outdated Systems: The business might be using outdated technologies or processes, necessitating further investment.

Overvaluation Risk: The business might be overpriced, leading to overpayment.

Customer Attrition: Change in ownership might lead some customers to leave, especially if the business is closely associated with the previous owner.

Buying an Existing Business Due Diligence Checklist

Presented below is a Due Diligence Checklist that you can reference to ensure a smooth and informed acquisition process.

1: Company Overview

Organizational Structure and Leadership

  • Map of the company's organizational structure and management hierarchy.
  • Essential charter documents, by-laws, licenses, and stock certificates.
  • Board meeting records and minutes.

Corporate Transactions

  • Information about joint ventures, subsidiary acquisitions/disposals (last five years).
  • Key personnel contacts and management biographies.
  • Articles of Incorporation, amendments, and assumed names.
  • Presence in various states/countries and business details.
  • Last three years' annual reports.

Shareholder and Governance Details

  • Company's ownership structure, including shareholders and ownership percentages.
  • Certificates of Good Standing from relevant states.
  • Board agreements, voting trusts, and securities details.

2: Operations and Facilities

Facility Insights

  • Record of facility openings/closings (last five years).
  • Overview of products and services under development.
  • Documentation related to regulatory approvals.

Product and Service Details

  • Catalog of offered products and services.
  • Ownership/lease details of properties and locations.
  • Information on real estate transactions and approvals.

Inventory Management

  • Comprehensive view of inventory composition.
  • Summary of inventory valuation and location.
  • Breakdown of inventory classifications.
  • Aging analysis of inventory.

3: Financial Analysis

Financial Records and Audits

  • Audit reports (last five years and YTD).
  • Legal counsel opinion letters.
  • Consolidated financial statements and reconciliations.
  • Trial balances (last five years and YTD).
  • Off-balance sheet commitments and liabilities.

Financial Performance and Planning

  • Historical and projected financials.
  • Operating expenses breakdown.
  • Working capital schedule.
  • Cost of goods sold breakdown.

Debt and Capital Structure

  • Overview of debt obligations.
  • Debt increase clauses upon sale.
  • Unrecorded liabilities.
  • Capital structure and outstanding shares.

4: Customer and Market Insights

Customer Relationships

  • Top customers by region, product, and total sales.
  • Customer terms, credit limits, and loss history.

Supplier Details

  • Raw materials sourcing details.
  • Supplier information and open balances.
  • Supplier terms and purchasing policies.

Competitor Analysis

  • List of significant competitors and their market shares.
  • Pricing trends and market positioning.
  • Competitor strengths and weaknesses.

Sales and Marketing

  • Sales strategy and channel compensation structure.
  • Major wins/losses, articles, and PR.
  • Marketing channels and budgets.
  • Customer complaints and resolutions.

5: Internal Controls and Policies

Financial Policies and Systems

  • Cash management policies and controls.
  • Revenue recognition and credit policies.
  • Information systems overview.

Management Reports

  • Comparison of actual vs. budgeted results.
  • Budgets and future operating plans.

Related Party Transactions

  • Identification of related party balances.
  • Inter-company transfer pricing policy.

6: Sales Strategies and Operations

Global Distribution and Marketing

  • Description of distribution channels.
  • Marketing opportunities and risks.

Major Customer Analysis

  • Status and relationships with key customers.
  • Revenue breakdown and pipeline.

Sales Force Overview

  • Sales force compensation history.
  • Sales force productivity model.
  • Quota average and sales cycle.

7: Operations and Environmental Considerations

Quality and Productivity

  • Key quality measures for the last three years.
  • Productivity indicators (revenue per employee, utilization rates, etc.).

Workflow and Order Process

  • Workflow of operations.
  • Order processing flow (from receipt to shipment).

Manufacturing Insights

  • Monthly manufacturing yields.
  • Schedule of unfilled orders.

Product Returns

  • Details of product returns by customer (last five years).

8: Contractual Agreements

Supply and Customer Contracts

  • Material supply and customer contracts.
  • Guarantees, indemnifications, and significant agreements.

Internal and External Contracts

  • Agreements with directors, officers, affiliates, shareholders.
  • Subsidiary, partnership, and joint venture agreements.

Financial Contracts and Agreements

  • Loan agreements, credit lines, IRBs, derivatives, etc.
  • Nondisclosure and noncompete agreements.

Mergers and Divestitures

  • Contracts related to mergers/acquisitions/divestitures.
  • Power of attorney and other agreements.

License and Consent Agreements

  • Federal, state, and local licenses and consents.
  • Third-party consent agreements.

9: Labor Relations and Benefits

Employee Overview

  • Employment agreements, handbooks, and policies.
  • Payrolls and employee demographics.

Union and Non-Union Details

  • Collective bargaining and union agreements.
  • Strike/work stoppage history.

Compensation and Benefits

  • Employee compensation and hierarchy.
  • Severance and termination details.

10: Taxation Matters

Tax Returns and Liabilities

  • Filed tax returns (last five years).
  • Deferred tax assets and liabilities.

Accounting and Tax Audits

  • Accounting principles and explanations.
  • Tax audits and supplementary materials.

Property and Asset Taxation

  • Property taxes paid and liens.
  • Asset fair market values and tax bases.

Tax Strategies and Compliance

  • Tax audit history and excise taxes.

11: Environmental Concerns

Environmental Audits

  • Reports on environmental audits and compliance.

Liabilities and Reports

  • Description of environmental liabilities.
  • Phase 1 reports for all facilities.

Waste Management

  • Hazardous materials usage and disposal.
  • Handling of hazardous waste.

Environmental Compliance

  • Compliance costs and prior ownership history.

Legal Matters

  • Pending environmental investigations and litigation.

12: Regulatory & Legal Matters

Permits and Compliance

  • All permits and licenses.
  • Compliance reports and deficiency notices.

Lawsuits and Legal Issues

  • Pending lawsuits against and by the company.
  • Antitrust issues and regulatory history.

Government Filings and Actions

  • Department of Commerce filings.
  • Regulatory agency reports and submissions.

OSHA and Regulatory Matters

  • OSHA inspection reports.
  • Governmental actions and investigations.

13: Insurance and Litigation

Insurance Coverage

  • Schedule of current insurance policies.
  • Documentation of claims and denials.

Litigation Overview

  • Summary of material litigation.
  • Pending and threatened litigation details.

14: Intellectual Property

Trademarks and Copyrights

  • List of trademarks, copyrights, and tradenames.

Patents and Industrial Designs

  • List of patents and applications.
  • Patent clearance and claims information.

Software and IT

  • Technical information and software details.
  • System usage, customization, and outsourcing.

Lawsuit and Litigation

  • Details on IP litigation.

New Product Development

  • R&D history and new initiatives.

Brands and Proprietary Information

  • Owned brands and licensing agreements.
  • Proprietary processes and agreements.

15: Real and Personal Property

Property Overview

  • List of real estate and facility conditions.
  • Valuation reports and title details.

Fixed Assets and Equipment

  • Major assets and properties for sale.
  • Lease and sublease agreements.

16: Industry and Research & Development

Industry Insights

  • End-market and industry drivers.
  • Market size and legislative impact.

R&D Overview

  • R&D organization and personnel.
  • Product development pipeline and costs.

FAQs About Due Diligence When Buying an Existing Business

Q. How long does the due diligence process typically take?

A. The duration can vary widely based on the size and complexity of the business. Generally, it can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months.

Q. Who should be on my due diligence team?

A. Typically, a due diligence team will consist of accountants, lawyers, industry experts, and potentially other specialists depending on the nature of the business.

Q: Can I hire a service provider to conduct due diligence?
A. If you require professional support for comprehensive due diligence, a highly recommended option is DueDilio. We have collaborated with them in the past, and can vouch for their expertise and reliability as a due diligence service provider.

Q. What if I uncover problems during due diligence?

A. Identifying issues is not necessarily a deal-breaker. They can be used to renegotiate the price, ask the seller to rectify certain issues before the sale, or decide if you're willing to accept them and move forward.

Q. What are the potential red flags in due diligence?

A. Some red flags include inconsistent financial records, pending or potential legal disputes, significant employee turnover, or any information that significantly differs from what the seller initially presented.

Q. Can I back out of a deal if due diligence uncovers major issues?

A. Most purchase agreements allow the buyer to withdraw without penalties if significant problems are identified during the due diligence process, provided this is done within the agreed-upon timeframe.

Q. Should I focus only on financial aspects during due diligence?

A. While financial health is crucial, other areas like operations, employee relations, legal compliance, and market position are equally important. A holistic approach ensures that you're making an informed decision.

Q. How do I ensure confidentiality during the due diligence process?

A. Both parties typically sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) to ensure that sensitive information remains confidential and is used solely for the purpose of evaluation.

Remember, while this FAQ provides a general overview, the due diligence process can vary widely depending on the specific business and industry. Always consult with professionals to ensure a thorough investigation.

We trust that this blog post has provided valuable insights! Should you require assistance with your business plan or financial projections, do not hesitate to reach out for support from ProjectionHub Services. - Let us know how we can support you!

About the Author

Adam is the Co-founder of ProjectionHub which helps entrepreneurs create financial projections for potential investors, lenders and internal business planning. Since 2012, over 50,000 entrepreneurs from around the world have used ProjectionHub to help create financial projections.

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