Public or Private

In my last post, I discussed the high-value Stillwater places on highly adaptable people who can make smart decisions in real time. I call people like that situationally fluid.

This skill set gives an advisor the power to change direction and tactics on a dime, to pivot as a situation demands. People who excel at this make incredible M&A Advisors. When they’re working on your behalf, you’ll see first-hand just how powerful and valuable adaptability is at every step of the acquisition process.

In this post, I want to highlight how valuable situational flexibility is at one stage that will come later on in the three-step acquisition process. The success of everything that happens late-game as we close in on a deal hinges on our careful work at the beginning.

After an extensive search and market outreach push, it will eventually be time to make first contact with some of the prospective buyers on the shortlist we have developed. First impressions are critical, and we do as much as we can in advance to get it right. Your Advisors will have completed an extensive background check and developed a dossier for each company before initiating that first conversation. What we learn helps us adapt our approach to each prospective seller—what we highlight about your story, what shared values we can center, and what concerns we already know about that we can begin to address. We shape your story to make sure it is well received.

One defining characteristic of every potential acquisition will serve as a good example of the necessity of situational fluidity in a successful acquisition process. It’s a simple binary—every company will be one or the other, but your approach will need to adapt depending on which you’re dealing with:

Is the company you’re interested in buying PUBLIC or PRIVATE?

Let’s look briefly at each one and see how our approach to selling your story changes for each.


Unlike privately-held companies, when we negotiate to purchase a publicly traded company, we are not dealing with a person as much as we are an apparatus.

Real human people with emotions and motivations and stakes in the outcome are part of that apparatus, so you’ll need advisors with impeccable interpersonal skills on your side—but in a publicly-held company, the people you encounter are people with a job to grow the business who could also be fired at any moment. At your next meeting, that chair could be occupied by a new person tasked with the same job, and things will continue unhindered. The apparatus persists.

A team of M&A Advisors approaching a public company must ascertain who to approach first. The CEO, the Board Chair, the Head of Strategy, The Office of Corporate Development, the COO—in every public company, a host of people have to say ‘Yes!’ to an acquisition. A savvy advisory team does their homework and starts in the right place. And once they find the key person to start the conversation with, how they describe your business will need to be adapted to fit. For example, a CEO will need different points stressed than a stakeholder in strategic development. Start with the wrong person, or tell your story the wrong way, and we risk handicapping a deal’s progress at the outset. Make sure your advisors are proceeding deliberately.


A private company is a very different animal from its publicly-held analog. Your bona fides regarding your finances and reliability are just as important to a private company, but an extra dimension of adaptability is always required in approaching one.

In a private company, your point of contact is most often the owner and founder of the business. In our series of posts about The The Process of Selling a Business, I frequently urged the seller to prepare themselves for the emotional and personal impact of the sale. This isn’t always a natural perspective for a successful business owner to take, but it’s necessary.

Advisors approaching a private company as a prospective acquisition will be aware of that and let that awareness impact their approach accordingly — situational fluidity at work.

A private business owner will think of legacy as much as they are about money, and our approach has to demonstrate that this legacy will be honored. It is never productive to stomp into a meeting with the founder of a business like you already own the place; better to act like you are standing on hallowed ground instead.

Besides legacy, a private company also tends to think of its workforce as a family; savvy advisors will come into first contact with an idea of what the seller’s expectations for them are post-acquisition. Your story needs to be adjusted to reflect your understanding of that.

The seller of a private company will also often have a more personal stake in the sale price and terms of the final deal. Your communications will need to address that dimension as well.

Whatever the deal, private or public, there are always strings attached that must be dealt with. It’s a fact that those strings are more personal in a private company. You want a team that can sensitively navigate that without compromising the final deal.

Whatever company you buy in the end, it’s apparent that how you approach that company at the start will dictate the quality of the final deal. An approach adapted and tailored to the specifics of the prospective acquisition is the key to a high-quality transaction for you at the end of the process.

So much of the magic of a successful team happens in the medium of conversation. Stillwater’s M&A Advisors are masters of that medium. It shows in our results.

Start your own acquisition process by contacting us here.

← Blog 9   Blog 11 →

Written by: Douglas Nix