Three of every four Wisconsin business owners plan to pass their company on to family or sell to new owners in the next 10 years, according to a survey by the Exit Planning Institute (EPI). Yet almost half have done no planning at all for the transition.
It’s this disparity Martha Sullivan hopes to improve. Sullivan is leader and partner in the business transition strategies group of Honkamp Krueger & Co., P.C., located off Hwy. 19 south of Schumacher Farm.
“There’s a 50/50 chance a business owner will be able to control when they exit,” she said. Reasons out of their control causing them to leave the business early might include, for example, death, divorce, disability, or economic or market change.
“These are as likely to force a person to exit the business as making the decision themselves,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan spends a lot of time educating owners on what creates value in their business or risks that could make it unattractive to another owner.
For example, one of her clients wanted to turn the business over to his adult children. He also was open to selling for the right price. Sullivan did an analysis of the business, finding it would likely sell for significantly less than what the owner thought. She helped the owner increase the company’s value and worked with his children to understand risks of assuming ownership. Quarterly checkups helped gauge progress.
Her exit strategy work is one reason she co-founded and is president of the Wisconsin Chapter of EPI. Membership includes accountants, lawyers, wealth managers, investment bankers, private equity managers, and commercial bankers.
Sullivan grew up in east Madison. She received a bachelor’s degree in business administration from UW-Madison, then started her career in public and private accounting. Seven years later, she took and passed the exam to become a CPA (certified public accountant).
“I joke it was my smartest act of rebellion,” she said. “I was doing consulting for a large CPA firm. I got tired of being told, ‘You can’t do that; you’re not an accountant.’ It was career changing. Now I was one of the team and had the credentials. It certainly opened new doors for me.”
Almost 34 years ago, she married husband Eric, now retired from a marketing career. They have two adult children and one cat.
They moved to Waunakee’s Castle Creek neighborhood 26 years ago because of location.
“We really liked the street where good friends had bought a lot,” Sullivan said. “Plus, we were 10 minutes from where Mom and Dad lived. We were 15 minutes from either side of Madison—I’ve worked on both sides during my career.”
An ongoing passion of Sullivan’s is serving as a volunteer board member of the South-Central Wisconsin chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association for the past 3 ½ years, and now for the Wisconsin statewide board.
“My husband’s and my families both involved a parent caring for a spouse with Alzheimer’s. Plus, a close friend was diagnosed with dementia. It’s heartbreaking to watch people not accustomed to being caretakers suddenly forced into that role and, worse yet, watching the disease rob people of who they used to be. We need to do what we can to find a cure and educate people about the resources out there,” she said.
Sullivan also proudly recalls her work on the Executive Committee of A Fund for Women, which makes grants to area nonprofits to help women and girls reach full potential. One project involved collecting stories from 60 women on what is was like to come of age and publishing them in a book entitled What She Said.
When not working and volunteering, Sullivan enjoys reading, being outdoors and creating quilts. Also an avid fitness buff, she says she now is “in the best shape of her life.”
“I’ve never been an athletic person. A couple years ago on a business trip I struggled to put luggage in the overhead bin. I thought, ‘You’re too young for such poor upper body strength.’” She committed to regular exercise, and “it has made a world of difference,” she said.