November 30, 2021 I From The Trenches I by Myrna Sislen

Why I Sold My Store

The question implied in that headline — and its answer — started taking shape in March 2016 at NASMD in Orlando. Business valuation expert John DelGrego gave two sessions: one on valuation, the other on succession. I attended both, and both were life-changing. What I remember most was what he said to begin each session. Valuation came first, and John started by saying, “If your business depends on you, it is worth nothing.” Well, that was a wake-up call. I resolved to step back so my business would be worth something.

John started the succession session by saying, “If you think anyone is interested in buying a music store, they aren’t.” I still remember what happened next: An elderly woman in the front row started crying, and continued to cry for the entire session. That certainly got my attention and I have thought about it ever since. More about her later.

I wasn’t ready to sell then, but the question of succession has always been on my mind, especially as I have gotten older. I had no succession plan. If anything happened to me, the business would be done for. Three years ago, I first started asking if anyone in the industry was interested in buying Middle C. It was a very soft ask for me, because I don’t think I was really ready, and there were no takers anyway.

Fast forward to March 2020. The pandemic hit. Staffing became difficult. We were doing fine financially because we switched immediately to online lessons. I have to stress that my motivation for selling was not because business was bad. Business was good. Moreover, I had no desire to leave the industry, just the day-to-day of running a store.

My motivation, quite honestly, was that I kept getting older, staffing was becoming problematic, and dealing with customers was becoming a chore. When you say to yourself, “Oh no!” every time a customer comes in, it’s probably time to get out of retail.

As the pandemic continued, I kept looking in vain for a buyer. Then, in late November 2020, I saw a posting on Facebook from Carol Jordan, owner of The Music Room in Palatine, Illinois, announcing that she’d sold her business. I had met Carol at The NAMM Show in Austin years before, and liked her very much. I messaged her and asked, “How? Who? Why?” She told me about Jeff Homer of Ensemble Music Schools. He was young and energetic and was buying music schools around the country. Carol said she would tell Jeff about me. Jeff contacted me, looked at my financials and said he was interested.

Also in November 2020, I turned 75. It was a shock, but reality was giving me a strong nudge. I started negotiating with Jeff in January 2021. He came to visit Middle C in March with his associate Jake St. John. When serious negotiations started, I soon realized I would need help, and I turned to Alan Friedman and Daniel Jobe of Friedman Kannenberg & Co. It was the smartest decision I made.

Of course, we went back and forth with Jeff on price. After we rejected his second offer, I decided on a number that I would accept. If Jeff called me and came up to that number, I would wait four beats and say, “You have just bought yourself a music store.” He did and I did and on June 1, 2021, we closed.

So, back to the weeping woman in the front row. At Summer NAMM 2021, I discovered what happened to her. After the session, John Bertrand Sr., founder of Bertrand’s Music, came up and put his arm around her to comfort her. The result: He bought her business and turned it over to his nephew. I found out because I rode back to Nashville from our visit to KHS/Jupiter Headquarters with that nephew. To make conversation, I asked him, “How did you get in the business?” He said, “Five years ago my uncle was in a session on succession at NASMD,” and he told me the rest of the story. I love happy endings, whether hers or mine. MI

Myrna Sislen owns and operates Middle C Music in Washington, D.C.

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