Mitch and Sabina Dawson have shown themselves to be smart navigators—land or sea, life and business. Buffeted by gales or grilled by imposing executives, this dynamic couple knows how to direct the boat to where they want it to go.
In early 2012, the destination they had in mind was Facility Resources, a London-based company that designs and installs modular furniture and modular case goods for healthcare, corporate and higher education clients.
We always wanted to be in business together, says Mitch, then on a full-time search to locate one in London, where they had moved in 2005.
The Dawsons found what they were looking for via a business broker in Toronto and engaged London business broker Erik Twohig to act on their behalf.
Buying a business is complex, they knew. "We needed someone with Erik's experience to balance the experience on the other side," says Mitch. "It more than paid for the cost. Doing something once, you are well advised to have a guide."
He draws a comparison to what he had seen several years ago in the Caribbean. "As soon as the cruise ships disembarked, the fresh batch of tourists would be engulfed by locals selling their wares," he recalls. "Many would be taken advantage of—for them, it was a new experience, compared to the vendors who had had many occasions to hone their technique."
At that time Mitch and Sabina were also living out a very new experience. Mitch had taken a year off to gut and renovate an Alberg 37 for the demands of full-time ocean sailing and in 2004, the Dawsons set out on a 16,000-km round-trip voyage to Panama.
Anything can happen
Their two-year adventure was that and more, starting with an unrelenting gale from New York to Chesapeake, to hurricane season in Trinidad and wrapping up with an epic 19-day voyage back to the congested harbour in New York, where, with an uncooperative engine and against a strong current, they dodged water taxis and other crafts.
Yet, as they recount their story, one jumping in where the other leaves off, Mitch and Sabina make it clear that they had fun.
They share the ability to think clearly and make sound decisions under pressure— qualities that worked in their favour during the buying process.
"Mitch and Sabina are very good at dealing with what they have to," says Erik, owner of Sunbelt's London office. "I would identify each risk, ask them if it was acceptable, and if it was, then we moved straight on. They're right on the ball."
Sabina, a chartered accountant, and former CFO of a telecom software company, recounts the pressure she faced when the tech bubble burst and it was her job to handle investor relations.
That strength was tested when she and Mitch faced the Herman Miller executives in Toronto, where they were drilled across a boardroom table non-stop. As new dealers, they needed executive approval to seal the purchase. Not being from the furniture industry made them skeptical we could this work—we may very well be the first dealers without prior experience.
Both were up to the challenge.
Confronted by "It takes an average of two years for a sales representative to get up to speed," Mitch responded, "I'm not aiming for average!"
And Sabina solidified the purchase at parting when she asked straight up, "As for the deal, do we have it?"
"It's a good thing you asked," she was told.
It hadn't been a straight road to that point however.
The Dawsons had first visited their business of choice in early April. It felt above us, but Erik encouraged us to go through making an offer, Sabina recalls. Their offer turned out to be one of three received.
Erik takes up the story. "We were informed shortly after that our offer was 'not picked.' A month later, I got a phone call to say that the first offer had fallen through, and that the Dawsons' offer was 'accepted.'"
"I was surprised," says Erik. "The broker didn't even ask us to make a new offer."
But it was to the Dawson's benefit, as was Erik's expertise through negotiation, due diligence and closing.
"Erik was a great sounding board," says Mitch. "We learned we can't assume another party's motivation. It was important to have a buffer, someone impartial who had experience. With Erik in the middle—the scapegoat—both sides were allowed to have a good relationship during and after the deal," he notes.
"You need to trust the party you're dealing with and maintain a good relationship to have a smooth negotiation process. That goes both ways."
"The purchase was wrinkle-free," adds Sabina. "Everything was as the seller said. They were nothing but forthright."
"And they were quick to respond when I needed their advice during the transition," mentions Mitch.
Finding your passion
The Dawsons considered many factors when buying their business. To start with, it had to be local, of tangible value and fit their skills, capabilities and lifestyle. With two young boys at home, Sabina did not want to be full-time on the job. Working part-time as their company's comptroller is ideal.
What Mitch and Sabina also found in Facility Resources were concepts and aesthetics they could relate to and be inspired by.
"People in business always advise you to find your passion," says Mitch. "It turns out I always had passion for design but didn't know it. It was a common denominator in much of what I was doing—the home renovating, the fine woodworking, cabinetry, plumbing, electrical, all the work I did on our boat."
"I was also looking forward to being that person out front again generating sales. The last time I did that was when I was a private consultant in Ottawa."
Sometimes the role involves wearing a safety hat and steel toe boots, as in their feet-on the-ground collaboration with firms constructing London's new mental health care facility.
"We identify problems and solve them," says Mitch. And creative problem solving is one of Mitch's core strengths, sharpened in his previous position at Info-Tech Research Group, where he acted in director capacities in areas of statistical analysis, research and product development.
"Facility Resources has very experienced staff and a great client base to work from and develop," says Sabina. "The company is an authorized Herman Miller dealer that serves clients between Windsor and Hamilton. We are particularly known for our creations in complex hospital build and renovation projects."
"Our team can tackle any work environment," Mitch continues. "We recently did an impressive corporate installation to outfit the new premises of the 42-partner McKenzie Lake law firm."
Touring their showroom, Mitch is pumped as he talks about elements of a game-changing system of products they'll be bringing to London—a way to solve the technology and collaboration challenge many corporations are not getting right and a great enabler for industries like high tech, where collaboration is so important.
"We see our job as consultants who help businesses create spaces that works for you," says Sabina.
Tips for buying a business
We asked the Dawsons if they had any further tips on buying a business. Here's what they said.
- You get a head start by buying a business over starting from scratch. Have someone else work out the kinks.
- Buying a business is a team sport. You need a good business broker, lawyer, accountant and banking contact. Rapport is important. Will they pick up the phone for you? Are they internalizing the deal or do they only see it as a transaction.
- Make sure you get your money matters sorted out. Pay close attention to your financing and cash flow. We found the BDC helpful in sharing spreadsheets etc. even though we didn't sign with them.