The “loose lips” tagline was a common World War II phrase and was on posters everywhere. The problem continues on the business battlefront today. Leaks of confidential information coming from, apparently, some of the Directors of HP have been in the news everywhere. This is an ongoing story. If it can happen to HP, it can happen to anyone. Leaks of confidential data are a serious issue at any time, but are especially serious if they involve the sale of a company. Sellers are very concerned because of the impact a leak can have on their company and their employees.
Unfortunately, confidentiality is a Catch—22 issue. On one side, the seller wants to maintain it; on the other side, the seller wants to get the highest price possible, which can mean exposing the business to numerous potential buyers. The more potential buyers contacted, the better the chance of a good price being obtained—and the greater chance of a leak.
Owners may be overly concerned about leaks of confidential data, but since this is a concern, the issue must be dealt with. The shorter the time table between going to market and a sale the less chance there is for a leak. The selling process should not drag on! This is one reason why the price, terms and deal structure should be as fair as possible from the very beginning. The longer negotiations take, the greater the chance for word to leak out. If all of the red flags are dealt with early on, the more likely there can be a quick closing. That way, if there is a leak, the deal can be concluded before any damage can be done. The only other alternative is to deal with just two or three potential buyers. This, of course, lessens the chance of getting the seller a better deal.
Sellers should make sure that all documents involving a sale or potential sale are kept under lock and key, marked “Confidential,” and only transmitted to buyers in a secure manner. Confidential information should only be emailed or faxed when one is absolutely sure it can’t get into the wrong hands. Buyers and sellers have to be cautioned about the confidentiality issue. Too many times when there is breach of confidentiality, the leak comes from the seller. The seller tells his golfing partner, mentions it to a neighbor at a cocktail party, reveals it to a relative – indeed, it is usually a case of “loose lips sinking ships.”
If there was ever a reason to use a professional business intermediary, this is it. They can be the conduit between the buyer, seller and the outside advisors. Business intermediaries are experienced in preventing breaches of confidentiality, e.g. by requiring buyers to sign strict non-disclosure agreements. What’s even more important, they are pros, knowledgeable about dealing with one if it happens. This is just another reason to use the services of a business intermediary.