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Small Business Week: Q&A – Designer Sign Systems' (Carlstadt) Judith Barbieri is a study on how to sell your small business

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- (PHOTO BY AARON HOUSTON)

Judith Barbieri is the former president of Designer Sign Systems in Carlstadt — a company she founded in 1978. She helped the company, which has had as many as 56 employees and revenues in the millions, earn a stellar reputation in the architectural sign industry.

Barbieri sold her business in December 2012 to a group of private investors with a history in the sign industry. She remains as a consultant and continues to work there on a daily basis.

NJBIZ asked her a number of questions about what it’s like to step away from ownership.

NJBIZ: What made you decide it was the right time to sell?

Judith Barbieri: There comes a time when you start thinking about your exit strategy, retirement, about what you want to do. Owning a business has been all-consuming. You eat it, sleep it and breathe it 24/7. After a while, you think, ‘Maybe I should think about something else.’ We had a couple of good years in a row so we know we would be attractive to buyers. It was the right time.

NJBIZ: How did you go about doing it?

JB: We went to a broker. They handled everything, looked at all the books and came up with a strategy. They brought us a few prospective buyers.

NJBIZ: Was it all about the money?

JB: That’s a good question, but no. We found investors (the eventual buyer) that had a synergy with us; they knew the language and the industry. We built a name and we’re fairly well-known. We wanted to see the business continue and tried to choose someone we thought was going to continue to build the business and make it grow.

NJBIZ: Have you had any regrets, any seller’s remorse?

JB: Every day (she said with a laugh). Seriously, there are times when you think about it. The new ownership may be doing something different so you do think about it, but you try not to dwell on it because it’s their business now.

NJBIZ: What was it like the first time you realized, ‘That’s not my concern now?’

JB: A big relief (she said with an even bigger laugh). There are employee issues, banking issues, collection issues that I no longer have to worry about. I just have to sell and I love what I do.

NJBIZ: How has it been to stay on and work at the place you used to own?

JB: It’s been great. I do love what I do so I’m glad I can still enjoy it. I have great clients. Some of my accounts have been customers for more than 30 years. The in-house staff is special and they do a great job. Some people sell their companies because they never want to have to think about them again. I’m not like that. I have a passion for what I do and the people I work with. I love the idea of going out and making a presentation in a boardroom to the decision makers and closing a sale. It is so rewarding when they respond and respect what you’re saying.

NJBIZ: Has your relationship with the other employees changed?

JB: On a personal level, it’s no different. They are just such a good group. I just have to adjust on a business level. I used to be able to say, ‘I need this now.’ Now I have to wait. There’s a pecking order and I’m no longer at the top.

NJBIZ: What advice would you give small business owners who are thinking about selling their companies?

JB: First ask yourself how much you enjoy what you’re doing. If you like it a lot, ask yourself what you are going to be doing with your time. Think long and hard about what you are going to do with your energy. If you want to retire then do it, but understand how different it is going to be and ask yourself it you are ready for that. I still like the action and enjoy the game.

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