The youngest of five, Robert Aliota grew up in a family of entrepreneurs. Most notably, his father left a corporate career at age 52, cashed in his 401k, and bought a restaurant in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where Robert grew up. From the time he was young, Robert saw first-hand the hard work and dedication it took to be in a family business and learned that “whatever it takes” attitude.
After graduating from NC State University, Robert moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, and held corporate sales and management roles. With a strong drive to succeed, he put in long hours to ensure he consistently met or exceeded his quota. After witnessing the pros and cons of working for a large organization, Robert decided he preferred to put his destiny in his own hands.
At age 28, Robert began putting together a business model/plan that would allow him to start his own business. “I wanted a business that supplied parts to a variety of vertical markets and was not reliant on any single industry. I also realized the benefits of the business having a consumable aspect to help ensure a residual income stream”. Robert’s brother-in-law had an industrial seal business in Milwaukee, WI, that met this criterion, but Robert had no interest in working for someone else at that time. Having a general idea of what this business entailed and even having potential suppliers from which he could buy parts, Robert took this idea and ran with it.
“I started in my garage when I was 29. We had two plastic shelves, no inventory, no customers, and I started with 100% cold calling. After a very short period, you realize being on your own is really being on your own – nobody to help fix the copier if it breaks, and if you need office supplies, you better go buy them.” After working out of the garage for nearly three years, the business began to grow some legs, so Robert rented a small 2,500-square-foot facility as his first actual warehouse. Momentum was building, he added a few employees, and he and his wife even decided she would leave her corporate job to be home with their newborn son. Then, 9/11 hit! The industrial sector was hit hard, and all the momentum they had built was gone – the business nearly flatlined.
“It was the most humbling, stressful, and energizing experience in my life, all at the same time,” Robert recalls. “I had never experienced anything like that – where your back’s against the wall, and at the same time, you’re energized and excited about what you’re doing. Failing was not an option. It is a rare situation – you get mentally tested to see how many gears you really have in you. We had no other income, and our savings and credit lines were all maxed out. So you just keep going and doing whatever it takes to fight another day. A truly humbling experience.”
Over time, after a couple more moves to larger facilities, several more employees added, and the formation of some creative, strategic partnerships, Robert got into a niche business that caught the eye of a large global player in the industry. “We were not even considering selling the business and said we were not interested multiple times. They wanted to get into the niche space we helped create with a strategic partner, and the thought of taking some risk and chips off the table became more and more appealing”. Robert and his wife sold their business in February 2017 to the $4 billion Swedish company.
“The best advice I always heard from M&A friends over the years was to sell your business when you can, not when you have to. So we took that opportunity, and it was a big blessing. It allowed me to take my foot off the gas for a little bit, which I did, and allowed me to reset and consider what’s next.”
“What’s next” turned out to be some interesting conversations with Viking Partner/Advisor Mark Urbania. Mark and Robert had known each other for 20 years, watching their sons grow up playing soccer together. Mark told Robert he’d be great at M&A and urged him to consider joining the Viking team. He says, “As I spoke more and more to Mark, I finally agreed to have lunch with Jay and some of the other partners. I knew my top priority in my next career was to work with high-quality people, people with honesty, integrity and character. And after meeting with Jay and the other Partners, I realized this number one box on my list was checked.”
Another priority was to find a role where he could utilize his 30+ years of business experience but do something that would challenge him in new ways. “Having started from scratch, grown a business, then exited from that business, the opportunity at Viking was a situation where I could apply many of my past lessons to this role. But also, several elements made me feel like the ‘oldest rookie in the office,’ so there was also a good bit to learn. Going back to my earlier point, having highly talented, smart team players around me with extensive knowledge and experience in this industry made this a great fit.”
Lastly, Robert wanted to do something meaningful where he could help other people. He recognized that he was well-equipped to help other entrepreneurs. “Having been one myself, I can empathize with a lot of business owners, whether they are in start-up mode or have run their business for years and are ready to retire. I’m careful not to tell somebody, ‘I know how you feel,’ because I don’t. I can, however, tell someone that I have been in a very similar situation before and can relate my experiences to their experience.”
Advice for Charlotte Business Owners Thinking of Selling
Robert emphasizes that choosing when to sell your business is a very personal decision. Part of what drives a person down this initial “consideration path” is intuitive, perhaps a gut check or a “passion check” or even a burnout feeling. But a much better approach is to begin the process as early as possible and have a well-thought-out plan for how you want to proceed.
Having sold a business after 22 years from start-up, and now after being on the M&A side of the transaction as well, Robert advises business owners to do the following:
- Have a valuation done on your business now. This allows you to plant a flag in the ground and understand what it is worth today with your current management style and operating procedures.
- Seek professional guidance to understand what issues within your business are holding the value down and what you could do differently to increase the value TODAY.
- Begin “cleaning up your business” now to make it more attractive to a buyer when it becomes time to sell. Be proactive, clean up your accounting practices, or implement Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) to better manage your business pre-sale and make for an easier transition.
Advice for Those Considering Buying a Charlotte Business
Robert advises any potential Buyer first to consider what is behind the drive to become a small business owner. He emphasizes that if you are in Corporate America and feel you are working too hard and working too many hours, and you believe that owning your own business will solve that problem, you should be prepared to (potentially) work even more hours.
Instead, Robert says to consider what attributes you are looking for in a business. Without a plan or a baseline of criteria, how will you recognize the right company when you see it? Additionally, take an honest and realistic inventory of your skills. Do you have the skills needed to run and operate your own business? No one steps in as a new business owner who is a perfect match for the job, but it is essential to understand your natural “transferrable strengths” that would help lead you to success. The CliftonStrengths® Assessment is a great online tool that can help you identify your natural strengths. Try to align with a company where you can leverage those strengths you already have.
Robert’s last advice is this: Do not have a Plan B. If you decide to be an entrepreneur, then be one. Have grit and determination, and find a way to get after it, even when times get tough. Many say, “I would love to own my own fill-in-the-blank business.” But actually owning one is an entirely different story. It is not just the glamor and fun you see from the outside. It is a lot of hard work and requires resiliency and determination to survive. It is a mental game as much as anything. Know yourself before you take the plunge!
If you are an entrepreneur and would like to better understand the value of your company, contact us today for a complimentary business valuation.