There was a recent acquisition announcement between Taylor Farms and Earthbound Farms that my colleague Ray Connelly ranted about. The news also got me thinking about acquisitions in general. Specifically, when organizations embark upon acquisitions, where do they start and how do they give themselves the best chance of success?

There have been on average about 15,000 acquisitions every year for the last 10 years. Activity in the food and beverage sector is fairly consistent, with around 275 deals a year for the past two years (and I suspect that 90% of those barely made the inside pages of regional newspapers). So much activity! And yet it begs the question, “Why?” And also, “How did things work out?”

The why question is the easier one to answer. Companies complete acquisitions for many reasons: usually to grow, or to kill off a competitor or competitive product – yes, companies really do that, even if they say differently in their press releases. Primarily, the reason is to grow in some way. Another reason is to acquire a set of customers or a market, or it may be to acquire employees. Often, the reason is a little of all three.

A much harder question to answer is: “How did it work out?” According to the Harvard Business Review, the failure rate for acquisitions is between 70-90%. That’s an astonishing number considering the cost and effort that goes into the process both before and after closing. Cynics may say that the most successful people in the acquisition business are the lawyers!

So how can you ensure success? All the experts seem to agree that some of the biggest factors are related to people and culture. Pritchett LP, one of the best known experts in this area, notes the following as key success factors when planning and executing an acquisition:

  • Tell the truth to acquired employees, no matter how painful it may be
  • Address the “me issues” – those things that impact each person individually
  • Be as open as possible with information
  • Tackle tough issues head on
  • Make only those promises you know you can keep
  • Move fast with the integration

Working through these issues takes time and effort and an understanding of the dynamics of each unique situation. This includes understanding the culture and environment existing in each company before the deal was announced, plus realizing that such a transition is uniquely personal to everyone involved.

Taylor and Earthbound are close neighbors who know each other well. I doubt they will have much trouble bringing the two organizations together and it will be interesting to watch the process. For the rest of us, whether we are acquirers or acquired organizations, it is worth remembering that those common virtues of planning and careful execution, and paying attention to people and culture, pay off many times over down the road.