When not to sell
The owner of MFG.com was about to sell his business for a cool $25 million. Then Amazon's Jeff Bezos persuaded him to hang on.
By Elaine Pofeldt, FSB Magazine

(FSB Magazine) -- Mitch Free never expected to get a $25 million offer for his Atlanta company, MFG.com. It wasn't even for sale when a European software firm made a bid for it last year. "That was more money than I ever thought I would have in my life," says the former machinist, who had launched his online business - which matches manufacturers with suppliers - just six years earlier.

Free, 44, was ready to sign the term sheet when he got a call from Jeff Bezos. The founder of Amazon.com had heard about MFG.com from Bezos Expeditions, his private investment group.

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Bezos, 42, saw big potential in MFG.com and didn't think Free should cash out of his profitable business - which should increase its sales 70% this year, to $15 million - just yet. After a visit to Bezos in Seattle and follow-ups by phone, Free nixed the deal with the software firm and instead sold Bezos a large stake in MFG.com that valued the company at more than $25 million.

Free is one of a growing number of entrepreneurs who are embracing private-equity investors to unlock wealth in their companies without giving up control. Private-equity firms such as Bezos Expeditions generally take a 10% to 49% stake in a company, join the board, and work with the owner to generate a handsome return when the company is sold after five years or so.

Free runs MFG.com, but Bezos Expeditions sits on the board and offers strategic advice, urging him to seek faster revenue growth, even at the expense of near-term profits. The question is whether that approach will work better for MFG.com than it has for Amazon (Charts). In its most recent quarter, Amazon's top-line growth beat analysts' expectations, but profits dropped sharply and the stock fell 22% in a day, making it down 30% over the past 12 months.

To help Free feel comfortable taking more risks, Bezos persuaded the entrepreneur to set aside $2 million of the private-equity investment as savings for his retirement. Most of the rest Free plans to reinvest in the business.

Bezos told FSB that MFG.com is blessed with "critical mass and a defensible position in a huge market space" - sound familiar? - "bringing together manufacturing buyers and suppliers in a way that had not been done before."

Each of MFG.com's 2,300 supplier clients pays, on average, about $6,000 a year to be listed on the site, and more than 47,000 potential buyers - including GE (Charts), Hyundai (Charts), and NASA - use the site free to buy manufacturing products and services.

Free is spending heavily to attract more suppliers worldwide, and he thinks he can sign up 20,000 over the next three to five years. (He also recently acquired SourcingParts, a Swiss company that helps manufacturers manage relationships with their clients.)

Now may be a great time to sell a business, but Free has no regrets about waiting. He says that Bezos persuaded him that by acquiring many more customers now, "there will always be opportunities to sell it when you're ready." Assuming that those new customers are profitable.

Would you sell your business if you were offered more than a million for it? Or do you enjoy running your company too much to give it up? Tell us what you think.

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Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer.

Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved.

Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved.

Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2014 and/or its affiliates.