One underexplored path to entrepreneurship: Acquisition

The right partnerships offer opportunities for businesses to grow faster and more strategically

Mark Agnew, Brian O’Connor | Mar 15, 2021

Small businesses are always looking to grow, but owners might not understand their full scope of possibilities these days. They might purchase a new piece of equipment or make a hire or two.

There’s nothing wrong with those approaches, but as business advisers, we’ve seen tremendous growth opportunities in “entrepreneurship through acquisition.” 

Small-business owners looking for larger growth opportunities might consider partnering with early-career, entrepreneurial business leaders such as those coming out of local top-tier MBA programs like Chicago Booth. Depending on the owner’s objectives, these deals can include the sale of all, some, or none of the small business.

While these MBA graduates traditionally would be starting their own businesses, many are now considering bringing their talents to small and midsize businesses. Their education gives them cutting-edge knowledge about innovation, and they’re using it to catapult forward the businesses they join.

They come armed with capital, deep and strategic networks from the prestigious institutions where they have earned their degrees, and a good amount of hustle and grit. Once on board, they can help identify several paths to help grow a small business: additional strategic acquisitions and partnerships, investment into technology and infrastructure, investment in strategic talent, and business development, to name a few.

Dave Newberry, president and CEO of ConData Global in Oak Brook, is a great example. Newberry, a recent Booth MBA graduate, led the merger of ConData, a global leader in freight auditing, and TNL Global, which specializes in related parcel auditing.

The companies essentially do similar things—audit companies to look for efficiencies and save their clients money. ConData’s acquisition added complementary pieces to its own business, and the company now has an expanded client base to work with. As the companies blend, they’ll develop efficiencies that enable them to better serve their customers on a more cost-effective basis.

This is a new avenue for growth for small businesses, and we know small-business owners may be hesitant to consider whether they’re in a position to go down this road. Our advice: Take the call from the ambitious MBA grad who expresses interest in your business, or start to develop some relationships with the talented entrepreneurs in this ecosystem. There may be opportunities to grow more quickly than you once thought and mitigate the risk that many fear comes with entrepreneurship through acquisition.

And check out resources that offer up-to-date information on these ideas. We suggest Chicago Booth’s Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation, which has an “Entrepreneurship Through Acquisition” podcast series, among many other resources.

Mark Agnew and Brian O’Connor are adjunct associate professors of entrepreneurship at Chicago Booth. Agnew is the former president of Lou Malnati’s. O’Connor is the founder and managing partner of NextGen Growth Partners. Together, they teach the Entrepreneurship Through Acquisition class at Booth.

This column is part of the Chicago Booth Insights series, a partnership with Crain’s Chicago Business, in which Booth faculty offer advice for small businesses and entrepreneurs on the basis of their research.