As the recession settled over Wichita, one casualty was the tiny industry of brokers who connect business sellers and buyers.
In the second quarter, there were 27 Wichita businesses listed with BizBuySell.com, a national website that serves as a forum for brokers. That's down from 37 listings in the same quarter of 2009.
But in recent weeks and months, as the economy has shown signs of recovery, some Wichita business brokers report seeing a bit of an uptick in interest in larger companies, in sectors such as non-aircraft manufacturing and warehousing.
Retailers and other businesses that rely on the local economy remain weak, say local brokers.
But even in the darkest days of 2009, there were sales.
Last year, Forrest and Katie Vornauf bought a liquor store at Lincoln and Woodlawn and named it F&K Liquor.
She was the store manager of a well-known retail establishment, and he worked for small manufacturer. He got laid off in late 2008.
"After a year, he got called for a job," Katie said. "Here he was 54 years old and the job was offering half the pay. He was wondering, 'Did I really want to do it?' "
Katie was also getting worn out by the paperwork and stress of her job. She had always wanted her own business and persuaded him to join her.
They researched online what businesses were available. They looked for one that provided enough income, was inexpensive enough to afford and was relatively simple to operate.
They contacted Steve Fischer, owner of VR Business Brokers, who represented the seller, and eventually did the deal. The Vornaufs largely financed it out of savings.
Today, they have no regrets, Katie Vornauf said.
"We are very, very happy," she said. "We did the math on our own and did the math with Steve to make the living we wanted to make. It turned out to be very accurate.
"I have less stress in my life owning my business than working in the corporate world, by far."
There are at least seven business brokerages operating in Wichita, but each has just a few employees and they work far beyond the confines of Wichita.
They resemble real estate brokers in that they represent either a buyer or a seller, and are responsible for finding a seller or a buyer. They're paid a commission from the sale price.
The difference is the depth and complexity of the deals. Businesses are complex and values are based largely on their financial performance, which can vary greatly even for businesses that appear similar. But brokers must also research the company, its reputation, its key people, its customer list and its books in order to represent it accurately.
Given months or years, brokers can help clients "stage" their business for sale, said Randy Browning of Sunbelt Business Advisors
So-called "value drivers" include locking up the senior management team, removing items like the grandkids' cell phones from the company books, and diversifying the customer base.
Brokers depend heavily on repeat business and word of mouth, so they have an incentive to make both sides happy.
Most of the brokers in Wichita deal in businesses with less than $2 million in revenue, typically retailers, restaurants and small service companies. The listings can easily be found online.
But the recession has made it doubly tough to sell a business, local brokers said.
Some owners want a broker to help sell a businesses in serious financial trouble, Browning said. His answer is usually no.
"We turn down 10 businesses for every one we take," he said. "If there is no money and no prospect for making money, they just don't have much value... Those are hard conversations to have."
On the other hand, owners of businesses that are still profitable want to wait until their revenue and earnings — thus, the value of their business — rebound.
"The worst time to sell a business is when you have to," Fischer said.
The story is slightly more optimistic at a higher level, said Pat Finn of Vercor.
Finn brokers sales of companies with revenue of between $2 million and $50 million. These are often manufacturers and wholesalers over 18 states.
He said buyers, such as private equity funds, are searching for bargains. Sellers, he said, are being pushed by pent-up demand and the looming expiration of capital gains.
And, Finn said, the economy does feel a little stronger than in 2009.
"I think people are more upbeat, and that helps," he said.
Tips for buyers, sellers
Mike Relihan, a stockbroker, bought Bullseye Indoor Shooting Range, near 13th and Oliver, last year.
He was looking for a business to buy and the numbers on this one were just too good to pass up, he said.
Relihan said he appreciated that Fischer, who represented the seller, kept pushing the deal despite hiccups that arose between the two sides.
"So many things can destroy a deal," Relihan said. "You all have to just keep solving problems. I started in January and didn't close until October."
Relihan and Vornauf had some recommendations for those seeking to buy a business:
* Know your priorities: Money? Security? Ability to grow?
* Ask why the seller is selling.
* Remember who the broker represents, although both said Fischer helped them even though he didn't represent them in their deals.
* Pick a business you know something about, preferably having managed in that business.
* Research the financial ratios online to know what you can afford.
* Make sure you are well financed because there are always extra costs. Many times the previous owner has underinvested in the business.