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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Entrepreneur shares personal business trajectory

Published: October 24, 2014
Section: News

On Tuesday, Oct. 21, in the Brandeis International Business School’s Lee Hall, Bodo Liesenfeld, former CEO of Rohde & Liesenfeld International, shared his experience of selling his company in a talk titled “Harvesting: If, When and How.”

Charles Reed, senior lecturer at IBS, introduced the speaker. Liesenfeld holds a degree in business administration from the University of Hamburg Germany. He is also the chairman of the Berklee Global Jazz Institute and runs a family business, Liesenfeld International LLC. The former CEO has also been a neighbor of Reed’s for six years.

In explaining the title of the event, Liesenfeld said, “Harvesting is getting something approved on time.” Under normal circumstances, harvesting is good, but harvesting in the sense of selling a company, Liesenfeld said, is not necessarily positive.

“Deciding when and who to sell and how to sell are difficult,” said Liesenfeld. “There are some times when the company is just forced to sell. There are huge number of possibilities and combinations to selling.”

Liesenfeld concentrated on the timeline of his bargain and shared brief background facts about his company.

His logistics company, founded by his father in 1954, grew relatively large. It expanded into an international intercontinental ocean and air freight company. It reached many countries on five continents, and had about 1,000 employees. The turnover was approximately $500 million. The company, headquartered at the World Trade Center, had nine other offices in the U.S.

He entered the company—after spending some time in Latin America and after earning his M.B.A. back in the United States—in the beginning of 1980s. There were about 350 to 400 people involved in the company at that time. The company then had some difficult years, and in the end, Liesenfeld made the decision to sell his company.

He also explained the difficulty of understanding the differences in entrepreneurship cultures across different countries.

“There are cultural differences depending on where you live,” he explained. “Private companies in Europe usually, they do not grow their company to sell. The majority of the people that have privately owned companies still own the company to pass it on to the next generation to keep and grow it as a family business as long as they can.”

He continued, and described the manner of independent business he conducted.

“You grow your company in a different ways,” he said. “Thinking about the next generation … My mindset was to keep the company as a family company.”

Then he transitioned to talking about what the company meant personally to him.

“It was genetically in me,” he said. “It was a logistic business, but I did not need to intervene in daily interactions. How free am I as an entrepreneur? I am self-employed. But I depend on the banks, customers, employees and staffs. If my best people leave, my business is in jeopardy.”

Running the entire business at his own risk, he realized he was not free at all. His last freedom surfaced in his decision to sell the company.

He detailed how he dealt with the negotiation. “The company was a well-medium sized company, but in the ’90s, the high time of global time, it was a difficult time,” he explained. “I talked to Asian companies the same size, preparing to sell the company … I went to financial investors to finance … They said all the independent players were so high in supply that I would have to give up a lot of shares when the companies merged together … that was the major reason I decided to sell the company after realizing my opinions will lose strength after the merging of the company.”

Next he proclaimed that there is no defining the “best” moment to sell a company. However, he felt lucky in his own transaction.

Liesenfeld started his negotiation in February 2007 and signed the contract on Sept. 27 of the same year. He closed the deal on Jan. 3, 2008. In 2007, the “housing bubble wave” in America had not yet gone over to Europe. In April 2008, the participator from the bank who was financing the deal said to Liesenfeld, “You are lucky. This kind of deal would never ever happen.”

In his case, his deal was successful due to swift decision making. Liesenfeld did not hesitate, and he signed the contract as soon as possible.

Liesenfeld mentioned that selling a company is nerve-wracking. “Who am I if I am not sitting at this office anymore?” he asked, giving examples of how he felt at the time. “Who am I if cannot ask the secretary to write a letter? Who am I if people don’t come to me anymore because I am no longer an important customer?”

Liesenfeld made a point of never attending negotiation meetings.

“When you sit there and there are tough negotiations and there are guys on the other side, young, fast-running, four-language-speaking, Brandeis graduates, 28-years-olds, they know the more hours they keep you in negotiations, the higher the revenue is for their company whether it be BCG or Bain, so they keep talking and they talk about what you and your company has done wrong in the past,” he explained.

Liesenfeld spoke about what he has done since selling the company. “I was happy with the deal but I had totally new things to learn about wealth management … before I did not have to worry about it. I had to learn from scratch how to manage money, allocating things … After selling a company I realized how much I have received from the society. Everyone in this room should be conscious, grateful, humble and modest. It was the society, community that helped me be successful. We should give back.”