What To Do When Your Co-Founder Quits

Stefan Palios

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What would you do if your co-founder and co-CEO of 30 years told you he wanted out within six months? That’s the situation Don Murray found himself in when Dale Lutz told him in June 2023 that he wanted to sell his 50% stake in Safe Software, the company they’d co-founded in 1993. Speaking with TechExit.io, Don explained more about the emotional side of that journey—and how he’s adjusting to being the sole CEO after three decades.

Key takeaways:

  • Profitable from day one, Don and Dale entertained dozens of potential buyers for Dale’s 50% stake before JMI Equity became the frontrunner.
  • During the process, Don acquired 1% of Dale’s stake to take the controlling stake with 51% ownership.
  • Now that Don is sole CEO, he’s invigorated and moving ahead on the mission—but with new KPIs to report on and a very well-resourced partner.

After building Safe Software together for 30 years, Dale Lutz told his co-founder and co-CEO Don Murray that he wanted out. This was in June, and Dale made it clear he wanted to sell his half of the company and move on by year’s end.

The ensuing six months saw a quick exit process. Dale project managed, whittling over 100 interested parties down to ultimately just one: JMI Equity. As JMI became the partner of choice, Don became Safe Software’s sole CEO and the deal was announced in January 2024. While the official numbers aren’t public, the Globe and Mail estimated Dale’s stake was worth somewhere around $250 million CAD.

Speaking with TechExit.io, Don pulled back the curtain on the emotional eight-month journey from Dale’s announcement to adjusting to life as CEO.

An emotional summer

Don said his first emotion was denial; he couldn’t believe that Dale would want to quit, just like that, after 30 years. That quickly gave way to bargaining.

“I wanted to talk about it and see if there were some changes we could make that would make him happy,” said Don. “After 30 years, he decided there's other things he wants to do in his life.”

After a couple weeks of discussions, Don saw the writing on the wall—Dale was ready to move on and nothing was going to keep him there. Don accepted that reality and, just as quickly as he’d moved to bargaining to keep Dale, he pivoted to making sure Dale got the best exit possible.

“I thought, ‘Let’s put our best foot forward so Dale gets fair compensation,’” said Don. “We owed it to him.”

You’ve still got a business to run

Once it became clear Dale was leaving, another big question came up: who would buy his stake? Don said the duo immediately began looking for a partner or purchaser, with Dale project managing.

The company had just set an ambitious 5-year goal to hit $250 million in revenue when Dale broke the news—only when it came to due diligence did relevant executives get brought into the conversation.

As Dale managed the process of whittling buyers down, Don began to think of what he wanted and needed from the exit. After all, he would be the one left. As JMI became the frontrunner in the process, Don realized he wanted to have control of the company—that is, own 51% rather than the equal 50:50 split he and Dale had for the previous 30 years.

Looking back, Don acknowledges how his own emotions may have led to the “somewhat irrational” ask of getting 51% of the company. He explained, for instance, that he could fairly easily have drafted into any partnership agreement that he had decision-making authority or some other protections.

But for him, the equity stake also represented something else: protecting the team and the company’s mission against the wild unknown variable of a new partner.

“I wanted 51% so that it was clear that I had control,” said Don. “And also to help the team relax—it's not just me who's in this. It's the whole team now that has a new owner and I'm able to say, ‘Things are going to stay the same. We're going to keep doing it.’”

Don said JMI supported his request and facilitated him buying 1% of the company to get the majority. But JMI also brought in their own growth playbooks, complete with it a new slate of KPIs that Don has a responsibility to report including the Rule of 60 and line-item costs to acquire a customer.

“In the past, we’d reported revenue growth and EBITDA, but we’ve always been profitable—we just did a profit share with employees,” said Don. “Now [JMI] is looking at what creates a really healthy company.”

What retirement?

A few months into his new-ish job as sole CEO, Don is feeling comfortable. The company’s growth trajectory was not harmed by Dale’s exit and JMI’s new growth playbooks stand to help the organization even further.

But with Dale having left, ostensibly retiring from the traditional workforce, some people began asking Don a similar question: when is he heading for the door? Not only had his partner retired, but he’s also been running Safe Software for 30 years; no one would begrudge him some time to himself.

In the face of those questions, Don mostly laughs—if anything, he said he feels more retired now than many retired people he knows.

“Retirement is a place where you get up every day and you do exactly what you want with the people you want,” said Don. “And, uh… I'm doing that now.”