Mergers and acquisitions can be a long — and delicate — process, and there’s plenty that can go wrong before it’s over. Without solid due diligence, a merger and acquisition can be fraught with disaster. To better the chances that yours is a success, up-front due diligence work is a must.

How strong are the financials?

The first thing that comes to mind when someone says “due diligence” is finances. You must know how a company has previously performed financially, as well as its current assets and liabilities, earnings and expenses, and other relevant information.

But your financial scrutiny should go beyond the usual. If a target company has recently reduced spending in areas such as research and development or advertising, ask why. Sometimes such reductions are merely efforts to improve perceived value.

Hidden liabilities can be another risk. You’ll want to know about potential exposure to environmental dangers (such as asbestos), possible legal claims from disgruntled employees or unhappy customers, and any other hidden minefields. Such liabilities can derail a promising transaction or significantly affect the purchase price.

Do employees’ understand their roles?

The success of a merger or acquisition rests heavily on employees’ shoulders, and you’ll need to communicate their future roles early and often. This is particularly important if certain executives or managers are essential to continued operations.

Don’t risk losing key employees through perceived indifference. Open and maintain lines of communication from the due diligence process to postintegration operations.

Have you overlooked any details?

Financial due diligence is critical, but it isn’t enough by itself. Other areas of a manufacturing company merit scrutiny before you begin the merger or acquisition process.

First, ask whether the plan makes sense. What do you hope to accomplish with this move, and will your potential partnership help you reach that goal? If it won’t, there’s no need to proceed.

You’ll also need to look beyond the obvious. For example, don’t rely on your gut instinct to tell you if the manufacturer’s customers are poised to shift their supply base out of the country. You need to study a potential merger partner’s customer base early to learn why customers do business with the company and whether changes are in the offing.

Next, examine how productivity and profitability will improve after the transaction. Does the target company use lean manufacturing processes? How efficient is its work flow? Does it generate significant scrap material? What are its inventory levels? In other words, are there areas that you’ll be able to improve fairly easily?

Unwelcome answers to these and other operational efficiency questions may not be deal-breakers, but you’ll need them to conduct a realistic assessment. And don’t forget to consider the costs you’ll incur in implementing needed improvements.

Is the technology compatible?

In today’s high-tech manufacturing environment, you can’t afford to overlook information and manufacturing technology. Integrating two IT systems can be costly, frustrating and slow. Learn in advance whether your system is compatible with the other company’s and, if not, determine how much a solution will cost. If you’ll need a more specialized technician to keep a certain machining system running, for example, you want to know that in advance.

Have you performed an on-site inspection?

When you’re in the middle of performing due diligence, it may be tempting to stay in your office, solely relying on videoconferences and e-mail. Modern technology can make due diligence much more efficient, but it won’t tell you the full story on how a company operates — even with video.

For some assessments an onsite visit will be necessary. Walk through the target company’s plant and keep an eye on operations during your visit. Look for signs of stale inventory, workers missing required safety gear, and other signals that quality and efficiency may be lacking. Talk to plant supervisors and shop employees to get a sense of whether they’re committed to doing a good job — or just their job.

When you’re through, you’ll have a better idea of what improvements may be needed and what cost-saving opportunities are available. You may also come away with a sense of whether employees will welcome the change in ownership or resist it.

Aim for success

A merger or acquisition can be a part of effective growth strategies for some manufacturers — when done correctly. Performing due diligence upfront can be the difference between success or disaster.