Let’s assume that you own and operate a company that manufactures a product in an industry that is eroding or going downhill. What are your choices or alternatives?
- Run the company as a “cash cow,” resigning yourself to the fact that your industry is slowly declining or is no longer a growth industry. Keep what you are doing profitable even if you
have to increase prices and/or cut costs.
- Increase R&D to develop new products.
- Acquire or merge with a competitor or strategic partner.
- Expand geographically.
- Diversify within the same familiar market.
- Sell the company now before there is further erosion in your industry
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A close review of the financial statements is always in order when considering the acquisition or merger of a company. However, that is only part of what a buyer is acquiring. Other important assets are:
- Repeat customers or clients
- Patented product, government approvals, profitable copyrights
- Broad customer or client base (diverse & growing)
- Long-term contracts
- Recognizable brand or product name
- Experienced management team and trained work force
- Valuable intellectual property
- Proprietary products
- Profitable alliances
- Contracts/non-competes with valuable employee
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According to a Price Waterhouse Coopers survey of more than 300 privately held U.S. businesses that have been sold or transferred, the most common steps companies take to improve their prospects for a sale, prior to taking the company to market, include:
- Improving profitability by cutting costs
- Restructuring debt
- Limiting owners’ compensation
- Fully funding the company pension plan
- Seeking the advice of a consultant or intermediary
- Improving the management team
- Upgrading computer systems/processes
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The 65-year old owner of a multi-location retail operation doing $30 million in annual sales decided to retire. He interviewed a highly recommended intermediary and was impressed. However, he had a nephew who had just received his MBA and who told his uncle that he could handle the sale and save him some money. He would do it for half of what the intermediary said his fee would be – so the uncle decided to use his nephew. Now, his nephew was a nice young man, educated at one of the top business schools, but he had never been involved in a middle market deal. He had read a lot of case studies and was confident that he could “do the deal.”
Inexperience # 1 – The owner and the nephew agreed not to bring the CFO into the picture, nor execute a “stay” agreement. The nephew felt he could handle the financial details. Neither one of them realized that a potential purchaser would expect to meet with the CFO when it came to the finances of the business, and certainly would expect the CFO to be involved in the due diligence process.
Inexperience # 2 – It never occurred to the owner or his nephew that revealing just the name of the company to prospective buyers would send competitors and only mildly interested prospects to the various locations. There was no mention of Confidentiality Agreements. Since the owner was not in a big hurry, there were no time limits set for offers or even term sheets. It would only be a matter of time before the word that the business was on the market would be out.
Inexperience # 3 – The owner wanted to spend some time with each prospective purchaser. Confidentiality didn’t seem to be an issue. There was no screening process, no interview by the nephew.
Inexperience # 4 – The nephew prepared what was supposed to be an Offering Memorandum. He threw some financials together that had not been audited, which included a missing $500,000 that the owner took and forgot to inform his nephew about. This obviously impacted the numbers. There were no projections, no ratios, etc. This lack of information would most likely result in lower offers or bids or just plain lack of buyer interest. In addition, the mention of a pending lawsuit that could influence the sale was hidden in the Memorandum.
Inexperience # 5 – The owner and nephew both decided that their company attorney could handle the details of a sale if it ever got that far. Unfortunately, although competent, the attorney had never been involved in a business sale transaction, especially one in the $15 million range.
Results — The seller was placing almost his entire net worth in the hands of his nephew and an attorney who had no experience in putting transactions together. The owner decided to call most of the shots without any advice from an experienced deal-maker. Any one of these “inexperiences” could not only “blow” a sale, but also create the possibility of a leak. The discovery that the company was for sale could be catastrophic, whether discovered by the competition, an employee, a major customer or a supplier .
The facts in the above story are true!
The moral of the story – Nephews are wonderful, but inexperience is fraught with danger. When considering the sale of a major asset, it is foolhardy not to employ experienced, knowledgeable professionals. A professional intermediary is a necessity, as is an experienced transaction attorney.
If you’ve never bought or sold a business before, then the factors that drive and influence business valuations likely seem a bit murky. In a recent Divestopedia article from Kevin Ramsier entitled, “A Closer Look at What Drives and Influences Business Valuations,” Ramsier takes a closer look at this important topic.
Business brokers and M&A advisors play a key role in helping business owners understand why their business receives the valuation that it does. No doubt, the final assessed value is based on a wide array of variables. But with some effort, clarity is possible.
In his article, Ramsier points out that “value means different things to different buyers” and that the “perceived value depends on the circumstances, interpretation and the role that is played in a transition.” It is important to remember that no two businesses are alike. For that reason, what goes into a given valuation will vary, often greatly.
Looking to EBITDA
Ramier points to several metrics including return on assets, return on equity and return on investment. Another important valuable for companies with positive cash flow is a multiple of EBITDA, which stands for “earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization.” EBITDA is widely used in determining value. On the flip side of the coin, if the company in question has a negative cash flow, then the liquidation value of the business will play a large role in determining its value.
Primary Drivers to Consider
Ramsier provides a guideline of Primary Drivers of Valuation, Secondary Drivers of Valuation and Other Potential Drivers of Valuation. In total there are 25 different variables listed, which underscores the overall potential complexity of accurately determining valuation.
In the Primary Drivers of Valuation list, Ramsier includes everything from the size of revenue and revenue stability to historical and projected EBITDA as well as potential growth and margin percentages. Other variables, ones that could easily be overlooked, such as the local talent pool and people training are also listed as variables that should be considered.
Support for the Business Owner
The bottom line is that determining valuation is not a one-dimensional affair, but is instead a dynamic and complex process. One of the single best moves any business owner can make is to reach out to an experienced business broker. Since business brokers are experts in determining valuation, owners working with brokers will know what to expect when the time comes to sell.
Does your business have real, long-lasting longevity or is your business a temporary entity that will vanish the second you stop working on it? In his insightful article in The Business Journals entitled, “Are You Living for Today as a Business Owner or Building Value?” author Kent Bernhard asks a very important question of readers, “Are you a lifestyle business owner or a value accelerator?”
Many business owners have never stopped to ask this very important, yet basic, question regarding their businesses. So, let’s turn our attention to this key question that all business owners must stop and ask at some point.
As Bernhard points out the core issue here is how a given business owner defines the idea of success for him or herself. As Chuck Richards, the CEO of CoreValue Software notes, “At the end of the day, a lifestyle business is just a job.”
Richards goes on to note that this is fine for many people. But if this is the case, it is a choice that one is making. Therefore, lifestyle business owners should be aware that they are, in fact, clearly making a choice.
Business owners who are lawyers, consultants and accountants often fall into the category of those with a “business as a job.” They fail to accumulate enough assets for their business to really be more than a job. Summed up in another fashion, the business generates enough revenue to provide a comfortable lifestyle. However, it does not have the infrastructure or equity to remain profitable, or even in existence, once they walk away. As the owner and operator of the business, they are vital to its very existence. This means that the business only has value so long as the owner is working in the business on a regular basis. As a result, the owner may never really be able to exit the business.
As Bernhard points out, “To build a business as an asset, you have to become a value accelerator who looks beyond whether the business’ profits are sufficient to maintain your lifestyle. It means looking at the business as an entity outside yourself.” Those who fall into the value accelerator category, focus on figuring out creating value for the business as a financial asset that can operate independently.
Making sure that your business can continue on without you means that you have to build it, and that involves having a coherent and focused plan. Plan in advance and know how you will exit your business. To ultimately create value for the business entity itself, a plan must be in place that allows for your successful exit.
Where your money is concerned, myths can do damage. A recent Divestopedia article from Tammie Miller entitled, Crazy M&A Myths You Need to Stop Believing Now, Miller explores 5 big M&A myths that can get you in trouble. Miller points out that many of these myths are believed by CEOs, but that they have zero basis in reality.
The first major myth Miller explores is the idea that the “negotiating is over once you sign the LOI.” The letter of intention is, of course, important. However, this is by no means the end of the negotiations and it is potentially dangerous to think otherwise. The negotiations are not concluded until there is a purchasing agreement in place. As Miller points out, there is a great deal that can go wrong during the due diligence process. For this reason, it is important to not see the LOI as the “end of the road.”
Another myth that Miller wants you to be aware of is that you don’t have to take a company’s debt as part of the purchase price. Many business brokers, such as Miller, recommend that buyers don’t take seller paper.
A third myth that Miller explorers is a particularly dangerous one. The idea that everyone who makes an offer has the money to follow through is, unfortunately, simply not true. Oftentimes, people will make offers without securing the money to actually buy the business. No doubt, this wastes everyone’s time. As the business owner, it can derail your progress. If you are not careful, it could actually prevent you from finding a qualified buyer.
Another myth is built around the notion that sellers don’t need a deal team in order to sell their business. Again, this is another myth that has no real foundation in reality. While it may be possible to sell your business without the assistance of an experienced M&A attorney or business broker, the odds are excellent that doing so will come at a price. According to Miller, those working with an investment banker or business broker can expect, on average, 20% more transaction value!
Additionally, there are other dangers in not having a deal team in place. A business broker can handle many of the time-consuming aspects of selling a business, so that you can keep running your business. It is not uncommon for business owners to get stretched too thin while trying to both run and sell a business and this can ultimately harm its value.
Miller’s final myth to consider is that you must sell your entire business. It is true that most buyers will want to buy 100% of a business, but a minority ownership position is still an option. There are many reasons to consider selling a minority stake, so don’t assume that selling your business is an “all or nothing” affair.
Ultimately, Miller lays out an exceptional case for the importance of working with business brokers when selling or buying a business. Business brokers can help you avoid myths. In the end, they know the lay of the land.
Before buying any business, a seller must ask questions, lots of questions. If there is ever a time where one should not be shy, it is when buying a business. In a recent article from Entrepreneur magazine entitled, “10 Questions You Must Ask Before Buying a Business”, author Jan Porter explores 10 of the single most important questions prospective buyers should be asking before signing on the dotted line. She points out to remember that “there are no stupid questions.”
The first question highlighted in this article is “What are your biggest challenges right now?” The fact is this is one of the single most prudent questions one could ask. If you want to reduce potential surprises, then ask this question.
“What would you have done differently?” is another question that can lead to great insights. Every business owner should be an expert regarding his or her own business. It only makes sense to tap into that expertise when one has the opportunity. The answers to this question may also illuminate areas of potential growth.
How a seller arrives at his or her asking price can reveal a great deal. Having to defend and outline why a business is worth a given price is a great way to determine whether or not the asking price is fair. In other words, a seller should be able to clearly defend the financials.
Porter’s fourth question is, “If you can’t sell, what will you do instead?” The answer to this question can give you insight into just how much bargaining power you may have.
A business’ financials couldn’t be any more important and will play a key role during due diligence. The question, “How will you document the financials of the business?” is key and should be asked and answered very early in the process. A clear paper trail is essential.
Buying a business isn’t all about the business or its owner. At first glance, this may sound like a strange statement, but the simple fact is that a business has to be a good fit for its buyer. That is why, Porter’s recommended question, “What skills or qualities do I need to run this business effectively?” couldn’t be any more important. A prospective buyer must be a good fit for a business or otherwise failure could result.
Now, here is a big question: “Do you have any past, pending or potential lawsuits?” Knowing whether or not you could be buying future headaches is clearly of enormous importance.
Porter believes that other key questions include: “How well documented are the procedures of the business?” and “How much does your business depend on a key customer or vendor?” as well as “What will employees do after the sale?”
When it comes to buying a business, questions are your friend. The more questions you ask, the more information you’ll have. The author quotes an experienced business owner who noted, “The more questions you ask, the less risk there will be.”
Business brokers are experts at knowing what kinds of questions to ask and when to ask them. This will help you obtain the right information so that you can ultimately make the best possible decision.
Many sellers worry that employees might “hit the panic button” when they learn that a business is up for sale. Yet, in a recent article from mergers and acquisitions specialist Barbara Taylor entitled, “Selling Your Business? 3 Reasons Why Your Employees Will Be Thrilled,” Taylor brings up some thought-provoking points on why employees might actually be glad to hear this news. Let’s take a closer look at the three reasons that Taylor believes employees might actually be pretty excited by the prospect of a sale.
Taylor is 100% correct in her assertion that employees may indeed get nervous when they hear that a business is up for sale. She recounts her own experience selling a business in which she was concerned that her employees might “pack up their bags and leave once we (the owners) had permanently left the building.” As it turns out, this wasn’t the case, as the employees did in fact stay on after the sale.
Interestingly, Taylor points to something of a paradox. While employees may sometimes worry that a new owner will “come in and fire everyone” the opposite is usually the case. Usually, the new owner is worried that everyone will quit and tries to ensure the opposite outcome.
Here Taylor brings up an excellent point for business owners to relay to their employees. A new owner will likely mean enhanced job security, as the new owner is truly dependent on the expertise, know-how and experience that the current employees bring to the table.
A second reason that employees may be excited with the prospect of a new owner is their potential career advancement. The size of your business will, to an extent, dictate the opportunities for advancement. However, if a larger entity buys your business then it is suddenly possible for your employees to have a range of new career advancement opportunities. As Taylor points out, if your business goes from a “mom and pop operation” to a mid-sized company overnight, then your employees will suddenly have new opportunities before them.
Finally, selling a business could mean “new growth, energy and ideas.” Taylor discusses how she had worked with a 72-year-old business owner that was exhausted and simply didn’t have the energy to run the business. This business owner felt that a new owner would bring new ideas and new energy and, as a result, the option for new growth.
There is no way around it, Taylor’s article definitely provides ample food for thought. It underscores the fact that how information is presented is critical. It is not prudent to assume that your employees may panic if you sell your business. The simple fact is that if you provide them with the right information, your employees may see a wealth of opportunity in the sale of your business.
In Divestopedia’s article, “The Myth of Fair Business Valuation: What Professional Valuations Don’t Tell You,” author Chak Reddy is quick to point out that the “type of buyer and method of sale are two important (yet often overlooked) value determinants when finding a starting price for your business.”
Reddy brings up some excellent points. One notion in particular that every business owner should be aware of is that there is “NO fair value for illiquid assets.” He points to the fact that between January 2007 and March 2008, the historic Bear Stearns went from a value of $20 billion dollars to just $238 million. In a mere 14 months, Bear Stearns lost most of its value.
Additionally, the article points to the fact that business owners often suffer enormously from “dramatic valuation compression.” In Reddy’s view, this compression is the direct result of poor planning and a failure on the part of business owners to select the right advisory teams.
Reddy believes that professional valuations can be quite lacking. He feels that they are “contingent on multiple assumptions,” and that the valuations are only as good as the assumptions upon which they are based. In other words, professional valuations can be limited and flawed. In particular, he points to the fact that two of the most important factors in valuations, future growth rate and operational synergies are “highly subjective and no two views on these topics are likely to be identical.” Summed up another way, valuations are inherently a matter of opinion and perspective. Reddy feels that a seller will be “lucky” if the real sales price comes within 10% to 20% of the professional valuation.
In the end, as always, it is the market that determines value. It is the acquirer who will determine the value more than any other factor. The perception of the buyer will play a key role in the process and, further to the point, no two buyers will perceive the business exactly the same way. In other words, valuations can be tricky and certainly do involve a personal element of the individual who is appraising the business’ value. Adding to this point, Reddy states, “From our experience, the type of buyer and the type of sale skew the valuation to such an extent that it is unwise for a business owner to not be familiar with these variables and their impact before the beginning of the sales process.”
Ultimately, finding the right buyer is essential and this is where a business broker can prove simply invaluable. And finding that right buyer may take time.