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.
There is no denying the fact that life is much, much easier when one can find the right buyer for his or her business. Buying or selling a business can be a stressful affair, but much of that stress can be eliminated by getting the right support.
The Concept of the “Right Buyer”
In the recent Inc. article entitled, “How to Find the Right Buyer for Your Business and Avoid Negative Consequences,” Bob House builds his article around a relatively simple and straightforward, but powerful, concept. House’s notion is, “the right buyer is worth more than a big check.”
House correctly points out that far too many sellers become fixated on exiting their business and grabbing a big pay day. In their focused interest in the sum they will receive, these sellers ignore a range of other important details. In part, sellers often miss the single greatest variable in the entire process: finding the most qualified buyer. The simple fact is that if sellers want to reduce their long-term stress, then there is no replacement for finding the most qualified buyer, as the wrong buyer can be “headache city!”
Plan in Advance
As House points out, it is only prudent to determine what you want out of a buyer well before you put your business up for sale. For example, if you don’t want to offer financing, then that is a decision you need to make well before you begin the process.
Additionally, House wisely places considerable interest on pre-screening potential buyers. Pre-screening is a great reason to work with an experienced and proven business broker who can assist with the process. As a business owner your time is precious. The last thing you want are a lot of window shoppers wasting your time.
Keep Your Focus on Your Business
Remember, while your business is up for sale, you still have to run your business. Quite often, business owners have difficulty running their business and navigating the complex sales process simultaneously. The end result can be disastrous, as revenue can drop and business problems can arise.
Working with a business broker means that you are dramatically reducing your potential stressors throughout the sales process. A business broker will ensure that potential buyers are pre-screened and that only serious buyers are brought to you for consideration.
Currently, the market conditions are great for sellers. If you are considering selling, now is the time to find a business broker and jump into the market!
The IBBA and M&A Source Market Pulse Survey Report for the fourth quarter of 2018 has a range of interesting insights. The survey’s purpose is to provide an “accurate understanding of market conditions for businesses being sold in Main Street (values $0-$2MM) and the Lower Middle Market (values $2MM-$50MM). This national survey was designed as a tool for business owners and their advisors and has the support of both the Pepperdine Private Capital Markets Projects and the Pepperdine Graziadio Business School.
One of the most striking facts to leap out of the report is the fact that a full one-third of advisors fully expect the strong market to end this year. Overall, advisors are not optimistic that the current climate will continue through 2020. In fact, advisors are encouraging sellers to consider placing their businesses on the market now, while the market is still strong. This is according to Craig Everett, PhD and Assistant Professor of Finance and Director of the Pepperdine Private Capital Markets Project.
One fact from the report that could be overlooked is that only a mere 8% of advisors expect the current climate to last for 48 months or more. Additionally, only 9% believe that the current climate will last between 24 to 48 months. Perhaps most striking of all is the fact that 60% of advisors feel that the current climate will end within the next two years.
Business owners who are considering selling should be advised that almost two-thirds of advisors now feel that there will be a significant shift in the next two years. Considering that it can take a year or more to sell a business, business owners would be wise to consider this important fact.
The report sites Neal Isaacs, Owner of VR Business Brokers of the Triangle who states, “Deals are taking longer in due diligence as buyers work hard to validate their investment and make sure that what they’re buying is worth the premium price today’s sellers are commanding.”
So, is now the time to sell? Many experts feel that it is possible to lose a sizable amount of value if one waits too long to sell. Even just a few months can make a huge difference in terms of perceived value and the ultimate sales price. Working with a proven business broker is a key way to ensure that you are selling at the right time and secure the best possible price.
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.
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.
Divestopedia published a rather insightful article, “Letting the Market Bridge the Valuation Gap.” In this October 2018 article, Dave Kauppi dives in and explores how fair market value can be used as a way for business owners to “bridge the gap between the valuation they feel they deserve and that which they’re likely to receive.” This, of course, increases the chances of a deal actually taking place. Let’s turn our attention to some of the key points in Kauppi’s informative article.
Understanding the Reality of Selling a Business
One key point is that only a low percentage of businesses actually sell on their first attempt. The article points out that a mere 10% of businesses that are for sale are actually sold three years later; this is a simply brutal fact. Few facts, if any, help underscore the value of working with a business broker more than this point. Selling a business can be difficult under even the best of circumstances. The process is complex, and most sellers have never actually sold a business before.
Divestopedia believes that it is critical for business owners to have realistic expectations regarding valuation. As the article points out, the market doesn’t care “how much money you need for retirement,” or how much you’ve invested.
Four Points to Consider
According to the article, it is important that business owners understand that a few business characteristics will ultimately drive the sale. There are four key factors to consider: contractually recurring revenue, durable competitive advantage, growth rate and customer concentration.
There is a lot packed into these four points, but here are a couple of big takeaways. In terms of customer growth, if a large percentage of your business is derived from a single customer, then that is going to be seen as a problem. As Divestopedia points out, if your company is dependent and partially dependent on a single customer, then you can expect a lot of pressure for you, as the business owner, to stick around a lot longer to ensure that this key customer isn’t lost. If intellectual property, such as software, is involved, then things can get even more complex. In the end, determining value in technology-based companies can be more challenging.
In the end, working with a seasoned business broker, one that understands valuation and how best to get there, is a must. You want to receive the best possible price for your business. An experienced business broker will help you understand how to navigate the complex process of determining a price. However, and most importantly, a business broker will help you achieve a fair market value, so that your business doesn’t remain unsold for years.