Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Pricing Dynamics of Selling a Business

How much is my business worth? That depends. Of course it depends on profits, sales, EBITDA, and other traditional valuation metrics. A surprisingly important factor, however, is how you choose to sell it. If I could share with you how you could realize at least 20% more for your business would you read the rest of this article?
The way to achieve the most value from the sale of your company is to get several strategic buyers all competing in a soft auction process. That is the holy grail of company valuation. There are several exit or value options. Let's examine each one starting with the lowest which is liquidation value.

Liquidation Value - This is basically the sale of the hard assets of the business as it ceases to be a going concern. No value is given for good will, brand name, customer lists, or company earnings capability. This is a sad way to exit a business that you spent twenty years building.
Book Value - is simply an accounting treatment of the physical assets. Book value is generally not even close to the true value of a business. It only accounts for the depreciated value of physical assets and does not take into account such things as earnings power, proprietary technology, competitive advantage, growth rate, and many other important factors. In case you are working on a shareholder agreement and looking for a methodology for calculating a buy-out, Book value is a terrible metric to use. A better approach would be a multiple of sales or EBITDA.

Unsolicited Offer to Buy from a Competitor - This is the next step up in value. The best way I can describe the buyer mindset is that they are hoping to get lucky and buy this company for a bargain price. If the unsuspecting seller bites or makes a weak counter offer, the competitor gets a great deal. If the seller is diligent and understands the real value of his company, he sends this bottom-feeder packing.

Another tactic from this bargain seeker it to propose a reasonable offer in a qualified letter of intent and then embark on an exhaustive due diligence process. He uncovers every little flaw in the target company and begins the process of chipping away at value and lowering his original purchase offer. He is counting on the seller simply wearing down since he has invested so much in the process and accepting the significantly lower offer.

Buyer Introduced by Seller's Professional Advisors - Unfortunately this is a commonly executed yet flawed approach to maximizing the seller's transaction value. The seller confides in his banker, financial advisor, accountant, or attorney that he is considering selling. The well-meaning advisor will often "know a client in the same business" and will provide an introduction. This introduction often results in a bidding process of only one buyer. That buyer has no motivation to offer anything but a discounted price.

Valuation From a Professional Valuation Firm - At about the midpoint in the value chain is this view of business value. These valuations are often in response to a need such as gift or estate taxes, setting up an ESOP, a divorce, insurance, or estate planning. These valuations are conservative and are generally done strictly by the numbers. These firms use several techniques, including comps, rules of thumb, and discounted cash flow. These methods are not great in accounting for strategic value factors such as key customers, intellectual capital, or a competitive bidding process from several buyers.

Private Equity or Financial Buyer - In this environment of too much money chasing too few deals, the Private Equity Groups are stepping up with some surprisingly generous purchase deals. They still have their roots as financial buyers and go strictly by the numbers, but they have increased the multiples they are willing to pay. Where two years ago they would buy a bricks and mortar company for 5 ½ X EBITDA, they are now paying 7 X EBITDA.
Strategic Buyers in a Bidding Process - The Holy Grail of transaction value for business sellers is to have several buyers that are actively seeking to acquire the target company. One of the luckiest things that has happened in our client's favor as they were engaged in selling their company was an announcement that a big company just acquired one of the seller's competitors. All of a sudden our client became a strategic prized target for the competitors of the buying company. If for no other reason than to protect market share, these buyers come out of the woodwork with some very aggressive offers.

This principal holds as an M&A firm attempts to stimulate the same kind of market dynamic. By positioning the seller as a potential strategic target of a competitor, the other industry players often step up with attractive valuations in a defensive posture.

Another value driver that a good investment banker will employ is to establish a strategic fit between seller and buyer. The advisor will attempt to paint a picture of 1 + 1 = 3 ½. Factors such as eliminating duplication of function, cross selling each other's products into the other's install base, using the sellers product to enhance the competitive position of the buying company's key products, and extending the life of the buyer's technology are examples of this artful positioning.

Of course, the merger and acquisition teams of the buyers are conditioned to deflect these approaches. However, they realize that their competitors are getting the same presentation. They have to ask themselves, "Which of these strategic platforms will resonate with their competitors' decision makers?"

As you can see, the value of your business can be subjectively interpreted depending on the lenses through which it is viewed. The decision you make on how your business is sold will determine how value is interpreted and can result in 20%, 30%, or even 40% differences in your sale proceeds.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Selling A Business - The Eleventh Hour Contract Change

The next line could be, "Will it Derail Your Sale?" We have seen it go both ways, unfortunately. If a deal does blow up, everybody looses. The seller has spent six months of divided focus and many of the normal business development activities have been put on the back burner. His or her business will simply not be as strong if the business sale process is not completed.
Normally a buyer that has made it to this point is the one that recognizes the most strategic value and has indicated their willingness to pay for that value. The second, third, and fourth place buyers, if they even have been uncovered, are generally far short of the winning bidder. We have had some very specialized companies that were great fits for only one buyer and the next best bid was less than 50% of the leader's offer. That is not a very attractive backup plan, should the best buyer go away.
The buyer is also damaged by an eleventh hour deal blow up. They have devoted senior level people to analyzing, negotiating, preparing for the integration of the two companies, etc. It often involves several hundred thousand dollars of opportunity costs. If the target company was the answer to a gap in the buyer's product set, they will no longer be able to recognize the anticipated benefits unless they now build it themselves or go acquire the next best target company. Both of these approaches are expensive and time consuming.
Let's get back to the root of the problem. What would cause a buyer to make an eleventh hour change? Our experience has shown that in 80% or more of the cases, it has been the buyer's corporate counsel or outside counsel. They have discovered a deal component that when memorialized in a definitive purchase agreement is either not legal or violates the corporate "risk versus reward covenant."
This is where it gets emotional. It is done "after we had a deal.' We coach our sellers up front and warn them that this can happen. The way we position it is that as a simple matter of logistics, the buyer's legal team has very limited detailed involvement prior to crafting the definitive purchase agreement. In the heat of negotiations, however, the M&A guys have often agreed to something that will not pass the protectors of the mother ship (corporate counsel). When the particular deal term moves the Risk/Reward needle into the red zone, the corporate counsel over rules the M&A guys. An example of this would be an earn out that was open ended and not capped - simply unacceptable on Wall Street.
Another manifestation of the eleventh hour change is the buyer's business development team is tasked with bring the deal along to a point with final approval reserved for the president or the board. Sometimes the M&A team simply commits to something that gets rejected in the final approval process. Unfortunately, sometimes this is real and sometimes it is a popular negotiating ploy called deferring to the higher authority. It can be very tricky determining which is real and which is negotiating.
O.K. So we have established that more often than not, the seller will encounter the dreaded eleventh hour deal change. How should he or she respond?
First Rule - be prepared and know that it is part of the normal process. Do not put it into the category of this is the evil empire looking to beat up the little guy.
Second Rule - Do not destroy your personal good will with the buyer. Often times, the owner has huge value to the buyer in terms of post acquisition product integration and education on their market. If this last minute deal change turns you into Mr. Hyde at the negotiating table, the buyer's Risk/Reward needle could be moved into the red zone. If they view you as someone that could damage company morale or who will be high maintenance or worse, will be litigious, they will walk away from the deal at this point.
Rule Three - If you feel you are about to explode in front of the buyers, ask for a 15 minute break, go into another room and unload on your advisors. Get it out of your system, calm down, and go back into problem solving mode.
Rule Four - Let your advisors do your bidding. Recognize that this is an emotionally charged area for you and it is essential for you to preserve your relationship with your future employer. Let your M&A advisor or your attorney be the bull dog, not you.
Rule Five - Respond in kind at the appropriate economic level. Do not look for a pound of flesh to compensate you for your sense of moral indignation. In corporate America it's not going to happen. Work with your advisors to identify the extent of the economic value you have lost due to the change. Ask for concessions in return that match the economics of the buyer's change.
Rule Six - Keep your eye on the prize. In this very emotional time, you must prepare yourself to be an economic being. If your next best buyer is $2 million below your current buyer's offer, do not put the deal in jeopardy by violating Rules One through Five for a change with maximum impact of $20,000. Put your ego on the shelf, step back, keep your moral indignation in check and preserve your good will. Remain fluid and creative while allowing your advisors to take on the role of the bad guy. Get your deal signed, enjoy your new substantial bank balance, and prosper as a prized member of your new company.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Do Your Company's Sales Match the Excellence of Your Product or Service?

For many entrepreneurs, technology based companies or healthcare companies, the answer to that question is a resounding, NO! There is an exception to this with the rapid rise of the new economy, new media, highly scaleable companies like Google, U-Tube, Ebay, PayPal, and MySpace. In their case, their prospective customers highly value their newness, their breaking the mold, their non-establishment approach. They are viewed as doing what they do far better than the technology establishment stalwarts. The notable exception to this is Apple who has been able to transcend old establishment and be accepted as both old and new economy.
But I digress. Back to topic. Most companies that sell to other companies, or B2B companies are evaluated by their potential customers in a traditional risk reward analysis. Or using computer terminology, their buying decisions are made using a legacy system. It was once said that no one ever got fired for making an IBM decision.
Let's look at this legacy buying model and see exactly why your company's sales do not match the elegance of your solution.
One of our healthcare clients insisted that we read CROSSING THE CHASM by Geoffrey Moore to give us greater perspective on his company's situation. By the way, if you are a smaller technology based or healthcare company selling in the B2B space, this should be required reading.
Our client was a two year old company selling a cutting edge, on-line nurse shift bidding and self scheduling system to hospitals. This is a great product. The ROI's were easily quantifiable. The handful of installed accounts loved it. Most importantly, it had a positive effect on the nursing staff's morale. This alone could justify the cost of the system.
Our client had some very encouraging early success selling his solution to some of the more progressive hospitals. They received some outstanding early PR. After that initial success, however, our little edgy technology based company hit the wall. The sales cycle went from six months to beyond twelve months. Cash flow became an issue and, to top it off, a generously funded venture backed competitor with well known industry executives was aggressively developing this new market.
What was happening? Our clients were very smart people and figured out what was happening. They knew that they would have to make some difficult and dramatic decisions in short order. Turns out the majority of hospitals are legacy buyers and make buying decisions based on a risk avoidance paradigm. Our client's early success was realized as a result of selling to the small minority of early adapters in their industry. These are the pioneers that don't mind the arrows in their backs from heading out West with new products or new vendors.
Legacy buyers, however, do not value references that are early adapters. They are known to have a much higher risk tolerance than the traditional majority. Below are some buying criteria from these legacy buyers:
1. Big is good. Bigger is better. Buying inferior technology solutions from a blue chip publicly traded company wins most of the time.
2. Old is good. There is no replacement for experience and the grey haired company beats the gelled hair Tech Wizard company more often than not.
3. Industry Cred means everything. If you are a company that adapted your product from success in another vertical market and you are entering our space, the old familiar face carries the most weight.
4. Will the little guy be in business next year? The failure rate for the sub $ million company is a thousand times greater than for the $ billion company. This change in technology is painful enough. Do I want to risk having to do it over again in a year?
5. If I have problems, the big guy can fill the skies with blue suits until my problem is solved. The little guys cannot appropriately respond to my problem.
This is a punishing gauntlet for the small companies and it is amazing that any new companies survive in this environment. Let's look at a few of the "crossing the chasm" strategies that have been effective in swaying legacy buyers decision making in favor of the smaller provider with superior technology.
A. A well-known executive from an established healthcare company is put at the helm of the new company. The thinking from the buyer is that if he did it once, he can do it again.
B. Get an industry-recognized authority to endorse your solution or, better yet, have them join your board or advisory council.
C. Close a deal with a conservative, well respected customer and make them your marquee account with all the trimmings - i.e. a contract with a favored nations clause, the technology or computer code held in escrow with specific instructions if you go out of business, case studies and Public Relations glorifying the progressive decision maker, and providing an equity stake in your company are some examples.
D. Forging a strategic alliance, joint marketing agreement or resellers agreement with an industry giant. All of a sudden your small company risk factors have been eliminated and it has only cost you 30%-50% of revenue on each sale they make.
E. Sell your company to the best strategic buyer. Sometimes the best solution is to sell your company to the best strategic buyer for your greatest economic value. This is the most difficult decision for an entrepreneur to make. Below are some of the market dynamics that would point to that decision. Note: several of these factors influenced our entrepreneurial clients to ultimately sell their business to an industry giant.
You see your window of opportunity closing rapidly. You may have great technology and the market is starting to recognize the value of the solution. However, you have a small competitor that was just acquired by a big industry player. The bad news is you probably have to sell to remain competitive. The good news is that the market will likely bid up the value of your company to offset the competitive move of the big buyer.
The strategic alliance is with the right company, but the sales force has no sense of urgency or no focus on selling your product. The large company lacks the commitment to drive your sales. An amazing thing happens with an acquisition. The CEO is out to prove that his decision was the right one. He will make his decision right. All of a sudden there is laser focus on integrating this new product and driving sales.
You have created a strategic alliance and poured your company's resources into educating, supporting, and evangelizing your product. Whoops, you have counted on this golden goose and it has not met your expectations. Also you have neglected your other business development and sales efforts while focusing on this partner.
Many large healthcare companies now employ a try it before you buy it approach to M&A. They find a good technology, formalize a strategic alliance, dangle the carrot of massive distribution and expect the small company to educate and integrate with his sales force. Often this relationship drains the financial performance of the smaller company. If you decide to sell at this point your value to another potential buyer has been diminished.
Do not despair. If you have demonstrated a cultural fit and have helped your products work in conjunction with the big company's product suite, you have largely eliminated post acquisition integration risk. This can often more than offset any short-term profit erosion you may have suffered.
It is not easy for the smaller healthcare company to reach critical mass in this very competitive and conservative environment. Working harder will not necessarily get you where you need to be. Step back and look at your environment through the eyes of your buyers. Implement some of these strategies to remove the risk barriers to doing business with your company. Now you have created an opportunity for your sales to match the elegance of your technology solution.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Selling Your Business - The Buyer Visit

In our mergers and acquisitions practice a very important event prior to receiving letters of intent is the buyer visit. Don't be fooled into thinking that this is a simple headquarters tour. Experienced buyers know just the right questions to ask to uncover risks and to discover opportunities. We try to coach our sellers on how to present and how to answer these carefully scripted questions.

Unfortunately, a man or a woman that has called their own shots for the last 25 years is not always receptive to coaching. If we get a feeling that our advice is falling on deaf ears, we schedule the first visit with a buyer that is not the top candidate. Once our seller has made a few tactical errors in this dry run, they are then open to some coaching.

This is what we tell them. Acquiring another company is very risky. Mistakes can damage the buying company. Therefore, a buyer is looking to identify and mitigate risks. Their questioning will focus on what they can expect once they are the owner of your business. Are you bailing on a business that is on a downward spiral? When you leave, will major customers leave with you? Will your key employees stay? Will our company have your strong support in transitioning your knowledge and intellectual capital to our staff?

The number one question is, why are you selling your business? The unacceptable answer is, so I can get away as quickly as possible and sip umbrella drinks on an island. The correct positioning of your exit is, we have built this business and are nearing retirement. In order to realize the future potential we will have to invest back into it at a time when we should be diversifying our assets. A strategic larger company could leverage our assets to achieve much greater market penetration than we could.

Another important theme is that you are in control. You understand your costs and your margins. You can identify the opportunities for growth that a better capitalized company could capture. You can articulate your strengths. You know your weaknesses and they are simply that you do not have enough resources, capital, or distribution to capitalize on all this potential you have created. You understand your market and your competition.

Buyers like to believe they are buying a business at a discount. You should try to present your weaknesses in such a way that the buyer will think, we can easily correct that. For example, an eight week order backlog could be considered a negative. A smart buyer will think, that is a high class problem. I wonder how many orders they lose because of the order delay? We could hire three more people, open two more work bays and cut that backlog down to ten days, immediately capturing 10% greater sales.

Another example is that the selling company is technology focused and really lacks sales and marketing expertise. The savvy buyer with a fully developed sales and marketing engine pictures a 20% increase in sales immediately. If the selling company already had these weaknesses corrected, the buyer would certainly have to reflect that in the purchase price. Because the weaknesses exist and the buyer has already identified how his company will correct them, he views it as buying potential at a discount.

A corporate visit should be a good two-way exchange of information. The seller should ask such things as: How long have you been in business? How many locations do you have? How many employees work for your company? This question is a good way to back into company revenues by applying industry metrics of revenue per employee. Sometimes private companies are hesitant to reveal sales figures. The seller wants to determine whether the buyer is big enough to make the acquisition.

What are your biggest challenges? Who are your biggest competitors? How do you see the market? Where are your best opportunities? Have you made any prior acquisitions? How do you feel about them? What are you really good at? What areas would you like to improve? How would you see integrating our company with yours?
There is some very important information that you are seeking from this line of questioning. First, their answers give you some hooks on which to hang the assets of your company in order to drive up your perceived value to the buyer. Find their opportunities and show how your company combined with theirs can help capture them. Show how your assets will give them an advantage over their competitors. Show how your combined assets can eliminate some of their problems or weaknesses.

You want to determine if there is a cultural and a philosophical fit. Is there trust? Do you feel comfortable? Do they "get it" in terms of recognizing your company's strategic value or are they just trying to buy your company at some rule of thumb financial multiple?
Often a company acquisition is comprised of cash at close and some form of deferred transaction value like an earn out. If your deal was structured like this, do you have confidence that you would reach your maximum in future payments? Have they been able to articulate their growth plan after they acquire you?

As you can see, the buyer visit should not be looked at as simply a show and tell corporate visit. It should be viewed as an opportunity for the seller to gather valuable information that will help him answer three questions: 1. Is it a fit? 2. How can my company help them grow and better compete? 3. Are they willing and able to pay me for that?

business broker, merger and acquisition, sell a business, succession planning,investment banker,M&A