Saturday, November 10, 2007

Capturing That Elusive Strategic Value in a Business Sale

In a business sale two different buyers can view the value of the target company far differently in terms of value. One buyer may look at paying a rule of thumb financial multiple while another recognizes meaningful growth potential and is willing to pay way beyond an EBITDA multiple.

Wow did I get a real world demonstration of the saying, "Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder." If I could rephrase that to the business sale situation it could be, Strategic Value is in the eyes of the particular buyer." We are representing a small company that has a patented and somewhat unique product. They have gotten distribution in several hardware store chains, Lowes, and are going into Wal*Mart next spring.

The owners are at a cross-roads. To keep up with their growth in volume they recognize that they require a substantial capital investment. They understand that they have a window of opportunity to achieve a meaningful footprint before a much better capitalized competitor produces a similar product and undercuts their price. Finally they realize that a one product company at a big box retailer is quite vulnerable to the inevitable rotation of buyers or a change in policy that bumps them out of 25% of their sales volume.

The good news is that their product is unique and is protected for 15 more years with utility patents. It is not a commodity so it achieves healthy margins. The product is an eco friendly product so the retailers value that. Finally, the product can be used in retailer programs where it is combined with other same category products for the spring tune up and the fall tune up. It helps drive the sales of other products.

The ideal company buyer is a larger company that provides products in the same category and sells to the same retailers. They could plug this product into their existing distribution channel and immediately drive additional sales. They would strengthen their position within their accounts by offering an additional product, a unique product, an eco friendly product, and a product that would promote companion product sales. It would also provide a unique door opener to other major accounts that would want this unique product.

With the input from our clients we located a handful of companies that fit this profile. We were pretty excited at the prospects of our potential buyers recognizing all of these value drivers and making purchase offers that were not based on historical financial performance. The book, memorandum, confidential business review, executive summary, or whatever your business broker or merger and acquisition advisor calls it, will certainly point out all of the strategic value that this company can provide the company that is lucky enough to buy it.

As part of the buying process we usually distribute the book and then get a round of additional questions from the buyer. We submit those to our client and then provide the answers to the buyer with a request for a conference call. We had moved the process to this point with two buyers that we thought were similar companies. The two conference calls were totally different.
The first one included the Merger and Acquisition guy and the three top people responsible for the product category.

Their questions really indicated that they were used to being leveraged as a commodity provider by the big box retailers. Why were co-op advertising costs so high? Were they required to do that again in order to stay on the shelves? Were they on the plan-o-gram? Was Wal*Mart demanding that they be at a lower price than Lowes? What about shipping expenses? Why were profits so low? We had a very bad vibe from these guys. They were refusing to recognize that this was a high gross margin product growing in sales by over 200% year over year and had a higher level of promotional expense than a mature commodity product line. We couldn't determine if they just didn't get it or were they being dumb like a fox to dampen our value expectations.

The second call from the other company included the Merger and Acquisition guy and the EVP. The whole tone of the questioning was different. The questions focused on growth in sales, pricing power, new client potential, growth strategy, their status at the major accounts, remaining life on the patent and what their strategy was for new categories and markets.

Well we got the initial offers and they could not have been more different. The first company could not get beyond evaluating the acquisition as if it were a mature, commodity type product with paper thin margins. Their offer was an EBITDA multiple bid without taking into consideration that the product sales had grown at over 200% year over year and the marketing and promotional expenses were heavily front end loaded.

The second company understood the strategic value and they reflected it in the offer. It was not an apples to apples comparison, because the second offer was cash at close plus a significant earn out component while the first offer was all cash at close. However, the conservative mid-point of the combined cash and earn out offer was 300% higher than the offer from the first buyer. This was the biggest disparity between offers I have ever experienced, but it was quite instructive of the necessity to get multiple opinions by the market of potential buyers.

There are some companies that no matter how hard we try will not be perceived as a strategic acquisition by any buyer and they are going to sell at a financial multiple. Those companies are often main street type companies like gas stations, convenience stores and dry cleaners that are acquired by individual buyers. If you are a B2B company, have a competitive niche, and are not selling into a commodity type pricing structure, it is important to get multiple buyers involved and to get at least one of those buyers to acknowledge the strategic value.