Buy Out Values – Hail the Willing Buyer

“How the hell did he come up with that number?” – quote from a new client reacting to his partner’s price to be bought out.

Almost every week, I get the chance to see a number of potential transactions among partners — mostly negotiating buying each other’s shares or debating what value to use in a buy-sell agreement. All different types of markets with the operative words being “fair value.” So I have been in the middle of this before and I have a solution that I have used, but it involves some education and “faith” by both parties if it is going to work. Let me explain.

Fair market value is used in a somewhat cavalier fashion in these type of deals but there is little focus on the key aspects of the definition of this term which is a value based on what a knowledgeable, willing and unpressured buyer would probably pay to a knowledgeable, willing and unpressured seller. Valuation experts use common tools to arrive at a number or range, but in the end, most importantly, you need a “willing buyer.” So what is the problem?

When you go to sell your business, the willing buyer may be a financial sponsor of some type (hedge fund, private equity, venture capital, etc.) or even your competitor or someone who wants to get into that market (often called a strategic buyer). Most of these willing buyers have another way to measure the results of their transaction. For example, I had a client sell a significant division of his company to a strategic for about 15 times earnings. This was a great deal for him, but the purchaser was public, selling at 25 times earnings; and my client’s ongoing $10 million in earnings increased the buyer’s market value by $250 million. Not bad. However, this does not translate into the private company market of “willing buyers.”

Using this example, if my client wanted to sell to his partner who wanted to continue to run this business for a long time and not sell, that partner would have to fork over all earnings (at current levels) for 15 years before he would see a plug nickel. What willing buyer is going to do that? Yet, it is a problem I confront quite often. So in this case, the “willing buyer” will only offer something a bit more reasonable from a pure cash-on-cash recovery basis – say 3 to 5 years. Many buy / sells I see have a price of 3 to 5 times EBITDA which gets you to the same place.

So I often suggest that the offer be based on projected cash flow for a 3 to 5 year period. I also suggest that a provision be added such that if the company is sold in say a 5 year period, there is some form of “claw back” – that the previous owners are paid in part as if they still owned some shares (all negotiated). The alternative is to wait for that outside purchaser to come along and prolong an important exit event. So while fair market value is a sacred term, please remember when in comes to partners, it is governed by the provisions of the “willing buyer.”

Seller’s Due Diligence – An Emerging Tool in the Sales Process

“A lack of transparency results in distrust and a deep sense of insecurity” – Dalai Lama

I hope this quote doesn’t set too serious a tone for this blog, but much like the probable impact of the most recent election, change is in the air. Over the past couple of years, we have seen a concept emerge which, as one of my favorite clients would say, is “counter-intuitive.” That concept is referred to as seller due diligence (also at times referred to as a Quality of Earnings report) and it is increasing in popularity in mid -market M&A transactions. In the past, we were often approached by investment bankers or companies considering a sale to perform either an audit or a review. But more and more, that request is being modified to incorporate a seller’s due diligence report. But what is it and how does it work? First a little primer.

Accountants are guided by professional standards as to how and what they can say in a report. When it comes to financial statements, the most common accountants’ reports are called audits or reviews. Now the accountants out there will beat me up a bit for my layman’s description, but a review says nothing has come to the accountant’s attention that leads them to believe the financials are not fairly stated. This is often referred to as “negative assurance.” (We are accountants and not literary geniuses.) In an audit, which is more expensive and requires a lot more work, the accountant states in their opinion the financial statements are fairly stated. So in both cases, the focus is basically on the fair statement of the financials and those horribly worded phrases called footnotes. It is more that the numbers appear OK versus what do they really say.

In a due diligence report, there is more color as to the why. For example, an audit or review will show that margins this year may be lower than last year but there is no explanation as to why. A due diligence report would cover this as well as trends, details on balance sheet components and other analysis of the business. So right now, you might have two questions:

  1. Why not get a due diligence report vs. an audit or review?
  2. Why show a potential buyer your weaknesses by providing such a report? Keep in mind, this type of report highlights both the good and the bad.

To answer the first question, the audit and review both provide some assurance that the numbers are fairly stated. There is no such assurance (even limited as in the case of a review) in a report on due diligence. More and more, we are being asked to do both a review and a sellers’ due diligence report.

As to the second point, most transaction professionals will properly advise their clients that big checks are not written by buyers without a due diligence report, so why not make it easier for a potential buyer to understand the inner workings of a target. Being prepared on your own terms for this process is becoming a “best practice” for companies seeking substantial investment or a full exit.

So if you are contemplating this type of transaction, consider a seller due diligence report. I just completed a deal and am convinced its use helped to both identify a serious buyer more quickly and significantly expedite the whole transaction process.