Archive for the ‘Finance’ Category

Can You Afford To Employ A Dual Agent In A Business Sale?

Saturday, February 23rd, 2008

The pitfalls of hiring a dual agent in a business sale transaction


Most people have heard of dual agency in the context of a real estate transaction and have some awareness of the issues surrounding dual agency. In spite of the inherent conflict of interest, many people do not mind transacting residential or commercial property using a dual agent. The reason is pretty straight forward – while there is risk of not getting good representation, the downside is typically small. Property values are driven by comps and cap rates and in most cases, the amount of money left on the table is a small percent of the transaction value. The commodity nature and relative liquidity of real estate also helps make buyers and sellers comfortable with the risk level.

But does this logic apply to business sale transactions? Businesses, compared to real estate, are illiquid and the valuations and the ultimate closing prices vary dramatically from business to business. The deal amount can also change dramatically through the duration of a deal. In Business sale transactions, not having a fiduciary agent working for you can cost you plenty.

Let us start with an explanation of “fiduciary duty”. An agent used to represent a buyer or seller in a business transaction has a fiduciary duty. A fiduciary duty is the highest standard of care imposed at either equity or law. A fiduciary is expected to be extremely loyal to the principal. Among other responsibilities, a fiduciary must not put their personal interests before the duty and a fiduciary must not profit from the fiduciary position without express knowledge and consent of the principal. A fiduciary also has a duty to be in a situation where there is no personal conflict of interest and where there is no conflict of interest with another fiduciary duty.

In light of large sums of money at stake in a business transaction and these fiduciary responsibilities, let’s look at the three key issues faced by a dual agent in a business sale.

1.    Conflict of Interest

This is by far the most obvious and most damning part of being on both sides of a business sale transaction.  A business intermediary is obligated to serve the best interests of his or her principal.  Buyers and sellers by definition have conflicting interests. Who should the intermediary be loyal to? Is the agent looking after your best interests? Some agencies will tell customers that they will assign separate individuals to the buying side and selling side and create a Chinese wall.

In practice, the wall between the two sides in the same company, even in a large company with processes to cover this type of conflict of interest, let alone a typical small to mid market intermediary, is more akin to a sieve than Chinese wall. An agency in this situation is in violation of the standards of being a fiduciary.

2.    Advocacy

Any competent agent will tell you that, when two principles’ interests are in direct conflict, the agent cannot advise, advocate, or give allegiance to either party if such counsel gives one party an advantage over the other. Not remaining neutral or showing favoritism would be illegal and can make the agent liable to potential damages. A careful dual agent would shun the risk of advocacy and will tell you that they will be extremely careful to represent both parties equally and fairly.  In other words, both parties lose “advocacy” for their best interests! Is this what you pay your agent for? Wouldn’t you rather pay an agent that advocates your interests?

In practice, providing equal service to two parties is difficult and, even if the agent is highly ethical, agent’s biases and self interests may tip the scales in difficult situations.

3.    Sensitive Information

A business sale can take an extended amount of time and the seller or buyer may experience one or more personal events which, while not affecting the performance of the business being transacted, may have substantial impact on the negotiations.  The agent may become aware of this sensitive information which, if disclosed to the other party, could harm one party and benefit the other. If the agent has one principal, clearly the agent will develop a strategy to minimize the impact to the principal. How does a dual agent handle this type of information about a client?  Would you trust your sensitive information with a dual agent?

In practice, the agent ends up playing favorites or in a worst case scenario, one or both of the parties’ interests are sacrificed in the interest of “getting the deal done”.

Summary: Business sellers and buyers need to carefully pick their agent in a business sale transaction. Providing equal service to both clients is practically impossible in most deals.  In the best case scenario, neither the seller nor the buyer is getting an advocate. In the worst case scenario, one or both of the parties are being sacrificed. For this reason some states do not permit dual agency.  Much can be lost by employing agents who put themselves in the position of being dual agents and thus not living up to the fiduciary standards.

For most business owners, a business sale is a once in a lifetime event with significant impact on how well the family’s nest egg is feathered. With so much at stake, can you afford to employ a dual agent?

The Limitations of Using EBITDA for Mid Market Companies

Wednesday, February 20th, 2008

Looking behind the numbers


“Does management think the tooth fairy pays for capital expenditures?” – Warren Buffett 

EBITDA, follow-on to EBIT, was created by investment bankers to find out the true operating profitability of the company. EBITDA is a great tool to measure the profitability of companies with expensive assets that get depreciated over an extended period of time. Financiers look at EBITDA to measure the debt carrying capacity of the company. It is common to measure mid-market company profitability and cash flow using EBITDA and use EBITDA as the exclusive indicator of the business performance.

Each business has its own unique set of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, none of which can be captured by EBITDA or any other single metric. Intelligent business acquirers must consider the amount, the growth rate, and the variability of cash flow generated by the operations. EBITDA, when used properly, can be a helpful starting point in this regard. However, as you will see from the discussion below, EBITDA has several limitations when it is used for measuring cash flow.

To arrive at EBITDA for a business, acquirers add back Interest, Taxes, Depreciation, and Amortization to the Net Income of the company. Let’s look at each of the items in EBITDA to understand the rationale and limitation of these add backs:

v  Earnings

The most common mistake seen in EBITDA calculations is the inclusion of non-operational earnings in the earnings number. To start off the process, it is imperative that all non operating profits have been factored out of the earnings. Are one time real estate or other asset sales factored into the earnings calculations? How about warranty cost reserves and bad debt allowances? The earnings data needs to be scrubbed to make sure that the earnings number used in EBITDA reflects operating earnings.

v  Interest

Interest payments of a business are primarily a function of the company’s financing strategy and vary widely depending on the debt to equity ratio preferred by the ownership. The resulting leverage factor can artificially inflate or deflate the net income. While adding back interest makes sense in terms of identifying operating profitability, it does not make sense to add interest back in terms of cash flow. Interest payments are certainly a burden on the cash flow! To get a more meaningful measure of cash flow, it would be necessary to subtract from EBITDA the anticipated cost of financing under the new regime.

v  Taxes

Taxes are accounting and owner dependent and a pre tax view of the profits would be a better indicator of the operating profit stream. However, like interest payments, taxes are a real expense and estimated taxes under the new financing and operational structure should be factored into calculating the expected cash flow.

v  Depreciation

Depreciation is an accounting construct that provides for an indirect and backward looking measure of capital expenses. Depreciation expense can be a highly misleading indicator. The accounting treatment of depreciation for many businesses is substantially different from real world depreciation. For equipment intensive businesses, adjustments to EBITDA are almost always necessary to get a true picture of the earnings.

Since depreciation is a non cash expense, it makes sense to add the line item back for cash flow calculations. However, keep in mind that some of the depreciated items need to be replaced over time and new equipment needs to be added in. Any cash flow calculation should factor in the cost of the replacement equipment.

v  Amortization

Amortization is similar to depreciation except that what is being depreciated are intangible assets such as goodwill of the business – very likely from a past acquisition or startup costs. Barring a few rare exceptions, amortization can be fully added back for profitability and cash flow calculations.

In addition to the above, there are some other limitations to EBITDA. It is important to understand that EBITDA only accounts for two non-cash items – Depreciation and Amortization. There is no provision in EBITDA to adjust for some very important non-cash items such as stock grants, stock option grants, inventory value adjustments, bad debt allowances, and gift certificate redemption credits.

EBITDA also ignores the impact of changes in working capital. Increases in working capital consume cash and a business could have great EBITDA numbers but terrible cash flow numbers and could be on the verge of going out of business. To have a meaningful picture of the cash flow, acquirers need to review working capital changes to see if there are growth related issues or other working capital changes of significance and adjust cash flows accordingly.

In summary, acquirers should not rely exclusively on EBITDA or any other single metric to measure the performance of a business. To the extent EBITDA is used, acquirers should replace the removed interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization from their earnings calculations with their own expected operating numbers to get a better picture of anticipated profitability and cash flow and the variability to the cash flow. This can be accomplished by:

– Substituting the Interest costs with expected capital costs under the anticipated capital structure

– Substituting the Tax items with their own tax-rate calculations under the new capital structure.

– Substituting Depreciation expense with an estimate of future capital expenditures.

– Amortization can be kept at zero unless there are extraordinary items that need to be factored in.

– Reviewing working capital changes and adjusting cash flows accordingly.


Tuesday, February 5th, 2008

What is the right metric to use for business valuation?


The most commonly used “earnings figures” used for small to mid-market business valuation are Net income (NI), Earnings Before Interest and Taxes (EBIT), Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation, and Amortization (EBITDA) and Seller’s Discretionary Cash Flow (SDCF). With a variety of metrics to choose from it is natural for a business owner to ask “which is the right one to use for my business”. To answer the question, first we need a quick background on what these earnings metrics are.

Ø  NI: NI is the net profit of the business after deducting all expenses of the business including all operational expenses, owners’ or officers’ salary, interest expense, taxes, etc. Some people consider this as the “true earnings” but for many small to mid market companies, which are on a constant quest to minimize taxes, this number can be grossly understated and is not a true reflection of the company’s earnings stream.

Ø  EBIT: EBIT is the net profit of the business before factoring in financing and taxes. The rationale for using this metric is that tax payments are highly accounting and owner dependent and a pre tax view of the profits would be a better indicator of the profit stream. Similarly, interest payments that are a function of the company’s financing strategy and vary widely depending on the debt to equity ratio preferred by the ownership. The resulting leverage factor can artificially inflate or deflate the NI. EBIT shows an earnings number that is adjusted for these variables to reflect a truer picture of the earnings.

Ø  EBITDA: The accounting treatment of Depreciation and Amortization for many businesses is substantially different from the real cash flow impact these elements have on the business.  EBITDA allows for looking at the profitability of the business before factoring in these two items. One needs to be aware that this can be a highly misleading indicator based on the depreciation and amortization characteristics of the business and adjustments to EBITDA are almost always necessary to get a true picture of the earnings.

Ø  SDCF: For smaller businesses, where the owner may see the business as a “job”, the true measure of profitability may be the sum of all the monies the owner derives from the business including salary, benefits and other perks.


Ø  EBIT = Net Income + Interest + Taxes

Ø  EBITDA = EBIT + Depreciation + Amortization

Ø  SDCF = EBITDA + Owner/Officer’s Salary + Benefits + Perks

So, the answer to the question, “Which earnings is the right one for my business?” depends on the nature and size of a business and an understanding of which metric may more accurately reflect the true earnings. For many mid-market businesses the appropriate metric is likely to be EBIT or EBITDA.

Once the correct metric is identified, the business owner needs to understand the range of multiples that may be applicable to the chosen metric. For example, the earnings multiples for most small companies tend to vary between 1 to 3 times SDCF and the earnings multiple for mid-market companies are more likely to be 3 to 5 times EBIT or 3 to 7 times EBITDA.

However, businesses tend to be more unique than typical and a multiple that is good for one business may be too low or too high for another. The more exceptional the business is, the more likely it is that the multiplier will be outside of the typical range.

Taxes & Valuation: Can You Have Your Cake And Eat It Too?

Monday, January 28th, 2008

What Every Business Owner Needs To Know About Taxes & Valuation


Inevitably, one day the time will come for a business owner to move on. The reason for the exit may be anything from retirement, health problems, burnout, or just taking some chips off the table.

Planning this exit can have a significant impact on how much the business owner takes home from the event. Maximizing the take home requires the business owner to present the business, especially the financial aspect, in the best possible light. Here is where paying attention to accounting details makes a difference.

Businesses typically spend an inordinate amount of time setting up and using accounting practices that reduce the owner’s tax liabilities. CPAs use various business ownership structures and techniques to defer/reduce the revenues or accelerate/inflate the expenses to help business reduce its tax burden. The unforeseen side effect of this exercise is that, to a potential acquirer, the profitability of the business may appear much smaller than what it really is. There may also be other after-sale tax consequences attributable to corporate structure and to depreciation. Business intermediaries “add-back” non-business, non-cash expenses and “recast” the financial statements to get a better picture of the finances, but in most cases this is more of a band-aid than a real solution.

Since most businesses trade in multiples of the business’s cash flow, the practices utilized to save the business a lot of money may result in an artificially low valuation when the business sells. Does this mean that business owners have to give up all of their tax benefits? Not really!

When it comes to taxes and valuation, there may be ways in which business owners can have their cake and eat it too. With advanced planning, a competent M&A advisor can help mitigate potential adverse affects at sale time. Some aspects of accounting that need to be revisited in preparation for an exit include:

      Business ownership structure

      Aggressive revenue deferrals or expense accelerations

      Burdening the business with personal, family and other unrelated expenses

      Commingling revenues/expenses of related businesses

      Wasteful spending

      Inaccurate inventory statements & inventory write downs

      CapEx budgets

      Off-the-record transactions

      Accrued assets and liabilities

      Nonperforming or underperforming assets on the balance sheet

      Appreciated, overstated or understated assets on the balance sheet

      Deciding on Compiled, Reviewed or Audited financial statements

Ideally a business owner planning his/her exit three to five years prior to the actual sale has the best opportunity to do the proper financial planning and make the financial records accurate and presentable.

However, it is never too late to plan for a sale and even a year’s worth of planning is better than no planning at all. Be aware that generally the more time the owner works the problem, the better the results will be.

2008: Exit Planning For The Year Ahead

Thursday, January 17th, 2008

2007 is over! That is a welcome relief for many business owners.  After several years of solid growth, 2007 has been a harsh year for business executives. Empirical evidence suggests that a vast majority of businesses have seen their revenues stagnate or decline in 2007.

For Business owners who were planning to retire or cash out of their business for other reasons, 2007 was tough. Business was soft, long term interest rates were near 5 year highs, credit was hard to come by, and liquidity levels were low. All of these translated into a very negative environment for deal making especially in the housing, construction and retail industries. Business owners who had their businesses on the market saw less than stellar business valuations and, in several cases, found that their deals did not close as planned. Several other business owners who were planning on exiting held back – unwilling to face a reduced valuation and hoping things would be a bit better in the not so distant future.

As we look into 2008, it appears that we have not seen the bottom in the economy. Does this mean business owners should delay their exit/recapitalization decisions until late 2008 or 2009? Not necessarily!

When evaluating the consequences of environmental trends on the business sale/recapitalization process, it is useful to keep in mind that the business sale/recapitalization process for a mid market business can take about 12 months. Most acquirers/investors look carefully at business performance as they navigate through the deal process and positive trends along the way can be helpful in closing a deal and in getting the terms sought by the shareholders.

Here are some key factors business owners need to take into account while planning exit/recapitalization strategies this year:

Ø  Economy: While we have not seen the bottom in the economy, some segments of the market are starting to pick up. Most construction related businesses continue to be in the doldrums, but the prognosis for several other business categories is getting positive. Based on the commentary we are hearing from industry sources, it seems likely that most businesses will end 2008 with more positive trends than what they are seeing now. These positive trends can be beneficial to companies and shareholders with near term plans to exit or to recapitalize their businesses.

Ø  Interest Rates and Liquidity: Long term interest rates are inching downwards and credit is expected to get better as the year progresses. Twenty out of twenty top economists in a recent national poll forecasted interest rates to go down in the near term. Lower interest rates not only improve liquidity, but also have an effect of making valuations higher. Acquirers are likely to find a higher valuation more acceptable in a lower interest rate regime when they can finance the deal and still meet the cash flow metrics needed. Lower interest rates, coupled with improved liquidity, make the chances of putting together winning deals a lot more likely.

Ø  Taxes: Unfortunately, selling a business with a gain means that a business owner has to pay capital gains tax or ordinary income tax on the gain. Since capital gains are taxed at a lower rate than ordinary income, a competent business M&A specialist attempts to structure much of the gains from the sale of the business as capital gains. In the last few years, business owners have been beneficiaries of a historically low 15% Federal Capital Gains Tax Rate.  With an impending new administration in the White House in 2009, most tax experts believe that the low 15% Capital Gains Tax rate is unlikely to stay at that level and there is a substantial risk of the rate being changed to something higher. The prospect of increased Capital Gains Tax should be carefully thought through in the context of the business exit/recapitalization process.

Ø  Deal Making Opportunities: Acquirers are a lot more likely to buy a business in a flat to upwards trending market than in a downward trending market. Deal making opportunities should become more abundant as the economic trends reverse through the year. Deal making opportunities are also likely to be aplenty if the business is in a growth oriented segment, or if the business is of a type that can be desirable to foreign companies. With the US Dollar being extremely weak, foreign entities are actively looking to make synergistic acquisitions. It is unclear how long the weak dollar will last but the prognosis is for the dollar to continue to be weak for the near term.

All things considered, early 2008 would be an excellent time for business owners to review their exit or recapitalization strategies and determine how to approach the business sale/capitalization process for optimum financial return.

Buyers Approach To A Stock Sale

Thursday, January 17th, 2008

Steps that acquirers need to take in a stock sale


In most small to mid market situations, it is advantageous for acquirers to structure the business acquisition transaction as an Asset sale. However, in some cases there may be significant advantage to going the Stock sale route. Also, asset sales may not be practical in some cases for contractual or other reasons. In such cases, acquirers need to pay special attention to three key factors:

v  Indemnification Agreement: Acquirer should get a bulletproof indemnification from the seller for any potential liabilities that may have occurred before the transaction closes but only surface after you close the deal. A stock sale without a proper indemnification agreement exposes buyers to potentially damaging legal and financial risk.

v  Seller Carry: Acquirer should get a significant amount of financing from seller as part of the deal. It is best to have this spread out over a period of few years so that you will have leverage in the event a claim materializes. The seller carry can come in handy if there is a lawsuit and the seller balks at keeping his end of the bargain.

v  Corporate Structure: The structure of the corporation being acquired may have significant impact on the tax status of the acquirer. If the acquirer owns one or more corporations prior to the sale, some post acquisition structural alternatives could significantly enhance the acquisition benefits.  These alternatives need to be reviewed carefully before the close for maximum leverage.

It is essential for acquirers to incorporate these key factors in any stock sale.

Stock Sale Vs. Asset Sale

Thursday, January 17th, 2008

An Overview of Tradeoffs


There are two primary ways of structuring the sale of sale of mid-market companies: Stock Sale and Asset Sale. This document compared the trade offs involved with each of these approaches. Acquirers should keep in mind that regardless of the tradeoffs shown below, asset sales may not be practical in some cases for contractual or other reasons. In such cases, stock sale is the only way to go.

Stock Sale Vs. Asset Sale Table


Asset Sale Stock Sale
Legal Risk No legal liability for the corporation prior to the purchase Legal liability for the corporation prior to the purchase can be mitigated if seller is willing to sign an indemnification agreement
Cash Flow Most of the assets purchased will be depreciable over 3-30 years with the average being approximately 10 years. This means that you may write off approximately a tenth of the purchase price every year. When you sell, you typically pay back the government for all the deductions you took.Advantage: Time value of money Low depreciable asset base means you do not get benefits of the excess depreciation you can take. On the upside, there is no depreciation recapture tax at the time of sale.
Governmental Administrative work to the extent you need to files Corporation, tax & employment application before the close of escrow. Corporation, tax & employment numbers & documentation in place – any changes can be done at a convenient time at your own pace.
Other Taxes Sales Tax on FF&E No Sales Tax
Employees Rehire employees – administrative hassle with hiring, benefits, payroll processing, etc. before the close of escrow Employee contracts continue. Any changes can me made at a convenient time and pace.
Workers Comp Workers comp rate could potentially be higher – sometimes significantly – you need to determine the impact and the net cost. Workers comp rates lower than yours? If so, you benefit from the lower cost and you may even be able to move some of your staff under this umbrella if it makes sense.
Customers May need to renew or renegotiate contracts Customer contracts likely to continue with minimum hassle
Vendors / Suppliers Re-establish contracts – negotiate transfer of leases and contracts – at the minimum you have administrative hassles and in some cases you may need to come up additional money for deposits. Vendor contracts continue. If any of the vendors offer superior services at better rates, you may move some of your existing business under the same umbrella.
Bulk Sale Need to conduct bulk sale in most cases – costs approximately $600 at current rates and takes about 20-25 days – this process delays the transaction. No need to do bulk sale – which means you close the transaction faster, cheaper and thus enjoying the benefits of the cash flow sooner. None of the creditors are aware of the transaction unless you choose to tell them.
Other Could consolidate book keeping, tax, and other regulatory filings with current entity to simplify operations. Need to continue the book keeping, tax, and other regulatory filings necessary to keep the entity in compliance.


Sellers and acquirers need to be aware that while several of these elements can be structured to the mutual benefit of both parties, some of the elements have less favorable impact to one of the parties and negations are necessary to structure a win-win deal.

Where it applies:

The intent behind establishing a type of sale (stock vs. asset) is to pick the most beneficial way to structure the transaction.

Structuring An Exit

Thursday, January 17th, 2008

An Overview of Tax Beneficial Strategies


There are several possible ways to structure a deal to suit the needs of a seller. This document summarizes some commonly used strategies and the associated trade offs:

Installment Sale

Installment sale is a simple strategy where a part of the sale price is deferred. The deferred amount is paid to the seller in several installments over a period of time.

Some variants:

v  Standard Installment Sale: Payments are spread evenly over a period of time.

v  Performance Based: Payment stream is tied to metrics agreed on by the buyers & sellers

v  Self Canceling Note: Payments are spread until the seller dies.


v  Smart way to structure a sale in special situations (ex: concentrated customer base)

v  Capital gains are deferred as payments are received

v  Self Canceling Notes pull the future interest of the asset outside of the estate


v  Risk of future payments

v  Capital gains rates may rise in future

Where it applies:

v  Seller has confidence in buyer to deliver on future payments

v  Buyer requires the structure due to economic uncertainties

v  Seller has captured most of the value in the upfront payments and does not mind risking the incremental money stream

Structured Sale

Structured sale is similar to an installment sale except that the payment stream is guaranteed by a third party


v  Capital gains are deferred as payments are received

v  Secured payment stream

v  Payment stream can be structured in a very flexible way


v  Capital gains rates may rise in future

v  Time consuming and expensive for buyer to setup

Where it applies:

v  Seller may need to substantially increase take-home dollars to make the sale happen. This tax advantageous method requires a motivated buyer to setup this plan.

1031 Exchange

Allows for a seller to roll equity and debt into a new property and defer the capital gains tax until some future sale


v  Capital gains deferral

v  Can move tax deferred dollars from active management to passive management


v  Limited time: 45 day to identify replacement property and 180 days to close

v  May not be able to find a desirable property

v  Capital gains rates may rise in future

Where it applies:

Excellent technique to defer capital gains assuming availability of good investment options

1042 Exchange

Complex exit strategy where privately owned stock can be exchanged for publicly traded stock. If a highly appreciated asset is owned by a corporate entity, shares of that entity can be sold and exchanged for shares of a listed stock.


v  Defer Capital gains tax. Exchange can be made with dividend producing Blue-Chip stocks


v  Capital gains rates may increase in the future

Where it applies:     

v  Might be applicable for business-owned assets that have appreciated in value

Charitable Trusts

v  This method is only applicable if the sellers have determined what they will leave to charity at death. It is possible to make a future gift to a charity in exchange for an income stream. This method allows for an income stream comparable to what is possible with direct sale of business. It is also possible to gift the income payments to charity and have the asset revert to the estate at death.


v  Charitable Organizations do not pay capital gains tax

v  Tax deduction that is some proportion of the value of the gifted property or asset

v  Asset is removed from the estate for purposes of estate tax

v  Asset and income stream are protected from judgments, liens and bankruptcy claims


v  The asset reverts to charity at death of the grantor(s)

Where it applies:     

v  When the seller has already decided on the amount of the estate that goes to a charity

Private Annuity Trust / Deferred Sales Trust

The capital gains benefits available with a Private Annuity Trust may be discontinued. In this method: Grantor(s) establish a trust, sells the asset to the trust and the trust sells the asset to the buyer. Trust makes installment-like payments to the grantor(s) over their lifetimes. Capital gains taxes are due as installment payments are made to grantor(s). At death of grantor(s), asset passes to beneficiaries.


v  Capital gains taxes are deferred and interest is earned on taxes not paid to government

v  Trust assets can be invested in almost anything. Grantor(s) have the ability to borrow money form the trust. Trust assets can be fully withdrawn as long as capital gains taxes are paid at time of withdrawal

v  Trust is held outside of the estate for purposes of estate tax and assets in trust are protected from judgments, liens and bankruptcy claims


v  The trust needs to have a third party trustee

v  Capital gains may rise in future, but the trust can be liquated as needed

Where it applies:

The intent behind establishing a PAT should be to exchange an asset for a lifetime income, to defer capital gains taxes or to avoid estate taxes or any combination

Valuing Companies With Erratic Earnings

Thursday, January 17th, 2008

What is the right metric?


A significant number of businesses that come to market do not have consistent stream of earnings. Inconsistent earnings history makes it difficult for acquirers to predict future earnings and create a valuation challenge. Using an “industry earnings multiple”, the most common metric used to value mid-market companies can be meaningless in these situations.

Which earnings number does one pick? The highest? The lowest? Most recent? The average? Weighted average?

On the surface, using weighted average may seem like an appealing answer. However, using weighted average typically leads to overvaluing or undervaluing the company by a substantial margin to the detriment of either the acquirer or the seller.

Assuming a reasonable earnings number can be picked using weighted averages, is “industry earnings multiple” a valid multiplier to arrive at a valuation? In not, how does one value these companies?  

A keen appreciation of financial methods and industry knowledge are essential to answer these questions. The first step in the process is to gain a clear understanding of the reasons for the earnings variability. Some common reasons for earnings variability are:

v  Economic changes in the target market

v  Development phase of the company

v  Large non-recurring income/expenses

v  Loss/gain of large customers

v  Entry/exit of major competitors

v  Changes in management or key employees

v  Changes in physical environment and target market

v  Substantial changes in level or amount of operating equipment or people

v  Changes in COGs that are out of line with changes in final product/service prices

Acquirers may see some of these reasons as problems that reduce the future earnings. They may also see some other reasons as opportunities that increase the future earnings. It is imperative that both the reasons and the impact be well understood early in the valuation process. Once the reasons are identified and their impact assessed, appropriate adjustments can be made to recast the financials to get a more meaningful picture of the company’s revenue and earnings stream. Quite often, these recasted numbers indicate a stable or predictable earnings or revenue stream.

If the earnings stream is predictable, the acquirer can use industry price/earnings multiples to arrive at a reasonable valuation.

If the earnings stream is somewhat erratic but the revenue stream is predictable, the valuation may have to rely more heavily on industry price/sales multiples.

If neither the earnings nor the revenues are predictable after recasting, the valuation process becomes highly subjective. In such a situation, the transaction price should either show a substantial discount to a market multiple or be tied to future performance of the business.

Valuing Growth Companies

Thursday, January 17th, 2008

The folly of industry multiples


I routinely see individual buyers coming up with low valuations for growth businesses based on simple multiple of the most recent year’s profitability and, worse yet, based on a multiple using a weighed average of the profits from the preceding 3 years. I usually offer them this simple way of looking at the problem.

Let’s take the example of 3 different businesses with identical last 12 month revenues and earnings:

v  Business1 has a history of cash flow growth of 10% over many years and the target market is continuing to grow.v  Business2 has a history of a steady cash flow for a long time with relatively minor variation from year to year and the target market is a stable.v  Business3 has a history of steadily declining cash flow for the last several years and the market outlook appears to be unfavorable.

Using industry standard multiple of most recent year’s earnings, all these business are valued the same. Would you value these businesses at the same level? Of course, not!

How about using multiple based on weighed average of last 3 years profits? A quick check would show that this would lead to the conclusion that Business3 has the highest valuation and Business1 the lowest valuation! In most scenarios, this answer would be preposterous!!

So, why did industry multiples and weighed averages give wrong results for these companies? How can you value these companies? I will cover the answer to the former question in a different blog entry. For now, let’s focus on how you can better value these companies.

Setting aside the strategic or synergistic value of these companies, there are a couple of good answers to this question:

v  Use Gordon Growth model to arrive at a growth adjusted value of the earning stream. 

V= E / (R-G)

Where: V= Value of a company

E = Annual earning stream

R = Required rate of return

G = Projected long term growth rate of the Earning Stream

v  Develop a forecast of long term earnings stream and conduct scenario analysis based on discounted cash flow. This method is more sophisticated and requires spreadsheet skills but can be useful in establishing a range of values under different scenarios.

The valuation arrived by these methods gives acquirers a reasonable starting point in many small to mid-market business acquisitions. The acquirer should aware that the real value of these companies has more to do with the strategic or synergistic value of these companies and can be much higher than what these simple methods suggest. We will cover this topic in a different article.