Category Archives: Valuation

Managing Operating Risk To Drive Value

In my previous post I said that if revenues are diversified and sticky then they are characterized as high quality.  A business with high revenue quality is one that will likely be around for some time to come, and is therefore highly valued.  However no business is risk free.  If your revenues are project oriented with little opportunity for repeat business, or you operate in an industry with low barriers to entry, or a people dependent business such as consulting, advertising or staffing, then what can you do to realize as much value as possible?

Mitigate the risks inherent in the business model by focusing on the following:

Differentiate your Product or Service
While at first glance, it may seem hard to differentiate a business in a well established and competitive sector, keeping an eye on consumer trends combined with creative marketing can often carve out a new profitable niche and present a tremendous growth opportunity.  Lululemon Athletica in the apparel sector and Chipotle Mexican Grill in fast food are examples of effective differentiation strategies.

Grow and Strengthen Customer Relationships
Reduce the unpredictability of project revenues by nurturing customer relationships.  If you can show that the same customers use your services several years in a row then you have an argument for revenue predictability.  If that list of customers is more than twenty then you have an argument for revenue diversity. Length of customer relationships is also a good indicator of a high quality product/service.

Focus on Execution Excellence
In a service business, it comes down to attracting and keeping the best personnel in order to deliver service excellence.  Human resources is a complex, multi-dimensional field and should include processes for recruiting, role definition and responsibility, position incentives and benefits, periodic feedback, and documentation and procedures to fill gaps in the case of unexpected departures.

Add Products and Markets
A one product company is riskier than a product line company.  A local company is riskier than one with a multi-national presence.  While it is easy to over-extend yourself, consider managed product and geographical growth to mitigate risk.

Cultivate Multiple Supplier Relationships
Don’t let your business become “captive” to a sole supplier of component parts.  Cultivate multiple supplier relationships to reduce supplier power and dependence.

Improve Profitability
Analyze your profit margin to see where you want to drive your sales — to higher-margin areas.  A trend of improving margins as a result of operational efficiencies and returns to scale will result in a higher valuation.

Protect Intellectual Property
IP can be patented, copyrighted or treated as a trade secret.  Identify the IP in your business and make sure it is protected and properly owned.

Build Your Brand
Spend time on all of the above will build your reputation and your brand.

The following chart summarizes various characteristics that drive company value.

op risks

Operating risk should be addressed by implementing formal processes.  A business with formal processes, systems and documentation reduces the dependence on individual talent and can quickly respond to exogenous shocks.  Items such as Service Level Agreements (“SLAs”), marketing plans, job descriptions, employment contracts, confidentiality agreements, professional codes of conduct, organization charts, etc. institutionalize a business.  Documented processes are transferable value.  Capturing and transferring knowledge will make the business more sustainable and more valuable.

If potential buyers feel that a business has a high risk profile, they will either not buy it, reduce the price they are willing to pay, or make a portion of the price contingent upon the business’s future performance.

A Multiple of What (and When)?

I discussed the pitfalls of relying on publicly available value comparisons in a recent post but what if an owner of a similar business to yours says “I sold my business at a 10 times multiple!”? or you hear, the tech sector is trading at a 25 multiple.  Early stage companies trade at 2 to 3 times.  The question is a multiple of what?

For public companies the most noted multiple is that of after tax net income.  For early stage companies it is quite often a multiple of revenues because, either they are not profitable or, they are in high growth mode, where profit levels are depressed as a result of higher than long-term average spending on R&D and product/service marketing.  For established private companies, the most commonly cited valuation metric is a multiple of EBITDA.

EBITDA stands for Earnings Before Interest, Taxes and Depreciation and it allows for comparison of profitability by canceling the effects of different asset bases (by cancelling depreciation), different takeover histories (by cancelling amortization often stemming from goodwill), effects due to different tax structures as well as the effects of different capital structures (by cancelling interest payments).  The drawbacks of using EBITDA are that it doesn’t account for maintenance/required capital expenditures (CAPEX) to sustain the business and, because it is a non-GAAP metric, it is often presented on an adjusted basis excluding (sometimes questionable) one-time items thereby boosting profitability.

The relationship of an EBITDA multiple to other multiples can vary widely across industries.    For consulting or software companies, that typically don’t or can’t carry long term debt and have little investment in fixed assets, EBITDA is often the same as earnings before tax.  For capital intensive companies, an EBITDA multiple of five might be the equivalent to an EBIT multiple of seven.  When we speak of a five times EBITDA multiple for a private company, the value may actually be the same as 15 or 20 times net income after tax for a profitable public company.

The period the multiple applies to is also important. While valuation is conceptually a forward looking principle, the standard is to use a historical multiple as a result of the difficulty of predicting what the next 12 months of earnings might be.  Some variants of timeframes used are “run-rate” (annualizing the last month or quarter), “latest twelve months” (LTM, typically calculated on a rolling four quarters basis), or last calendar or fiscal year.  Why does the timeframe matter?  Let’s look at a fast growing public company such as Apple.  On August 20th, its market cap was approximately $620 billion.  Its latest fiscal year ending (EBITDA was $35.5 billion and its 12 month consensus forecast EBTIDA was $55.8 billion.  People will say Apple is trading at 17.5 times EBITDA but the more proper metric is that it is trading at 10.7 times forecast EBITDA, a difference of 70%.

Finally, in addition to the specifics around the multiple, there are many bigger picture questions such as: did the buyer assume the debt; were there working capital adjustments; was the amount paid in cash on closing or will it be paid over time? Different answers to such questions will also measurably impact the net multiple paid.  So the next time someone tells you they sold their business for a great multiple, think about a multiple of what and when.

Winner’s Remorse: Does the M&A Process Lead Buyers to Overpay?

When managing a company divestiture, there comes a point when interested parties are requested to provide non-binding expressions of interest (this is the first indication of value based on reviewing the CIM and answering select questions, see: How Much Information (and when) Do I Share With Potential Buyers? ).  An expression of interest outlines a value range, structure and other criteria, on which potential buyers are prepared to move forward.  It is requested so as not to waste the seller’s time with potential offers that will not meet the needs of the seller.  When there are multiple expressions of interest for a company, they typically form a normal curve around the company’s notional value.

Normal curve

So does the M&A process lead buyers to overpay?  Not necessarily; the process extracts the highest price for the seller by appealing to potential buyers that will benefit most from the purchase.  The buyer has to weigh the risks and benefits of the price they will pay versus not getting the business. Overpayment is in the news from time to time (examples include HP writing off $8 billion of goodwill from its $13 billion acquisition of EDS and Microsoft writing off $6.2 billion of goodwill in its Online Services Division where it houses the acquisition of aQuantive which it acquired for  just over $6.3 billion).  The onus is on the buyer to correctly estimate the realisable cashflow from a purchase and then to execute on its plan.  Many things can go wrong in execution but the fact remains that if there is more than one buyer at the table it is highly likely that the winner will have paid more than notional value.

A strategic buyer may pay more than the notional value for a business for reasons of competitive strategy (i.e. prevent your competitor from strengthening its footprint) or when the seller has certain assets that complement the buyer’s assets thereby allowing for the potential to create value through synergies. The value of a business is different to every potential buyer.  To a financial buyer (one that does not have the potential for synergies, but may nevertheless be able to bring special expertise to the table) a business may be worth the notional value which maybe six times EBITDA, generating a 17% non-levered ROI (maybe more  than 30% with 50% debt); but a strategic buyer could pay seven times EBITDA and expect to generate even more based on synergies.
Non strategic/financial buyers are typically at or below notional value (E1..E4) and strategic buyers are typically at or above the notional value (E4..E7).  The parties engaged to go forward in the process will be the ones above notional value (E6..E7) suggesting that they may be ready to pay a higher price than fair value, however, fair value is very much in the eye of the beholder.

Shares Versus Assets: It is Mostly About Minimizing Net Taxes

Company acquisitions can be in the form of a share purchase or an asset purchase.  Both can accommodate the full transfer of a going concern business.  The fundamental difference is that in a share sale, the shareholders sell their shares and receive the proceeds personally (i.e. the legal entity that owns the assets changes hands) and, in an asset sale, the legal entity sells all of its assets including its name, IP, brand, customer contracts etc., and remains as a legal entity owned by the shareholders but now just has the sale proceeds as its main asset.  A second taxable step of distributing the cash to the shareholders will have to take place for the shareholders to make use of the proceeds.  Sellers that pursue this option may have plans for the company to re-invest the proceeds thereby deferring the tax impact.

So how are they different and which is better for a seller or a buyer?  Ultimately, it is after-tax free cashflow or net cash in hand that drives the value, purchase price and optimal structure.  The tax impact, whether it is reduced capital gains tax for the seller or lower go-forward income tax for the buyer, is usually the biggest driver in the decision between a share or asset sale.

Buyers will prefer an asset purchase when the purchase price is largely allocated to depreciable assets because they will benefit from higher CCA going forward.  Sellers will prefer share sales when the $750,000 lifetime capital gains tax exemption has a material impact on the proceeds.  In some cases additional family members can benefit from the lifetime capital gains tax exemption by enacting an estate freeze and creating trusts for the children.  However, it must be noted that any shareholder will have to have owned their shares for at least two years for the lifetime capital gains tax exemption to apply so this can’t be done at the last minute. For a family with three children this can increase the exemption from $750,000 to $3,000,000; a big impact for transactions up to $5 million.  For larger transactions it becomes more complex for sellers as depreciable tangible property may incur taxable recaptured depreciation or, where a significant amount of the sale price is allocated to goodwill, 50% of the profit on the sale of Goodwill is exempt from tax.

Beyond tax there are other factors to consider such as:

–       Buyers prefer asset purchases because they avoid the issue of possible skeletons in the closet (undisclosed liabilities)
–       Buyers will seek more reps and warranties in a share purchase agreement as they look to protect themselves from potentially undisclosed liabilities
–       Sellers should consider the risks of possibly having to renegotiate key contracts with customers and employees in the case of an asset sale (where contracts include a change of control provision)

When selling your business, weigh the answers to the following questions to choose your path:

–       Will you benefit substantially from the lifetime capital gains exemption?
–       Will the lion share of the purchase price be allocated to depreciable assets or goodwill?
–       Will transferring contracts (customers/employees) be difficult?
–       Do you have a compelling opportunity to use the funds in the company?

The tax issue can be a complicated one, however, non-tax items such as obtaining customer consents, can sometimes trump it entirely and, if you are indifferent from a tax perspective, the flexibility to pursue either option may provide some helpful negotiating leverage.  For a more detailed analysis of both the seller and buyer impacts see the Veracap M&A Value Strategies newsletter here.