Tag Archives: M&A

Revenue Quality: What Does it Really Mean?

High quality revenue companies are valued higher than low quality revenue companies.  But what does this really mean and why is this? It is simply a question of risk. High quality revenues reduce risk and therefore result in a higher valuation. What are high quality revenues?  Primarily it is about revenue continuity but also diversity and profitability.

Revenue Continuity
Long term customer contracts provide future revenue predictability.  In many cases capital projects will not get financed without long term customer contracts.  But what if you don’t have long term contracts, what else can give an investor or financier comfort that revenues will stick around? Questions that get at this answer include: How much of an “annuity” does your business model have?  What percentage of revenues can be counted on to recur every year?  Is the product/solution mission critical?  Is it embedded in your customers’ businesses?  Are switching costs high?

As an example, cloud based Software as a Service (“SaaS”) solutions such as Salesforce, Workday or NetSuite are often sold on a per seat, monthly subscription basis.  In some cases upfront customization is required and in all cases customers have to learn how to use the new software.  Once customers have adopted such a solution, they will not switch very quickly.  The solution becomes embedded in another business’ processes which results in high switching costs.  As a result, its recurring revenues are usually quite stable.

There are a number of ways to grow recurring revenues; license or lease your product or technology instead of selling it outright, sell products that need periodic supplies or maintenance, sell service or maintenance agreements, franchise, etc.

Revenue Diversity
The greater the customer concentration the greater the risk.  The opportunity to supply a major retailer (i.e. Wal-Mart or Home Depot) or a major manufacturer (Ford or GE) can be a tremendous opportunity for a small company but it can also drain a lot of resources and result in pressure on margins and tremendous customer concentration.  While the growth that it drives will increase value, the associated risk of these revenues will reduce value.

Early-stage companies tend to have only a few customers that make up a large portion of revenues but, over time, they must strive to build a diverse revenue base.   Ideally no customer generates more than 10% of revenues.

If you operate in a low barrier to entry, fragmented market then it will be hard to increase prices and produce sustainably strong margins.  Of course different business models generate different margins.  For example, a grocery business will have a lower gross margin than a cloud based SaaS business which can generate gross margins of over 70%.  Over time, competition will put pressure on margins but under certain circumstances, such as first-to-market solutions, proprietary products and processes or patents, companies can sustain high margins for a considerable period of time.

Most entrepreneurs will say they have excellent customer relationships and that certain customers would not leave them no matter what.  But stuff happens.  Maybe this belief is based on personal relationships which cannot be sold with the business.  There are always opportunities to improve revenue quality, whether it is to extend revenue continuity, increase revenue diversity or to improve margin.  Improving revenue quality should be an ongoing priority for business owners as it is a strong contributor to company value.

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.

How Much Information (and when) Do I Share With Potential Buyers?

There are four phases of progressive information release to smaller and smaller audiences in the acquisition/divestiture process.

The first document used is called a teaser and is typically only one to three pages in length.  The teaser is a “blind” (i.e. no information from which the company identity can be deduced) overview of the acquisition opportunity and is sent to pre-approved qualified buyers whereupon interested parties must sign an NDA to receive a CIM.   The teaser is constructed so as not to be able to identify the company specifically and can be sent to as many as hundreds of potential acquirers (particularly as there are thousands of private equity funds out there).

The second document is the Confidential Information Memorandum (“CIM”) where the number sent maybe several to as many as twenty or more.  CIMs are only sent to qualified buyers who have signed an NDA.  CIMs vary in level of detail but typically range from 40 to 100 pages.  A CIM describes the nature of the business (i.e. product/service range, revenue model etc), suppliers, customers, competitors, a management profile, high level financial information such as historical revenues and EBITDA and a balance sheet.  In many cases it will also describe the market the company competes in and the competitive dynamics and growth opportunities the company faces.

One must appreciate that a CIM is a selling document and therefore opportunities tend to get more time than threats.  However, it is important to provide all relevant information in a CIM because potential buyers will be asked to issue an expression of interest based on the CIM and they will then be afforded due diligence to verify for themselves that all that is represented in the CIM is accurate and complete.  Customers, key suppliers or key management are not necessarily mentioned by name in the CIM.  The CIM undoubtedly raises questions which are typically answered by the agent or in concert with management.  It is important to protect competitive intelligence at this point as there will be only one successful buyer and this company should not be put in a position where its competitors now know sensitive information about the company.

The third stage is one where, based on an acceptable expression of interest, seriously interested parties are afforded a management presentation.  Only the top three to six (depending on the price range, the quality or potential threat of the bidders) are typically selected for this phase.  At this point more detailed information is shared with the goal of securing a LOI that will contain as few conditions as possible.  The dance here is one between protecting sensitive information and disclosing enough information to ensure that the final LOI is one that will be quickly translated into a purchase and sale agreement.

The final stage is exclusive due diligence and closing.  At this point the seller is an open book, so it is of utmost importance to have a high level of confidence in the selected party.  Private companies are typically not ready for due diligence.  Such a detailed level of record keeping is not required and generally not a priority for private companies.  The agent will usually issue a due diligence request list early in the process and it often takes some time for the company to prepare the information.  Each request is different but some items to expect include: monthly financial statements, a receivables aging list, revenue analysis by customer/by product/service, customer/supplier/strategic agreements, details on patents/IP/software architecture, employment policies and contracts, details on any environmental/legal claims and more.

How Do I Attract a High Multiple for My Business: The Business Factors

There are two broad answers to this question.  The first concerns the business itself and the second concerns the sale process.  The how, when and why of selling.  I will address the business issues in this post; not to say invent a new mouse trap but from the perspective of what factors you can influence in your existing business to improve value.

In “The Basic Math of Valuations” I presented the risk return curve.  A company will attract a higher multiple if it moves to the left on the risk return curve; i.e. a higher multiple is paid for lower risk, but, the biggest driver in attaining a higher multiple is a company’s profitable growth prospects, and, this should already be evidenced by a historical growth record.

Let’s look at the public markets for an illustration.  The dividend discount model asserts that the fair value of a stock is the present value of all future dividends.  The formula is as follows: fair value of a stock = DPS(1) / Ks-g, where the expected future dividend stream is divided by the required rate of return (Ks) minus the expected growth rate (g).  If a dividend is $5.00 and the required rate of return is 20% then the fair value of the share price is $25.00 ($5.00/0.2) according to this model.  If the expected growth rate is 10% then the fair value jumps to $50.00 ($5.00/0.1).  The growth rate lowers the required rate of return and increases the fair value of a stock.  In this case, 10% per annum growth translates into 100% price improvement.  That is a tremendous amount.  The real world experience is not as exact but the illustration demonstrates the logic and impact of growth prospects on company value.

The same logic applies to EBITDA growth for private companies.  Returning to the example provided in the previous post – a company sustainably generating $5 million in EBITDA is valued at $20 million, four times EBITDA, the equivalent to generating a 25% return on capital per annum – if this company were growing at 20% per annum, the multiple could quite readily improve to 6 or 7 resulting in a valuation of $30 to $35 million.  Again, not quite as exact as the formula but the results are still very substantial.

Now, turning our attention to reducing risk, here are some factors to consider:

Is the owner redundant?
The first thing to address when considering selling a business is to put a strong management team in place that can run the business without the owner.  An owner-operator who is the chief product developer or maintains all of the customer relationships will not be able to exit the business upon its sale.  He/she will have to commit to staying with the business until a suitable replacement solution is implemented.

Is the customer base diversified?
The opportunity to supply a major retailer (i.e. Wal-Mart or Home Depot) or a major manufacturer (Ford or GE) can be a tremendous opportunity for a smaller company but it can also drain a lot of resources and result in pressure on margins and tremendous customer concentration.  While the growth that it drives will increase value the associated risk of these revenues will reduce value.

Are the revenues recurring or project based?
Does every fiscal year start at zero?  What I mean by that is, if your revenues are project based then you are always searching for the next deal.  Consulting companies typically face this challenge.  Along the same lines, a one product company is more risky than a diversified product and services company.

These are three examples of situations where reducing the risk will increase the multiple but the concept applies in general; any combination of improving profitable growth prospects and reducing risk will increase the value of your company.

Four Companies That Know How to Acquire

There have been numerous studies on the difficulties of successfully completing acquisitions.  Some studies note that 50% of all acquisitions fail.  I won’t debate what is a success or failure and over what time frame it should be measured here; what I will do is review four leading Canadian software companies and examine their acquisition records.  The four companies are Constellation Software Inc., The Descartes Systems Group Inc., Enghouse Systems Limited, and Open Text Corporation.  I have reviewed the acquisition transactions where financial metrics were available for the period from May 18, 2006 (the IPO date of Constellation Software) to September 30, 2014 and the following summarizes the results.

Acquisition Summary

The four companies had a combined Enterprise Value (EV) of $1.2 billion in 2006 which grew to $14.9 billion as at September 30, 2014, each generating double digit annual returns.

The challenge in attributing this value creation to an acquisition strategy is that not all acquisitions disclosed payment terms.  Of the 172 acquisitions completed in total, 82 had disclosed financial terms.  What we can assume about the acquisitions without financial disclosure is that they would have been relatively small.  The Ontario Securities Commission requires the filing of a Business Acquisition Report (BAR) when the target size is greater than 20% of the pro-forma combined company.

In looking at each company specifically, we discover a number of interesting metrics.

Of the 22 acquisitions with disclosed financial metrics completed by Constellation, only one was of a size (as measured by enterprise value) greater than 10% of the size of Constellation.  The average size of the acquisitions, taking out the one bigger one, was 1.7% of the size of Constellation.  The median target acquisition price paid was 1.2 times revenues and 5.1 times EBITDA.

Of the 23 acquisitions with disclosed financial metrics completed by Descartes, three were larger than 10% of the size of Descartes and the average size of the acquisitions, taking out the three bigger ones, was 3.0% of the size of Descartes.  The median target acquisition price paid was 2.8 times revenues and 8.8 times EBITDA.

Enghouse was quite a bit more aggressive than Constellation and Descartes, of the 16 acquisitions with disclosed financial metrics completed by Enghouse, five were of a size greater than 10% of the size of Enghouse.  The average size of the acquisitions was 12.7% of the size of Enghouse.  The median target acquisition price paid was 0.9 times revenues and we were not able to deduce a meaningful EBITDA multiple.

Finally, of the 21 acquisitions with disclosed financial metrics completed by OpenText, again, only two were of a size greater than 10% of the size of OpenText.  The average size of the acquisitions, taking out the two bigger ones, was 2.5% of the size of OpenText.  The median target acquisition price paid was 1.2 times revenues and the EBITDA multiple was not meaningful as a number of the targets were incurring losses at the time of the acquisition.

From the acquisitions with financial disclosure, we know that 82 acquisitions cost approximately $2.7 billion.  If we assume the acquisitions without financial disclosure were completed at each company’s average acquisition metrics, then this would add another $2.5 billion to the cost.   Based on these assumptions, a total of $5.2 billion was spent on acquisitions and $8.6 billion in value was created, suggesting the acquisition strategies created tremendous value.  While this is not perfect math, the simple truth is that when you look at the share price, each company has outperformed the TSX by a wide margin over the last 8 years.

There are many ways to study acquisition performance, from large worldwide/all industries studies to sector and geography specific studies.  While this data set is small, what we have observed is that the profiled companies have completed many small acquisitions.  There are a few bigger ones, but we would not call them transformational – those are the hard ones.  What we see here are a series of small, formulaic/cookie cutter acquisitions, rigorously held to reasonable valuation and payment terms.  Integrating acquisitions is hard but what this overview tells us is that if you establish strict parameters around size and value and you do enough of them, you get pretty good at it.