M&A considerations

The past several years have been good to middle-market business owners looking to sell their companies. The confluence of private equity funds and businesses looking for a strategic edge, both bidding on the same entities, has caused prices to spike.

Dan Shea, managing director of W.Y. Campbell & Co., a subsidiary of Comerica Inc., says that banks have also played a role in the active market, given their willingness to fund deals.

Smart Business spoke with Shea about the current climate for selling businesses, the types of buyers who are driving the market and how valuations should be handled.

What’s the current environment like for selling a business?
It’s one of the best markets since the late ‘90s. Buyers are aggressive because they have cash and feel good about the economy, while banks are helping by providing acquisition debt. At the same time, sellers see what a good time it is to sell, given the activity levels of buyers and historically high prices. It’s a liquid market, which isn’t always the case.

Toward the end of 2005 and on into 2006, it appears that the growth in the number of deals has started to level off. We don’t believe that transaction volumes are going to go down, we just see them leveling.

What types of buyers are driving the market?
The strategic buyer has been more active in recent periods and is looking to benefit from the synergies that can accompany a purchase, such as with a target’s customers, products, channels and geographic locations. Both public and private acquirers are aggressively seeking growth through acquisition to complement internal growth initiatives.

There are also private equity firms that go out and raise capital for the purpose of buying and holding companies. They look to grow sales and profits before selling anywhere from one to seven years down the road for a nice return. According to Private Equity Intelligence, through September of 2005, private equity capital fundraising surpassed the level achieved in all of 2004, so there is a tremendous amount of capital waiting to be invested.

When contemplating selling or acquiring a business, what should a CEO or business owner consider?
If they’re a seller, they need to be mindful of making a market for their business. Most middle-market companies are privately held so the process is not as easy as selling stock on the open market. With private companies, there is no established market for the business; you have to make the market.

Hire someone who can prepare and provide the appropriate information in a compelling manner under confidentiality agreements to qualified prospective buyers and then assist in establishing a price, a structure, and terms and conditions acceptable to both parties. A seller wants multiple buyers bidding for their business to ensure they can drive a good deal — too many lose value (and time) by engaging in what we call one-off transactions.

Buyers, both strategic and financial, need to make sure the perceived benefits of the acquisition are for real. Strategic buyers in particular need to have a realistic integration plan and a realistic forecast of expectations for the combined entity, because studies show that the majority of transactions fail to meet objectives. The way to fix this problem is to set realistic objectives and then don’t overpay — you can pay at most for the value the acquisition creates and, ideally, less would be better.

How should the valuation be handled?
The market will decide the eventual price but it behooves sellers to have a good idea of the likely outcome before initiating the sale process. Realistic expectations are critical or else a lot of time and money will be wasted.

Sellers should have their investment banker develop an estimate prior to engagement. This estimate should triangulate the results of a variety of valuation techniques including guideline public company and recent transaction analyses.

We rely on discounted cash flow analysis as well because this technique provides for more granularity. It is where you take a look at the expected future cash flows of the business and value the business based on what those cash flows are worth today.

People talk about multiples of various accounting measures such as sales or earnings to arrive at initial value estimates or as rules of thumb, but discounted cash flow analysis is the predominant technique employed for estimating value at a more thoughtful level.

Daniel S. Shea is a managing director of W. Y. Campbell & Co., a subsidiary of Comerica Inc., and head of the firm’s Los Angeles Office. His responsibilities include relationship management and client representation in sell-side, buy-side and private placement transactions. Reach Shea at [email protected] or (310) 297.2894.