It has often been said that valuing companies is an art, not a science. When a buyer considers the purchase of a company, three main things are almost always considered when arriving at an offering price.
Quality of the Earnings
Some accountants and intermediaries are very aggressive when adding back, for example, what might be considered one-time or non-recurring expenses. A non-recurring expense could be:
- meeting some new governmental guidelines,
- paying for a major lawsuit, or
- adding a new roof on the factory.
The argument is made that a non-recurring expense is a one-time drain on the “real” earnings of the company. Unfortunately, a non-recurring expense is almost an oxymoron. Almost every business has a non-recurring expense every year. By adding back these one-time expenses, the accountant or business appraiser is not allowing for the extraordinary expense (or expenses) that come up almost every year. These add-backs can inflate the earnings, resulting in a failure to reflect the real earning power of the business.
Sustainability of Earnings
The new owner is concerned that the business will sustain the earnings after the acquisition. In other words, the acquirer doesn’t want to buy the business if it is at the height of its earning power; or if the last few years of earnings have reflected a one-time contract, etc. Will the business continue to grow at the same rate it has in the past?
Verification of Information
Is the information provided by the selling company accurate, timely, and is all of it being made available? A buyer wants to make sure that there are no skeletons in the closet. How about potential litigation, environmental issues, product returns or uncollectible receivables? The above areas, if handled professionally and communicated accurately, can greatly assist in creating a favorable impression. In addition, they may also lead to a higher price and a quicker closing.
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Putting a price on privately-held companies is more complicated than placing a value or price on a publicly-held one. For one thing, many privately-held businesses do not have audited financial statements; these statements are very expensive and not required. Public companies also have to reveal a lot more about their financial issues and other information than the privately-held ones. This makes digging out information for a privately-held company difficult for a prospective purchaser. So, a seller should gather as much information as possible, and have their accountant put the numbers in a usable format if they are not already.
Another expert has said that when the seller of a privately-held company decides to sell, there are four estimates of price or value:
- A value placed on the company by an outside appraiser or expert. This can be either formal or informal.
- The seller’s “wish price.” This is the price the seller would really like to receive – best case scenario.
- The “go-to-market price” or the actual asking price.
- And, last but not least, the “won’t accept less than this price” set by the seller.
The selling price is usually somewhere between the asking price and the bottom-dollar price set by the seller. However, sometimes it is less than all four estimates mentioned above. The ultimate selling price is set by the marketplace, which is usually governed by how badly the seller wants to sell and how badly the buyer wants to buy.
What can a buyer review in assessing the price he or she is willing to pay? The seller should have answers available for all of the pertinent items on the following checklist. The more favorable each item is, the higher the price.
- Stability of Market
- Stability of Historical Earnings
- Cost Savings Post-Purchase
- Minimal Capital Expenditures Required
- Minimal Competitive Threats
- Minimal Alternative Technologies
- Reasonable Market
- Large Market Potential
- Reasonable Existing Market Position
- Solid Distribution Network
- Buyer/Seller Synergy
- Owner or Top Management Willing to Remain
- Product Diversity
- Broad Customer Base
- Non-dependency on Few Suppliers
There may be some additional factors to consider, but this is the type of analysis a buyer should perform. The better the answers to the above benchmarks, the more likely it is that a seller will receive a price between the market value and the “wish” price.
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Sellers have to ask this question and give it serious thought prior to making the decision to sell. In too many instances, sellers get to the proverbial altar and then back down the aisle. In most cases, this happens because the seller’s decision to sell has not been considered carefully enough.
There are the obvious event-driven reasons such as failing health, partnership, marital issues or because the business is going downhill. In cases such as these, business owners generally don’t have a lot of options. Selling the company is the easiest and most obvious one.
In too many other cases, the owner claims retirement, “burn-out,” or some other reason, none of which is necessarily a permanent state of things. Take the example of the owner of a company who is also the founder, and after a lot of hard work and probably years of financial hardship on his part, the company is now quite successful. It is, as they say, the owner’s “baby.” The first question that needs to be asked is: Do I really want to sell? The second question is: If so, why? And the third is: What am I going to do after the company is sold? These questions involve not only business decisions, but important emotional issues as well.
Attempts to formulate answers should not be made until the owner has discussed these questions with family and personal professional advisors. There are books on exit strategies and consulting firms that deal with these issues. A professional business intermediary is also someone that has experience in this area and can provide a good idea of current pricing issues and market conditions.