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HVAC: A Consolidating Market

When financial buyers think of HVAC contractors, they see an industry ripe for consolidation. The trend of HVAC consolidation started a few years ago and has not slowed down.

Throughout the United States, there are thousands of independent HVAC contractors. Financial buyers, such as private equity, see the opportunity to consolidate the independent firms to create a regional or national presence. The market is roughly a $20 billion industry that is fairly recession proof, especially throughout warmer states, such as Texas and Florida.

Private equity seeks opportunities to expand businesses through acquisition and organic growth. Once they have a foothold in the industry, they can add related services, such as plumbing services, to the roll-up strategy.

HVAC consolidations tend to be in high demand in markets that have a need for the services. Some focus on new construction, while others focus on servicing existing units that can be viewed as a recurring revenue model. The competition in the local market is key when an acquirer is looking at an acquisition. Is the HVAC target company a big fish in a small pond, or vice versa? What is the growth potential within the market? Cities and towns that are growing tend to be more attractive.

 

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Additionally, HVAC contractors might specialize in commercial or residential services. Depending on the roll-up strategy, the acquirers might have different goals on what they are looking for in the consolidation.

The consolidation allows for a larger firm to take advantage of perks that a smaller firm might not have access to due to size or cost prohibition. For example, the roll-up might be able to build out software and accounting systems to help increase the efficiencies of the company or recruit top executives to add a level of professionalism to the company.

Having this type of option within the market allows for the seller to have options about their company’s next phase. Having a larger, growing firm complete the acquisition allows the seller and the company’s employees opportunities that the selling firm could not achieve on its own. The seller may stay on post-closing in a different capacity or retire and allow employees to step into the management role. In any case, mergers and acquisitions can be an ideal solution for companies in the HVAC sector.

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Why Lower Middle-Market Companies are Attractive to Buyers

The lower middle market encompasses some of the most diverse selection of companies available to buyers, from “Mom & Pop” service shops to highly innovative technology firms paving the way for disruptive change at the highest levels. For this reason, lower middle-market companies have been the backbone of the U.S. economy from the very beginning—and remain so to this day. The value that these companies bring does not go unnoticed by the broader market, making this segment a high-activity space for engaged buyers and sellers. And motivated buyers are adept at spotting value, providing opportunities for well-informed sellers to maximize value on their exit.

Many companies at this end of the market operate in highly fragmented industries. From HVAC equipment providers and servicers to pool maintenance and other small businesses, you can see this fragmentation simply by driving around any local geography. When an industry is highly fragmented—and also highly profitable—it creates a “sweet spot” for both strategic and financial buyers. Private equity strategies, for example, will often follow a formula of buying a larger “platform company” then searching the lower middle market for smaller “bolt-on” acquisitions to grow the company from there. The strategy is often referred to as a “roll-up.” If done correctly, it can bring large returns for both the acquired company and the buyer. Strategic buyers (firms already operating in the same industry as the acquisition target) often regard M&A in this end of the market as a better way to grow market share versus slow and costly organic expansion.

 

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Business owners and managers in the lower middle market are often looking to exit for retirement purposes. This reality can be advantageous for both buyers and sellers. Oftentimes, there is no succession plan in place heading into the retirement/exit decision and process. Many small businesses do not have a large chain of top executives that make a transition easy, and handing the business over to their children is often not a realistic option either. In other circumstances, the notion of selling the business comes up suddenly as a response to situations like health problems or other personal “black swan” events. In all circumstances, the right buyer—be they financial (private equity) or strategic—presents lucrative solutions that provide for the off-ramp and transition that ownership is seeking.

As such, there has been a large increase in demand for companies at this end of the market, as well as a corresponding awakening of ownership to recognize and test the benefits of a sale process. Investors are sitting on an ever-growing pool of capital that they are looking to deploy, seeking returns they cannot get elsewhere. The lower middle market allows investors of all stripes to purchase assets with relatively low debt (and, therefore, risk) compared to much larger companies. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic impact cannot be ignored when selling your business. COVID has hurt and even crippled a lot of businesses at the smaller end of the market. It also put an elongated pause in the mergers and acquisitions process. These two factors have led to pumped-up demand and lower supply, driving to significant increases in activity and deal volumes as the economy begins to pick up again.

When the time comes, business owners need to be ready to act quickly on sale opportunities. There are a lot of factors that go into selling your business. There will be different types of individuals and entities that come through to inquire about the potential acquisition of your company. While it might be tempting to jump at the first offer that comes, it is better to get a sound understanding of the wider market, and where the highest synergies/motivations (and therefore, the best valuations) can be found. There are always more opportunities to transact than one might think, and there are potential buyers out there for any type of company. The process of finding the right buyer always takes some “travel time”—with some speed bumps along the way—but a sound process that is run correctly can bring windfalls that will certainly justify the effort.

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The Myth of the “M&A Cycle”: Implications for the Middle Market

People like to sound smart on the golf course. It’s one way to distract others from your golf game. Since finance and investing are popular subjects of discourse out on the links, there is always opportunity for high-minded musings on business topics. One evergreen theme revolves around the “M&A cycle.” More specifically: “Where are we in the “M&A cycle?” Is it heading up or down? Is the “M&A cycle” about to end?”

The first question above is an important one, which we will address. The second two—both very common—do not seem to grasp the nature of a “cycle,” or even what a circle looks like. In any case, what precisely makes the topic so endlessly fascinating and useful for the golf course is its totally subjective and nearly nonsensical nature as a framing concept for making buy/sell decisions. If our financial reality were truly an endless loop with defined and unchanging points to exploit around that loop, the cadence of our lives as entrepreneurs, investors, and advisors would certainly look a lot different. We would simply place our bets at certain points at the beginning of each year, later picking them up at different equally obvious points. What a world that would be!

The bad news is that there is no such reliable cycle to lean against. But there is good news for business owners considering an exit or seeking financial partnership:

  1. There are always opportunities in any market to maximize deal value.
  2. Companies and sectors can benefit from opportunities during any market conditions.
  3. The time is, therefore, never simply “right” or “wrong” to bring your company to market.

Let’s look at some of the most common platitudes around the “M&A cycle.”

Platitude #1: An Economic Downturn Will Drive Deal Volumes Down

This might be true on a net basis at the most macro level, but if you’re a business owner or manager contemplating a partnership or exit, that macro perspective is borderline meaningless to you. First, let’s counter this argument with another handy platitude: “There’s always a bull market somewhere.” The key to playing any macro market—whether it is up or down—is to understand where the fast streams lie within that context. No individual business trades as a proxy to the entire market, and during any downturn; for example, there are bullish sectors that offer sellers opportunities to engage buyers at a potential premium.

On its face, while declining deal volumes sound like a negative reality, such circumstances often provide successful companies with higher market visibility as buyers seek a retreat to value in less speculative times. While bull markets have a way of covering all manner of sins from a buy-side valuation perspective (allowing for more risky bets on less fundamentally sound companies), less go-go markets tend to favor higher degrees of prudence. This allows great companies to get second looks and can drive valuation rewards to sell-side companies positioned for consistency, growth, and opportunity capture.

 

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Platitude #2: My Company Won’t Get the Attention It Deserves in a Hot Market

This is basically an opposite concern of that articulated above. The worry here is that when markets are really moving and M&A is up, competition among sellers will drown out great companies, as buyers seek to capture the upside of higher-beta bets. An important thought regarding this opinion: think through who your buyers really are—and how they buy. While it is empirically showable that macro risk-taking increases during a bull market, once again, no single business really operates as a proxy to macro trends, and few discrete buyers are a caricature of the aggregate. There are, for example, numerous family offices and value-oriented funds looking to pick up high-quality small- and medium-sized businesses in all market conditions. These are buyers whose default position is “no” regardless of what others are doing, but who will come to the table ready to transact for real value—no matter what the rest of M&A land is doing during any given period.

Platitude #3: I Need to Wait for the Next Economic Cycle to Bring My Company to Market

This is perhaps the most perplexing assertion that we hear, and it always requires a bit more teasing out. In its purest form, this notion tends to be a distillation of the previous two platitudes—namely, that the time is currently not right to sell (because the market is too hot or too cold) but the time will be right to sell later (because the market will be hotter or colder then). Stepping back, it’s instructive to reflect on what buyers are really seeking in the middle market. Hint: it’s not speculative upside. Rather, middle-market buyers are seeking opportunities to capture value created by successful entrepreneurs who have built great companies with lasting power (and, yes, upside to boot). These qualities are not cycle-dependent, so neither should be your decision to come to market.

A Better Way to Play

Trying to game the notional “M&A cycle” is not a constructive approach to taking your company to market. In all macro market environments, there are excellent opportunities for both buyers and sellers. Maximizing deal value starts with building a thriving, solid company. A thoughtful approach to your exit or partnership is far more critical than theoretical market gyrations to producing a successful outcome.

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Where Will Lower-middle Market M&A Be In A Year From Now?

The Current Market

The lower-middle market has remained positive for sellers in 2019, thanks to an abundance of buyers that are giving sellers the leverage to demand favorable terms. Most business sectors are seeing strong profits, and the bullish optimism of large-cap investors has spilled over into lower and middle markets. This has resulted in heightened interest and aggressive valuation and buying from private equity firms.

There are several patterns have carried over into 2019 from a very active year in 2018.

• M&A activity has been especially strong in the healthcare and technology industries.

• Acquisitions remain a popular strategy for companies needing talent to keep up with growth.

Buy-and-build strategies are proven to be working.

• Emerging markets are being attractively valued, especially in the Asia Pacific region.

• Competition for high-quality targets is intense, particularly for businesses that are owned by the rapidly growing retiring population.

• Small business confidence is strong, resulting in increased investment by owners.

What Lies Ahead

The world faces potential changes in the political landscape as the United States 2020 presidential election nears, Britain is under new leadership through the Brexit transition, and the global economy navigates significant political unknowns in the wake of trade deals and tariffs. However, the United States election takes place near the end of 2020, which could possibly stave off any significant effects on the economy until the year 2021.

 

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While no one can ever be certain what the future holds, we still see the benefits of a strong year midway through 2019, yet the lower-middle market has the potential to become more complicated in 2020. The current bullish market is strong but is expected to lose momentum based on the average amount of time that historical highs have been proven that they can be sustained. Many experts warn of a downturn in the economy next year, predicting that a recession is looming. In contrast, some experts expect M&A activity to remain robust regardless of the economy.

Obviously, uncertainty in the marketplace can impede M&A activity. But a recession does not necessarily mean that selling will be impossible. The variables that drive lower-middle market M&A include:

• Lending capacity: The less money a buyer can borrow, the less money they may want to spend.

• Cost of capital: The cheaper a buyer can borrow, the more money they may want to spend.

• Buyer access to equity capital: Strong profits and surplus cash motivate activity.

• Supply and demand for deals: Aging populations entering retirement and business succession plans, strategic buyers focusing on growth, etc.

In the lower-middle market, buyers and lenders both tend to stay much more disciplined regarding their willingness to lend, cost at which they lend, and returns they target. Buyers will be seeking targets with stability, limited cyclical exposure, a business model with recurring revenue, and a history of performing well through a recession.

Should You Sell Now?

The good news is that there is still time before a possible slump in activity and optimism. If you are looking to sell your business, you may have another 12 to 18 months to benefit from the premiums today’s sellers are getting. Keep in mind; it does not mean that after this time is over, you will not be able to sell. Companies are always looking to grow through acquisitions, and the market is always changing. You do not need to feel completely discouraged by any economic slowdown.

Consider how long you are willing to wait to sell your business if the market were to drop. If you do not plan to sell within around five years or more, you can wait patiently for the next market rebound. But if you are determined to sell in the next couple of years, it may be wise to get serious about your exit strategy while conditions are still favorable. Think about what is right for you, your business, and your family when deciding when to make a move.

Contact Us

Our business acquisition experts at Benchmark International can offer exit planning advice and help you plan a solid transition for your company. We will use all the tools at our disposal to get you the maximum selling price while preserving your vision for the future. We can also help if you are looking to buy a business. Contact us today.

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Will 2019 Be the Year of the Family Office?

For the last decade, private equity players have held the driver’s seat in looking at, winning auctions for, and acquiring lower middle market businesses in the United States. But early results for 2019 indicate this trend may be at an end. The family office has come to the fore and appears poised to become the dominant bidder and buyer in this market.

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Family offices are similar to private equity funds in that they take a pool of money and invest it across a range of companies seeking diversification to mitigate risk. But what’s more important are the differences between the two buyer types. These include:

  • Private equity funds have mandatory exit time frames imposed by their organizational documents and their agreements with their investors. A typical private equity fund has a life of about ten years so it must buy, grow, and then resell all of its investments in that time frame. Family offices, on the other hand, typically have no time horizon for re-selling. They are more often “buy and hold” acquirers.

  • Private equity funds primarily invest “other people’s money”. Family offices invest their own money. While a family office will typically have a management team working for the capital provider and that has the appearance of a private equity-style management company, the management team’s relationships, compensation, career path, and rigidity of investment criteria are each vastly divergent from those of private equity funds.

  • Private equity funds operate under some limitations as to the breathe of their investments - a tech fund can’t buy farmland – but they do seek diversification in very broad terms within these limitations. Family offices tend to have a narrower focus. They hew close to the Warren Buffet mantra that investors should only buy stocks within their "circle of competence." A family office that has made money in landscaping is likely only to look at landscaping businesses and if the family made its money in commercial landscaping, to only look at commercial landscaping businesses. As a result, they tend to come across to Benchmark Internationals’ clients as more knowledgeable about their business.

  • Also owing to their tighter range of interest and the fact that they do not have outside investor to whom they owe fiduciary duties, they tend to move faster, perform less diligence, and produce shorter contracts. Over the last ten years, as multiple have increased, private equity funds and trade buyers have ratcheted up their due diligence to levels our clients find very painful. This is understandable as higher multiple mean more risks for these buyers. But family offices seem more comfortable with this heightened risk and rely on their expertise in the narrower industry to alleviate the risk other buyers reduce via diligence.

  • Family offices also tend to use less debt in their deals than do private equity funds. Perhaps as a result of this fact, or maybe not, they tend to use their existing debt facilities to provide the extra leverage needed to put in competitive bids. As a result, the lenders due diligence is either greatly reduced or eliminated from the acquisition process. This also increases the speed to close and reduced the stress for sellers. When a private equity fund, or even a typical trade buyer, sets up a new transaction, they also set up a new lending arrangement and the bank providing the debt sends in its own diligence team to investigate the deal and the company being acquired. Double the diligence, double the fun!

  • Because a family office’s money is coming from one source as opposed to many, they tend to seek out smaller opportunities than do private equity funds. There are some very small private equity funds these days and there are also some rather large family offices now. But in general, the managers at a family office are more accustomed to dealing with smaller business, more owner-operated businesses, and businesses with less data to share during the due diligence process. As a result, our clients often find them easier to work with and have more interest in working with them on an ongoing basis following the closing.

  • Private equity funds often have a mechanism in place to have their “deal costs” covered by third parties. Deal costs primarily consist of due diligence costs, legal fees, and travel. It is not uncommon to see a private equity funds deal costs amount to over 5% of the transaction value. Family offices, on the other hand, have no one to turn to for their deal costs. This has two favorable results for sellers. First, they spend less on the process, making it shorter and easier. Second, their certainty of close is higher. While private equity funds can somewhat mitigate the costs of a “blown deal,” family offices only have one pocket to pull from – their own (or, in other words, their boss’s personal pocket).

  • The characteristic that is probably self-evident by this point is the higher certainty of close. Family offices know the market batter, they have less bandwidth to use time inefficiently, they have more discretion, they are less reliant on banks, and they don’t want to waste their own money on blown deals. They are thus more cautious, put in fewer bids, and call things off much sooner than other buyer types. In short, if they are proceeding, they are more serious than they average buyer.

  • They are harder to find. They do not have to register with the SEC. There is no secret club they belong to.  They are too short-handed to attend many conferences. Many even enjoy anonymity and don’t even have websites.

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This last characteristic is what makes selling to family offices tricky. Any broker can produce a Rolodex of private equity funds. In fact, an impressive one could be produced from scratch in a matter of hours. Furthermore, because their focuses tend to be so narrow, the first 100 family offices in the Rolodex would probably not be a good fit for any given business but a similar list of private equity funds would probably produce a few interested buyers in most any growing business. A broker is either into the family office world or they are not. There is no break through moment in this regard. It requires years of dedicated effort to identify and establish relationships with these hidden gems. It requires dozens of researchers and outreach efforts.  It also requires having an inventory of businesses for sale that keeps these buyers interested. Brokers focused on larger deals and boutique brokers lacking global reach simply can’t devote the time and energy necessary to gain access to this strengthening pool of buyers. Only brokerages such as Benchmark International have the capability to do so and many of those with the capability have simply not made the effort.

Our family office relationships are continually growing and in 2019 these efforts have rewarded our clients handsomely.  Keep your eyes open. I bet you’ll soon start to see the Wall Street Journal talking about family offices and the rise of the family office.  When you do, remember that you heard it here first and Benchmark International is your gateway to those buyers.  

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Supreme Court Makes M&A More Difficult

Federalism has always posed challenges for middle market M&A. While compliance with federal laws and regulation does not typically lead to issues in acquirers’ due diligence on middle market companies, the companies do often have problems with those pesky out-of-state state-level issues. Experience indicates that this is true for a variety of reasons. First, many of these companies have only recently expanded into other states and, as is common in a growing business, operations often get ahead of back office tasks (such as compliance). Second, owners of middle market businesses are often selling precisely because they realize that their businesses have grown to the point that they require additional overhead expenses that the owners are not interested in dealing with. Third, every states’ rules are different and ever-changing and it is very hard to get a handle on six, or a dozen, or 49 different sets of rules and shape a business compliant with each set. Fourth, and nobody likes to admit this, states can be a bit lax on enforcing their rules, especially on out-of-state companies.  Acquirers are well aware of these facts and, as a result, dig deep on state-level issues in their due diligence.

While very few business owners are attorneys, most have at least a vague sense that when they establish a “physical presence” in a state, they need to start worrying about that state’s laws. Most probably also realize that physical presence is a bit fuzzy and that each state interprets the term differently but the US Constitution places a limit on the breadth of that definition due to the Interstate Commerce Clause. So, this has always been a nebulous issue but at least there was a bit of a bright line test around when a company might have to start thinking about looking at the rules in a new state for things such as income tax, collection of sales tax, workers compensation and the like. 

Ah, things were so much easier before 2018.

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*  *  *

Then, on October 1, 2018, the Supreme Court issued its ruling in the case of South Dakota v. Wayfair Inc., et al. South Dakota was attempting to require the online retailer Wayfair to collect sales tax for online sales for which goods were shipped into the state’s boundaries. Wayfair had a very strong case that it had no physical presence in the state and therefore the state could not force it to do anything, especially not collect taxes for Pierre. The state argued that it had a very powerful statute that said even without physical presence it could force companies to collect sales tax on sales made into the state if the seller had an “economic presence” in the state. Wayfair responded that decades of Supreme Court rulings indicated that this statute violated the US Constitution as an unfair restraint on interstate commerce. The Supreme Court stepped in and changed its mind. 

*  *  *

Since that day, the bright line with regard to when to start worrying about a state has been erased – at least with regard to sales tax. And, in the four months following the opinion, states have begun to rub that big eraser across other areas of law as well. The next to disappear is likely state income tax, then perhaps use tax, workers compensation, and unemployment insurance. As of the writing of this article, of the 45 states that have a sales tax, all but eight have already passed the economic contacts test for sales tax.  (That sure didn’t take long.) How many middle market companies (selling items subject to sales tax) have adapted their practices to this tsunami of a tax change? From what we’ve seen, just about zero. How many acquirers have adjusted their due diligence process? Let’s say the adoption rate there is at least as fast as those of the 45 states - and that is being generous to the states.

The results on M&A already include (i) longer due diligence, (ii) acquirers demanding larger escrows and holdbacks, and (iii) purchase price adjustments. The longer middle market companies go without getting up to speed on the new reality, the larger the potential penalties on the business once the acquirer gets hold of it and therefore the larger the issues will become in the deal process.

Author:
Clinton Johnston
Managing Director
Benchmark International
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BENCHMARK INTERNATIONAL ADVISES ON TREC CORPORATION’S SALE TO INERGEX HOLDINGS

Benchmark International has successfully negotiated the sale of TREC Corporation (dba TREC Global) to Inergex Holdings LLC.

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