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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, ever 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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