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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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Tips for First-Time Buyers in Approaching the Letter of Intent

The business acquisition process consists of various stages. Taking the broadest view, the process leading up to the close of a transaction typically entails an initial assessment stage, and a more formalized due diligence period during which the buyer often performs a quality of earnings and legal due diligence exercise.

Many business acquirers have enough commercial and financial insight to enable them to evaluate whether they wish to acquire a business during the initial assessment stage and at what price. Prior to transitioning to the more formalized due diligence phase, the parties in an M&A transaction typically agree on a Letter of Intent (LOI). Although it is important to get the LOI right because it essentially lays the foundation on which the transaction should proceed, first-time business buyers are often unnecessarily intimidated by the task of formulating the LOI. Buyers can be generally confident they are taking the right approach to the LOI if they take care to understand the key purpose of the LOI and bear in mind a few simple commercial tips. In fact, when done right, properly crafting an appropriate LOI can help a buyer set themselves apart as a capable buyer, particularly when the seller is receiving multiple offers or there is a formal competitive bid process.

First, it is important to understand the key purpose of the LOI and to realize its scope and limitations. At a high level, the purpose of the LOI is to establish the key commercial terms of the business sale agreement between the parties, and to provide the framework on which the transaction can proceed according to the parties’ agreement. Also, the LOI will serve as the cornerstone document for the lawyers to draft the definitive transaction documents. A helpful LOI will not only specify the commercial agreement between the parties (for example, setting out the purchase price and the types of consideration if there is structure in the deal), but also provide a roadmap for key milestones or conditions to be completed by the parties in order to reach a successful close. The LOI needs to have enough detail to provide an appropriate framework, but it will typically not capture every single transaction detail. Naturally, there is a delicate balance between having enough information to provide a framework on which the deal can proceed, and not being too over detailed so as to prematurely freeze the deal discussions. An ideal LOI should contain enough information to reflect the parties’ agreed commercial terms and also provide a roadmap for the steps to be completed for the transaction to take place.

First-time buyers conducting online research are also often confused by different terminology concerning preliminary acquisition documentation. While there can be certain differences between LOIs, Indications of Interests, Heads of Terms, and Term Sheets (to name a few forms of initial acquisition agreements) depending on the jurisdiction, purpose of the agreement, or stage of a formalized M&A process, these types of documents share a lot of common principles and sometimes serve the same function. In the lower middle-market M&A space in the U.S., the majority of initial acquisition documents are formulated as an LOI.

Letters of Intent can be as short as a single page, or as long as several pages. The length of the LOI, as well as the types of provisions and level of detail in each section, depends on the deal specifics and preference of the parties. At a minimum, most LOIs contain:

  • Information about the specifics of the type of proposed transaction (for example, whether the prospective transaction will take the form of a stock or asset deal)
  • The purchase price
  • Types of consideration if the transaction involves structure
  • Conditions to close
  • Other commercial or legal provisions the particular parties may wish to specify

 

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Although LOIs are generally commercially viewed as non-binding in nature, buyers and sellers should take care to specify whether any particular provisions of the LOI should remain binding even if the prospective transaction fails to materialize. For example, although a buyer may wish to specify that it is not required to transact a close in the event a condition precedent is not completed, the seller may wish to specify that the buyer will be bound to keep sensitive information learned about the seller’s business confidential even if the transaction is not completed. Specifying which provisions, if any, shall remain binding on the parties can help avoid unnecessary confusion.

While the LOI may be non-binding in nature, this feature should not encourage the buyer (or the seller) to punt difficult or contentious items to a later stage in the transaction if they can be agreed at the LOI stage. Typically, parties best serve transactions when the difficult issues are resolved between them as early as possible. Commercial experience has shown that the parties that try to approach the LOI as if it were “fully binding” and address the difficult or controversial issues upfront are more likely to have a smooth transaction because the tough deal points are sorted earlier in the process. In addition, if it turns out there will be a sticking point between the buyer and seller, it is typically in both parties’ favor to have that issue addressed as soon as possible. If in dealing with the difficult issues an insurmountable deal sticking point is revealed, the buyer will not waste unnecessary time and resources on an unrealistic transaction. This will enable the buyer to more swiftly move on to other potential opportunities potentially enabling them to realize an alternative transaction sooner. Likewise, the seller also benefits from this approach because the sooner a deal stopper is identified, the more time and resources the seller saves compared to wastefully engaging with a buyer who will not acquire the company. Of course, not every deal point can be agreed in final detail at the LOI stage, but as general rule of thumb, addressing the heavy issues as early as possible can help lighten the work later in the transaction process.

Buyers can help themselves avoid an unnecessary deal breakup by understanding the seller’s mindset. In fact, buyers who proactively address points important for the seller in the LOI can build up goodwill towards the seller and help themselves standout as a capable buyer. For example, sellers are typically hesitant to agree on an exclusivity provision in the LOI which prevents the seller from engaging in discussions with other prospective buyers while the signing buyer engages in due diligence. A buyer which, from the outset, proposes an ambitious but realistic due diligence period with a limited exclusivity provision demonstrates an appreciation for the seller’s concerns and exhibits drive to peruse a swift transaction.

Also, savvy sellers understand the LOI will not capture all the details. As a result, sellers are likely to engage in discussions with the buyer about the reasoning and thinking behind the buyer’s provisions in the LOI. Buyers should be familiar enough with their proposed terms to be confident to have a meaningful commercial discussion with the seller. For example, if a buyer offers an exceptionally aggressive price based on limited information about the selling company, the buyer should be prepared to provide details on how they value the company. Otherwise, the seller will be forced to ponder whether the deal is too good to be true and may become unnecessarily overly skeptical. While not every detail needs to be spelled out in the LOI, the buyer’s proposed deal terms need to make sense. For example, if a proposed transaction will involve an earnout component subject to conditions, buyers could better position their offer by providing information on the earnout parameters, including information on how the earnout payment can be achieved.

Bearing these key points in mind should help buyers be less apprehensive about the LOI process. Indeed, the LOI is also often subject to various rounds of markups, so the buyer should be prepared for counter-comments but shouldn’t be shy about starting the negotiating process in writing. It is helpful to put the ideas on paper to allow the parties to focus on the key deal specifics. Putting forth a proper LOI in the first draft will show that you are a professional buyer and will ultimately help set the stage for facilitating a smooth transaction process.

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Tips for Making Sellers Comfortable with You as a Potential Buyer

The acquisition process can understandably be a very daunting task for sellers, let alone an uncomfortable experience that pulls back the curtains on their business and its most intimate information. Many sellers realize this is not their area of expertise, and will make the informed decision to contract with a sell-side M&A advisory firm prior to officially entering the marketplace. The M&A advisory represents the seller, but can function as your ally as a buyer if you let them because they have incentive to get a deal done. Although M&A advisors can guide a seller through the sales process and educate them on market norms, they’re not capable of self-fabricating the comfort level between buyer and seller. Over time, a seller’s relationship with a potential buyer will prove to be most advantageous in getting to the finish line of a transaction, as there will be numerous items both sides will have to work through together. Unfortunately, agreements can fall apart due to a lack of mutual comfort between the buyer and seller, and this is typically a result of a combination of multiple factors set in motion long before official due diligence even began. The following are steps you should consider when working side by side with a seller during the transaction life cycle.

Be transparent with your background information in the beginning.

This is a very important first step, and it sets the stage for how trustworthy the seller will perceive you to be going forward. Be prepared to sign an NDA before receiving any confidential information from a seller, as this is a customary measure taken to ensure you bear some level of legal responsibility around any and all sensitive information the seller turns over to you. Understand that the seller is handing over their most private information and they need assurances from you the information will not be used against them by a competitor. With your NDA, make sure to include background information on yourself, your company, your intentions, and your interest in the seller’s business. Take this as an opportunity to highlight your achievements and accomplishments, speak about your goals, and so on. Sell the seller on why they should view it as an honor that you have expressed an interest in their business. 

Take advantage of introduction calls.

Once you’ve gotten past the NDA stage, you will receive a small sample size of a seller’s confidential information. The next step should be an introduction call for both parties to get to know one another on a more personal level. These first calls are meant purely to be introductory in nature, and fairly high level, considering this will be your first chance to speak with the seller. Be willing to field a high number of questions from the seller as this presents another opportunity to highlight yourself, your company, your intentions, and your goals. On the contrary, sellers are proud of what they’ve built, and will be more than willing to discuss their company’s history, struggles, achievements, etc., so be sure to keep an open ear when they speak. Ask open-ended questions and build dialogue. One last but very important item to keep in mind is that every seller has a goal they’re looking to achieve by selling their business, and it’s typically more than a specific dollar figure. Some sellers are looking for a full sale to move into retirement, while others are looking for a partner to infuse capital and new growth ideas, among countless other scenarios. Listen closely to a seller’s intentions as they go beyond the monetary value of a transaction.

 

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Make data requests with care.

As you delve deeper into a seller’s business, you will at times need to request additional information. Sometimes information you requested in the past leads you to new questions. Perhaps your review of the previous three years of financial records leads you to want to review the past five years. Or maybe you heard the seller discussing expected growth on your introduction call so you would like to see their proforma for the next year. Regardless, with each passing data request, more questions will arise from a seller as to why you are requesting this information. Make sure to always explain your reasoning behind each request you make for additional information, and always remain understanding of a seller’s sensitivity around releasing confidential information. Sometimes it’s best to facilitate data requests through a sell-side M&A advisory if the seller is using one. This advisor should be viewed as your ally and can assist in explaining market norms regarding data requests to the seller.

Remember the importance of site visits.

At some point, back and forth via email and phone calls will no longer suffice. Take the initiative with a seller to be the first to suggest an in-person meeting. Be prepared to travel to the seller and field your own travel expenses. If the seller suggests meeting halfway, or accommodating you on your visit, consider this an added bonus to you. A site visit presents the greatest opportunity to build further rapport with a seller, and put a name with a face. There will be conversations you can have in-person with a seller that can be more challenging when done virtually. This will also give you the opportunity to potentially see their operations, facility, location, etc., provided that you are meeting at their location. Remember, there could be possible limitations during your visit as the visit may need to be conducted after-hours and you probably will not be afforded the opportunity to meet the company’s employees. Though not necessary prior to a formal offer, a site visit is a very critical piece of the transaction lifecycle, and should never be discounted.

Submitting and negotiating a formal offer.

Once you are comfortable with your knowledge about a seller’s business, you will be in a position to submit a formal offer. Chances are, your first stab at a formal offer will fall short of a seller’s expectations, so don’t take offense, just remain flexible. Always remain willing to work with a seller towards an agreeable offer for both parties, while maintaining respect. Sometimes buyers and sellers can “outfox” themselves by overthinking the presentation and discussion of offers. Try to cut down on gamesmanship and be straightforward with your intentions. Oftentimes, sellers will have questions regarding topics such as your funding capabilities, and timing. Perhaps you might consider listing out deadlines for yourself in a formal offer that will give the seller assurances you will stay on target. These deadlines could involve a maximum number of days to produce a first draft of a purchase agreement, first draft of an employment/transition agreement, proof of funds, and so forth. Lastly, and this goes without saying, always operate in good faith with formal offers, and never enter the official due diligence phase with intentions not clearly defined in the offer you mutually execute with a seller.

Passing on the opportunity.

Unfortunately, not every transaction is meant to happen, and sometimes this cannot be determined until much later in the process. At some point, you as the buyer may decide an opportunity is not going to work for any number of reasons. The seller will want to be informed and understand why you no longer wish to move forward with them. In some scenarios, the seller may already understand, but giving them details as a courtesy is appreciated. Regardless of the reasons, always make an effort to communicate this in detail when walking away from a possible deal. It could prove to be worthwhile to maintain a relationship post discussions as well. Keep in mind, as you go further down the road with a seller, you will become privy to more confidential information, you will build a deeper relationship, and expectations naturally begin to take shape. The level of detail you provide on the reasoning for your pass should always line up with how much time you have spent on the opportunity and working with a seller.

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Why the Best Buyer May Not Be the Highest Bidder

Taking your business to market is a very challenging yet rewarding process. Receiving feedback from potential buyers enables you to learn both what specifically attracts buyers to your company and what your business is generally worth. Throughout the process, a valuable lesson learned will be the importance of weighing all potential offers, rather than strictly accepting the highest offer.

Consider the likelihood that the buyer can finance the proposed offer

Having multiple Letters of Intent (LOIs) to compare against each other is a great problem for a seller to have. Each offer is unique and presents different solutions to finance the proposed transaction. However, an LOI is not binding and simply moves you into an exclusive relationship with a buyer for a set period (typically 60-90 days). Deciding to enter an exclusive relationship with this one buyer can affect your perceived value with other serious buyers, should you have to reopen dialogue if the agreed upon LOI does not ultimately close the deal.

A major component in valuing an LOI is the legitimacy of the offer. One buyer may come in and submit an offer that is a percentage higher than that of other buyers. If you agree, spend time working with the buyer, and ultimately learn that the buyer does not have the funds necessary to pay the intended price, you have lost valuable time on market and there is no guarantee the landscape will be the same upon return to market. For example, other buyers that extended an LOI may have moved on, eliminating them as a potential buyer for your company. Effectively, each seller must determine the authenticity of an offer in respect to the time it will need, the resources that must be committed, and the effect it will have on relationships with other buyers.

Deal structures can be valued in many ways

A second characteristic to consider is the structure of the deal. Four broad levers that buyers have in structuring an offer are cash, equity, debt and earnouts. The percentage makeup of each component is a huge aspect of the offer. For example, a seller who values cash upfront may value a $10 million all-cash offer more than a $12 million offer that is split between 50% cash and 50% earnouts based off estimated financial performance post transaction. An earnout structure would be less appealing to that seller due to the uncertainty of achieving the targeted earnout performance and/or the potential for litigation in the period between transaction-close and the earnout’s expiration.

 

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Compatibility with your potential partner

Unless you fully exit your company and receive a full-cash offer, another topic to consider is determining how well the buyer aligns with you and your company. While not always the case, some buyers may state that proposed deals are contingent upon the owner remaining on full time after the sale because they value the owner’s role for a successful transition of ownership. For any deal in which this is the case, you would also need to reflect on whether you are willing to transition from being the manager to being managed.

A buyer’s compatibility with your company also matters when your payout is contingent upon earnouts or a retained equity position. As mentioned in the previous section, funding for the sale can include earnouts. An earnout is a post-closing purchase price payment that is contingent upon the acquired company meeting negotiated performance goals post closing. If your company’s performance post acquisition does not pan out as expected, the earnout expectations may not be met and you would not receive the compensation which was expected at the close of the deal.

Alternatively, if the seller retains an equity position in the company post sale, then there may be a benefit to accepting an offer from a buyer that is not the highest bidder: if that buyer brings a strategic relationship that grows the value of the retained equity position. Oftentimes this strategic relationship manifests itself in operating synergies allowing for expense reductions, new revenue growth opportunities, or additional management expertise.

Financing strength, deal structure, and compatibility are three of many attributes in addition to the final price that must be considered when selling your company. Ultimately, in a process that is so complex and intense, choosing which offer to accept is not quite as simple as accepting the highest offer.

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Why Now is the Time to Sell to Private Equity as a Small Enterprise

Recent data from the Centre of Management Buy-Out (CMBOR) at Imperial College Business School, in association with Investec and Equistone Partners Europe, has shown that the number of small buy-out (sub-€10m enterprise value) private equity backed transactions have nearly doubled in the UK from H2 2017 to H1 2018, rising from 24 to 48 deals. Statistics also show that there has been strong growth in Europe, increasing by 26 per cent to 168 deals.

The north of England has also shown promising statistics in terms of deal value, increasing from £25m in H1 2017 to £28m in H1 2018.

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