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:
- There are always opportunities in any market to maximize deal value.
- Companies and sectors can benefit from opportunities during any market conditions.
- 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.
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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Africa: Anthony McCardle at +27 21 300 2055 / McCardle@BenchmarkIntl.com
ABOUT BENCHMARK INTERNATIONAL
Benchmark International’s global offices provide business owners in the middle market and lower middle market with creative, value-maximizing solutions for growing and exiting their businesses. To date, Benchmark International has handled engagements in excess of $6B across various industries worldwide. With decades of global M&A experience, Benchmark International’s deal teams, working from 12 offices across the world, have assisted hundreds of owners with achieving their personal objectives and ensuring the continued growth of their businesses.