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Personal Goodwill: Who Owns It?

Personal Goodwill has always been a fascinating subject, impacting the sale of many small to medium-sized businesses – and possibly even larger companies. How is personal goodwill developed? An individual starts a business and, during the process, builds one or more of the following:

• A positive personal reputation
• A personal relationship with many of the largest customers and/or suppliers
• Company products, publications, etc., as the sole author, designer, or inventor

The creation of personal goodwill occurs far beyond just customers and suppliers. Over the years, personal goodwill has been established through relationships with tax advisors, doctors, dentists, attorneys, and other personal service providers.  While these relationships are wonderful benefits, they are, unfortunately, non-transferable. There is an old saying:  In businesses built around personal goodwill, the goodwill goes home at night.

It can be difficult to sell a business, regardless of size, where personal goodwill plays an integral role in the business’ success. The larger the business, the less likely that one person holds the key to its profitability. In small to medium-sized businesses, personal goodwill can be a crucial ingredient.  A buyer certainly has to consider it when considering whether to buy such a business.

In the case of the sale of a medical, accounting, or legal practice, existing clients/patients may visit a new owner of the same practice; they are used to coming to that location, they have an immediate problem, or they have some other practical reason for staying with the same practice. However, if existing clients or patients don’t like the new owner, or they don’t feel that their needs were handled the way the old owner cared for them, they may look for a new provider. The new owner might be as competent as, or more competent than, his predecessor, but chemistry, or the lack of it, can supersede competency in the eyes of a customer.

Businesses centered on the goodwill of the owner can certainly be sold, but usually the buyer will want some protection in case business is lost with the departure of the seller. One simple method requires the seller to stay for a sufficient period after the sale to allow him or her to work with the new owner and slowly transfer the goodwill. No doubt, some goodwill will be lost, but that expectation should be built into the price.

Another approach uses some form of “earnout.” At the end of the year, the lost business that can be attributed to the goodwill of the seller is tallied.  A percentage is then subtracted from monies owed to the seller, or funds from the down payment are placed in escrow, and adjustments are made from that source.

In some cases, the sale of goodwill may offer some favorable tax benefits for the seller. If the seller of the business is also the owner of the personal goodwill, the sale can essentially be two taxable events. The tax courts have ruled that the business doesn’t own the goodwill, the owner of the business does. The seller thus sells the business and then also sells his or her personal goodwill. The seller’s tax professional will be able to give further advice on this matter.

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Ownership Transition — Survey Results

Mass Mutual Life Insurance Company provided the following survey results based on family-owned businesses. Although the survey was conducted several years ago, the results are still quite revealing, and still applicable.

• Four out of five companies are still controlled by the founders.
• 30% of family-owned companies will change leadership within the next five years.
• 55% of companies fail to conduct regular valuations of the company.
• 55% of CEOs who are 61 or older have not chosen a successor.
• 13% of CEOs will never retire.
• 90% of businesses will continue as family owned.
• 85% of successor CEOs will be a family member.
• 20% of family owners have not completed any estate planning.
• 55% of family owners do not have a formal company valuation for estate tax estimates.
• 60% of businesses do not have a written strategic plan.
• 48% of companies rely on life insurance to cover estate taxes.

The above survey indicates that many family businesses are not optimizing their opportunities. Their insular approach to succession, leadership, planning, etc., indicates their vulnerability for the long term. These vulnerabilities suggest that many business owners should work with professional advisors to resolve these issues. A professional intermediary is an essential member of this advisor group.

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An Update on Earnouts

New accounting rules may require that acquirers and acquiring companies report earnout agreements as liabilities.

Joel Johnson, president of Orchard Partners Inc., in his article, “Earnouts,” published by Valuation Strategies, states: “In a given year, 2% – 3% of announced mergers and acquisition agreements involve earnouts.  These figures probably understate their prevalence.  Earnouts tend to be a characteristic of smaller deals; and in many small deals, terms are not announced.  Earnouts are rare when public companies are acquired and more common when ownership is concentrated among a few shareholders.”

This would mean, if implemented, that earnout agreements must have a value placed on them for accounting purposes. As Joel Johnson points out, “The higher the earnout, the greater the liability.”

Why the Earnout?

Johnson further states that earnouts are used for various reasons:

1. to bridge the pricing gap between the seller who places a heavy emphasis on the company’s projections, and the buyer who places most of the company’s value on its present and past performance.
2. to tie the acquisition payout to future performance.
3. to create a form of seller financing in that some of the buyer’s purchase price is delayed into the future. 4. to establish a form of escrow account in that the money is paid on condition of meeting certain thresholds.
5. to act as a type of employment agreement in that the CEO has to stick around in order to collect.

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Remember: It Is Not Always the Price

The following are situations where the price was not the deciding issue in the successful sell of a business. The ultimate buyer may be the only one who really understands the situation. A business intermediary really understands the issues and can lead the buyer and seller to a successful resolution.

• One seller had 60 shareholders who needed to walk away from the deal.  The losing buyer wanted all selling shareholders to be accountable for the “reps and warranties.”  The winning buyer waived the reps and warranties at closing.

• A seller’s management team wanted some future upside in the deal.  The losing buyer offered all cash and normal compensation.  The winning buyer offered 80% cash, 20% stock plus 3-year earnout on revenues — including acquisitions.

• Time was of the essence.  The losing buyer needed 30 day due diligence and negotiations plus a 60-day window to close the deal.  The winning buyer offered to close within 40 days of the Letter of Intent and agreed to have limited due diligence.

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The Three Ways to Negotiate

Basically, there are three major negotiation methods.

1. Take it or leave it. A buyer makes an offer or a seller makes a counter-offer – both sides can let the “chips fall where they may.”

2. Split the difference. The buyer and seller, one or the other, or both, decide to split the difference between what the buyer is willing to offer and what the seller is willing to accept. A real oversimplification, but often used.

3. This for that. Both buyer and seller have to find out what is important to each.  So many of these important areas are non-monetary and involve personal things such as allowing the owner’s son to continue employment with the firm.  The buyer may want to move the business.

There is an old adage that advises, “Never negotiate your own deal!”

The first thing both sides have to decide on is who will represent them.  Will they have their attorney, their intermediary or will they go it alone?  Intermediaries are a good choice for a seller.  They have done it before, are good advocates for their side and they understand the company and the seller.

How do the parties get together in a win-win negotiation?  The first step is for both sides to work with their advisors to settle on the price and deal structure positions.  Both sides should be able to present their side of these issues.  Which is more important – price or terms, or non-monetary items?

Information is vital to a buyer.  Buyers should keep in mind that the seller knows more about the business than he or she does.  Both buyer and seller need to anticipate what is important to the other and keep that in mind when discussing the deal.  Buyer and seller should do due diligence on each other. Both buyer and seller must be able to walk away from a deal that is just not going to work.

Bob Woolf, the famous sports agent said in his book, Friendly Persuasion: My Life as a Negotiator, “I never think of negotiating against anyone.  I work with people to come to an agreement.  Deals are put together.”

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Due Diligence — Do It Now!

Due diligence is generally considered an activity that takes place as part of the selling process. It might be wise to take a look at the business from a buyer’s perspective in performing due diligence as part of an annual review of the business.  Performing due diligence does two things: (1) It provides a valuable assessment of the business by company management, and (2) It offers the company an accurate profile of itself, just in case the decision is made to sell, or an acquirer suddenly appears at the door.

This process, when performed by a serious acquirer, is generally broken down into five basic areas:

• Marketing due diligence
• Financial due diligence
• Legal due diligence
• Environmental due diligence
• Management/Employee due diligence

Marketing Issues
It has been said that many company officers/CEOs have never taken a look at the broad picture of their industry; in other words, they know their customers, but not their industry.  For example, here are just a few questions concerning the market that due diligence will help answer:

• What is the size of the market?
• Who are the industry leaders?
• Does the product or service have a life cycle?
• Who are the customers/clients, and what is the relationship?
• What’s the downside and the upside of the product/service?  What is the risk and potential?

Financial Issues
Two important questions have to be answered before getting down to the basics of the financials: (1) Do the numbers really work? and (2) Are the seller’s claims supported by the figures?  If the answer to both is yes, the following should be carefully reviewed:

• The accounts receivables
• The accounts payable
• The inventory

Legal Issues
Are contracts and agreements current? Are products patented, if necessary?  How about copyrights and trademarks?  What is the current status of any litigation?  Are there any possible law suits on the horizon? What would an astute attorney representing a buyer want to see and would it be acceptable?

Environmental Issues
Not too long ago this area would have been a non-issue.  Not any more!   Current governmental guidelines can levy responsibility regarding environmental issues that existed prior to the current occupancy or ownership of the real estate.  Possible acquirers – and lenders – are really “gun-shy” about these types of problems.

Management/Employee Issues
What employment agreements are in force?  What family members are on the payroll? Who are the key people?  In other words, who does what, why, and how much are they paid?

Operational Issues
The company should have a clear program covering how their products are handled from raw material to “out the door.” Service companies should also have a program covering how services are delivered from initial customer contact through delivery of the services.

The question is, do you give your company a “physical” now, or do you wait until someone else does it for you – with a lot riding on the line?

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The Offering Memorandum

A solid, factual and compelling offering memorandum maximizes the chances of not only selling a business, but obtaining the highest possible price.  An offering memorandum is also referred to as the selling memorandum, a confidential descriptive memorandum, or simply as “the book.” The memorandum, regardless of the terminology used, must be as factual as possible, but the Executive Summary portion of it allows for a bit of “selling the sizzle.”  Most potential buyers want to know the basics of the company and of the deal right at the beginning.  What is the proposed transaction and what are some of the company highlights?  The executive summary should also contain an outline of the ownership and management structure, a description of the business, some financial highlights, a quick review of the company’s products and/or services, its markets, reason for sale and any other major items of importance.

The executive summary, then, is a quick synopsis of the items covered in the offering memorandum that should entice a prospective buyer to study the offering memorandum itself.  Here are some critical elements of the offering memorandum:

• Executive Summary
• The Company
• History of the Company
• The Markets
• The Products
• Distribution
• Customers and/or Clients
• The Competition
• Management
• Real Estate
• Financials
• Growth Strategies
• Competitive Advantages
• Conclusion
• Exhibits

“The offering memorandum should not only be a compelling document in order to capture the reader’s attention, but it should be so thorough that one should expect the potential acquirer to submit a fairly tight price range for his or her initial offer.  In short, the best offering memorandums are complete but not too long, easy to read, believably professional and show that the company has an opportunity for growth.”
    Source: The Best of the M&A Today Newsletter

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Considerations When Selling…Or Buying

Important questions to ask when looking at a business…or preparing to have your business looked at by prospective buyers.

• What’s for sale?  What’s not for sale?  Does it include real estate? Are some of the machines leased instead of owned?

• What assets are not earning money? Perhaps these assets should be sold off.

• What is proprietary? Formulations, patents, software, etc.?

• What is their competitive advantage? A certain niche, superior marketing or better manufacturing.

• What is the barrier of entry? Capital, low labor, tight relationships.

• What about employment agreements/non-competes? Has the seller failed to secure these agreements from key employees?

• How does one grow the business? Maybe it can’t be grown.

• How much working capital does one need to run the business?

• What is the depth of management and how dependent is the business on the owner/manager?

• How is the financial reporting undertaken and recorded and how does management adjust the business accordingly?

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Reasons to Sell / Reasons to Acquire

A January 2004 survey conducted by the DAK Group/Rutgers found the following breakdown of why businesses are for sale:

Reasons To Sell

  • Risk reduction      44%
  • Competition or market changes   41%
  • External pressures     27%
  • Lifestyle factors (age, health, etc.)   14%
  • Lack of capital      9%
  • Ownership/management issues  07%

Note: Multiple responses allowed;  Source: DAK Group/Rutgers

It is interesting to note that the top, by far, three reasons to sell are financial as is the fifth reason. The information furnished by much of the media suggests that the big reason to sell is generational – in other words, all of yesterday’s owners are now ready to retire.  According to the survey above, that motivation (included in “Lifestyle factors”) represents only 14 percent, and it  includes health and other personal issues.  The last reason, at 7 percent, might also include retirement since ownership/management could be involved with retirement issues.  Twenty-one percent of the respondents mentioned either lifestyle or ownership/management issues.  Placing these reasons at the top of the list does not justify the hype of the “baby-boomers” retiring over the next few years.

Shown, below, the reasons for considering an acquisition seem to be more obvious.  Although growth leads the list by a hefty margin, all of the other reasons could also be considered growth issues.

Reasons for Considering an Acquisition

  • Growth   72%
  • Acquire competitor  38%
  • Product diversification 37%
  • Geographic diversification 29%
  • Technology   09%

Note: Multiple responses allowed;   Source: DAK Group/Rutger

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Keys to a Successful Closing

The closing is the formal transfer of a business. It usually also represents the successful culmination of many months of hard work, extensive negotiations, lots of give and take, and ultimately a satisfactory meeting of the minds.  The document governing the closing is the Purchase and Sale Agreement.  It generally covers the following:

• A description of the transaction – Is it a stock or asset sale?

• Terms of the agreement – This covers the price and terms and how it is to be paid.  It should also include the status of any management that will remain with the business.

• Representations and Warranties – These are usually negotiated after the Letter of Intent is agreed upon.  Both buyer and seller want protection from any misrepresentations.  The warranties provide assurances that everything is as represented.

•  Conditions and Covenants – These include non-competes and agreements to do or not to do certain things.

There are four key steps that must be undertaken before the sale of a business can close:

1. The seller must show satisfactory evidence that he or she has the legal right to act on behalf of the selling company and the legal authority to sell the business.

2. The buyer’s representatives must have completed the due diligence process, and claims and representations made by the seller must have been substantiated.

3. The necessary financing must have been secured, and the proper paperwork and appropriate liens must be in place so funds can be released.

4. All representations and warranties must be in place, with remedies made available to the buyer in case of seller’s breech.

There are two major elements of the closing that take place simultaneously:

• Corporate Closing: The actual transfer of the corporate stock or assets based on the provisions of the Purchase and Sale Agreement.  Stockholder approvals are in, litigation and environmental issues satisfied, representations and warranties signed, leases transferred, employee and board member resignations, etc. completed, and necessary covenants and conditions performed.  In other words, all of the paperwork outlined in the Purchase and Sale Agreement has been completed.

• Financial Closing: The paperwork and legal documentation necessary to provide funding has been executed. Once all of the conditions of funding have been met, titles and assets are transferred to the purchaser, and the funds delivered to the seller.

It is best if a pre-closing is held a week or so prior to the actual closing.  Documents can be reviewed and agreed upon, loose ends tied up, and any open matters closed.  By doing a pre-closing, the actual closing becomes a mere formality, rather than requiring more negotiation and discussion.

The closing is not a time to cut costs – or corners.  Since mistakes can be very expensive, both sides require expert advice.  Hopefully, both sides are in complete agreement and any disagreements were resolved at the pre-closing meeting.  A closing should be a time for celebration!