Transaction brokers create competition. Why is this so important?

The critical first step in selling a business is to properly analyze and value it to establish a price. In the case of an undervaluation, when the business is sold the result is obvious; the owner receives less. Conversely, businesses that are overvalued and overpriced usually do not sell. The reason for this is because of the principle of alternative investments, which states that rational buyers will act on some alternative business investment where they expect to earn a higher return on their invested capital. Setting a reasonable price is critical to a successful deal. Buyers won’t spend time pursuing overpriced opportunities.

All business valuations are based upon the expectation of future economic benefit. An investor, appraiser and transaction broker (investment banker, M&A advisors, et al) looks at historic earnings or cash flows (usually 5-years or more if available) along with other factors such as the current economic environment and outlook, industry trends and outlook, and internal business factors. From this analysis, when the earnings stream is expected to grow at a fairly constant rate over time, the valuator estimates the next year’s earnings stream, which is then converted into value using a risk-adjusted rate of return; as a devisor (capitalization rate) or multiple (1/capitalization rate) derived from market sources for similar investments. Note that the earnings stream is forecasted in harmony with the basic premise of value — the “future expectation of economic benefit.”

In addition to this critical valuation piece, the transaction broker creates competition in the market, or at least the perception thereof.

There are two categories of buyers: Financial Buyers, which include the typical individual owner-operator or investor group who usually pay fair market value (FMV); and Strategic Buyers, which is a company that has a specific business reason to purchase and has synergies with that business. Because strategic buyers get more earnings and therefore value out of an acquisition than the FMV of the target company, they may be willing to pay a premium price.

The existence of competition in the market, among financial or strategic buyers, usually results in the ultimate price paid being higher than if no competition exists.

In my 20 years of M&A experience, I have found that getting strategic buyers to pay more than FMV when there is no competition is difficult. When a business is marketed by a transaction broker, competition normally drives the purchase price upward, much like an auction environment.

Engineering the Future

As a father of two budding technophiles, and having my first college degree in electrical and computer engineering, please allow me this opportunity to promote this important profession …

As the world’s population nears seven-billion people, mechanical engineers will play a major role in meeting global challenges says a research study conducted by ASME (American Society of Mechanical Engineers). The study, The State of Mechanical Engineering: Today and Beyond, was the result of a survey of over 1,200 engineers.

With the expanding global population comes the need to address challenges such as clean water, sanitation, food and energy. While the study shows optimism about the ability of engineers to meet global challenges, it points to the importance of working on interdisciplinary teams of professionals to address these issues.

The study also revealed that early career engineers and students will play a major role in meeting global challenges over the next 10-20 years, especially in the areas of sustainability or renewable energy, bioengineering and biomedical fields, nanotechnology, green building technology, energy storage, smart grids and greenhouse gas mitigation.

The ASME research study also revealed that over the next two decades:

  • The prestige of working as an engineer will increase
  • The financial rewards of working as an engineer will be greater
  • The number of engineers working in less-developed countries will be greater
  • The need for engineers to increase their ability to communicate more effectively, increase language skills and manage global teams will increase

When participants were asked how they would acquire additional knowledge or expertise needed to address future challenges, almost all engineers said they would employ self-study.  According to the survey, “early career engineers prefer traditional face-to-face instruction for acquiring knowledge such as in-house training, mentoring, and part-time graduate degree programs. More experienced engineers, on the other hand, are more comfortable relying on magazines, books and online courses.”

The study also indicated that “basic engineering disciplines will continue to be indispensable. Abilities such as multilingual and multicultural skills will be essential in the anticipated increasingly global work environment.”

Download the study results here: The State of Mechanical Engineering: Today and Beyond

Famed Investor: References to EBITDA make us shudder …

… does management think the tooth fairy pays for capital expenditures?

Article Published December 6, 2010 — North Bay Business Journal

This title is a quote from Warren Buffett’s letter to shareholders in Berkshire Hathaway’s 2000 annual report. EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) is a good financial metric to use in analyzing, comparing and valuing companies, but, as business owners and investors, we need to understand its limitations.

EBITDA is one of several measures of economic benefit to which a multiple can be applied to estimate value for a company. A multiple is the inverse of a capitalization or ‘cap’ rate. When used properly, multiples are applied to an investor’s forward looking cash flows and adjusted for risk.

EBITDA is a popular proxy for Cash Flow because we can easily calculate it from the P&L — no balance sheet required. However, EBITDA ignores capital investment, working capital changes, taxes, borrowing, debt repayment and financing costs, which all affect a company’s cash flow and ability to pay dividends to its owners. The focus of this article is the “D” in EBITDA, or Depreciation, which results from owning capital assets.

Depreciation Matters

Don’t let anyone tell you depreciation doesn’t matter because it is a non-cash item. I have yet to sell or appraise a company that owns fixed assets that never need replacement. Not only do capital assets deteriorate, they are also subject to functional obsolescence caused by technology advancements (faster, cheaper, better) and sometimes new environmental regulations.

Here’s how Warren Buffet put it in his 2002 letter to shareholders, “Trumpeting EBITDA is a particularly pernicious practice. Doing so implies that depreciation is not truly an expense, given that it is a “non-cash” charge. That’s nonsense. In truth, depreciation is a particularly unattractive expense because the cash outlay it represents is paid up front, before the asset acquired has delivered any benefits to the business. Imagine, if you will, that at the beginning of this year a company paid all of its employees for the next ten years of their service (in the way they would lay out cash for a fixed asset to be useful for ten years). In the following nine years, compensation would be a “non-cash” expense – a reduction of a prepaid compensation asset established this year. Would anyone care to argue that the recording of the expense in years two through ten would be simply a bookkeeping formality?”

Let’s imagine we’re in the drilling business, looking to grow through acquisition, and there are two companies in equally desirable markets available to us. Both companies operate the same number and type of drill rigs. Both generate $5 million in sales and $1 million EBITDA annually. Same EBITDA, same value, right? It’s a trick question. Company A’s rigs are 4 years old on average, while B’s rigs average 13 years old. We estimate that B will need $300,000 more in annual capital outlays to maintain its fleet and revenues going forward. Even though EBITDA is the same, Company A will generate substantially higher cash flows for us, and is more valuable to us.

Now say there’s a Company C available. It also shows $1 million EBITDA and is equivalent to A and B in all other respects except that it sub-contracts drilling to several independent operators. It owns no rigs and has no capital expenditures or depreciation. (Since there are no assets to depreciate or replace, EBITDA is a better approximation of free cash flow.) From a cash flow perspective, C tops A and B.

In general, projected cash flow should be our metric for evaluating companies. Cash flow assumes adequate reinvestment in the business, as opposed to the unsustainable reinvestment shortfall represented by EBITDA.

EBITDA is a good starting point for sale, merger and acquisition discussions. Just don’t rely on it for making a major decision; unless you would buy a car knowing only the model and year, or propose marriage on the first date. There are more EBITDA hazards to avoid, but the depreciation trap is a key one. When one of Warren Buffet protégés comes calling, we’ll be ready.

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Al Statz is President of Exit Strategies Group, Inc., a business brokerage, mergers, acquisitions and valuation firm serving closely-held businesses in Northern California. He can be reached confidentially at 707-778-2040 or alstatz@exitstrategiesgroup.com.


The  North Bay Business Journal, a publication of the New York Times, is a weekly business newspaper which covers the North Bay area of San Francisco – from the Golden Gate bridge north, including Marin County and the wine country of Sonoma and Napa Counties.