Four Questions Your Buy-Sell Agreement Should Answer

A buy-sell agreement is a common contract between shareholders that both restricts ownership and facilitates the transfer of shares in a closely-held company. The other shareholders or the company become the buyers (marketplace) for what would otherwise be highly illiquid stock. Every buy-sell agreement should answer four fundamental questions:

1. Who is the purchaser?

Generally, buy-sell agreements take one of three approaches to determining who the purchaser will be: Redemption, Cross-Purchase or Hybrid.

In a redemption agreement, the company buys back an owner’s shares. When there are several owners of the company, this may be the best method. In a cross-purchase agreement, the remaining owners purchase a departing shareholder’s interest. This type of agreement is often considered best when there are only two or three shareholders. The cross-purchase method becomes unwieldy when there are several owners and the agreement is funded by life insurance. Insurance policies will have to be purchased by each owner to cover every other owner, which quickly multiplies the number of policies needed. A hybrid agreement is a combination of the above two methods. Upon an owner’s withdrawal, the stock may be first offered to the other shareholders of the company. If they do not wish to buy some or all of the stock, the corporation then buys the shares.

2. What are the buy-sell trigger events?

A buy-sell agreement should be tailored so that a buy-sell is triggered if a company owner dies, becomes disabled, retires, gets divorced, becomes insolvent, has a falling out with the other shareholders or disassociates with the company for any reason. You, your partners and your attorney decide what triggers are appropriate and how shares will be valued and bought out in each case.

3. How will shares be valued?

One of three approaches is generally used to value a departing shareholder’s interest:
(a) Agreed Upon Price – Since the agreement is usually executed years before it is triggered, an agreed upon price is rarely used. The owners must make extraordinary efforts to update the value on a regular basis. In practice, the price is rarely updated.
(b) Valuation Formula – Somewhat common with very small businesses, as an attempted cost-savings measure. Can work when a business has stable management, sales, profitability and operations, and industry and economic conditions are static.
(c) Independent Valuation – This is the most accurate, robust and fair approach. An appraiser can deal with dynamic economic conditions, an emerging industry, complex capital structures, and changed business circumstances.

4. How will the buyout be financed and paid?

Often installment payments are made from the business’s operating cash flows over time, and sometimes life insurance proceeds upon an owner’s death are used. The approach taken should ensure that the business won’t be crippled with a large payout, and that heirs will have money when they need it. A lump-sum payment is available if life insurance is involved. However, if the corporation is to buy out owners during their lifetime, scheduled note payments may be necessary. If an owner retirement triggers a buy-sell, life insurance cash values can serve as a down payment. There is no assurance that a company or purchasing shareholders will have sufficient funds in the future to satisfy note payments. Getting this right requires thoughtful and early planning.

A buy-sell agreement is an important part of a closely-held business owner’s succession plan. There are many more questions to be carefully considered and answered. Exit Strategies provides business valuation and consulting services to owners and attorneys when creating and carrying out buy-sell agreements. We do not provide legal services but can connect clients with attorneys who have deep buy-sell knowledge and experience. Contact Al Statz at 707-781-8580 with any questions or to discuss a current need.