Pro’s and Con’s of Price Formulas in Buy-Sell Agreements

Exit Strategies is regularly called upon to determine the value of closely-held company shares for buy-sell transactions. Common events that trigger a transfer of shares are when a shareholder retires or resigns from employment, is fired, dies, or becomes disabled, divorced or insolvent.
There are several facets to successful buy-sell transactions, but valuation is typically the most contested issue. The pricing method prescribed in your by-laws, shareholder, buy-sell or stock restriction agreement, as the case may be, is critical to the success of your next buy-sell transaction. Chances are your agreement (if you have one) stipulates one of these pricing approaches: a) a fixed price, b) book value, c) a formula, or d) an independent business valuation by one or more appraisers.
This article discusses the pro’s and con’s of formula pricing versus an independent valuation. Fixed price and book value are almost always bad ideas, so I won’t bother with them. Valuation formulas in the Buy-Sell agreements brought to us are usually pretty simple and look something like this:
Equity Value  =  Average EBITDA in the past two years  X  a fixed Multiple
Pro’s of a Pricing Formulapick_any_two
  1. Relatively quick and easy to calculate
  2. Inexpensive to apply
If your priority is to get to a price quickly with minimum effort and expense, congratulations, job done.
Con’s of a Pricing Formula
If however you and your partners’ want to see that all participants receive and pay a fair price, a set pricing formula misses the mark more often than not. One of the basic problems is that transactions occur sometime in the future, not when the formula is fixed, and formulas become stale as business and market conditions change over time.
Also, valuation itself is a forward-looking concept, and formulas generally use historical financial metrics. In other words, an investor ultimately cares only about what his or her return will be going forward, not what it was or would have been in the past. History is important in business valuation, but should never be entirely relied upon in determining the value of a company. As experienced business appraisers we see many companies whose future prospects are significantly better or worse than their recent past performance.
Let’s go into detail on some of the problems and solutions.
Businesses change.  A static formula can’t anticipate a change in business model.  One real-life example is a company that began life as a project-based, low margin contractor/installer of security systems, and evolved over time into a monitoring company with hundreds of annual customer contracts and high margins. Since monitoring companies trade for higher multiples than construction companies, the agreed-upon valuation formula undervalued the company when one of the owners died.  Solution: Rewrite the buy-sell agreement to require an independent valuation when a trigger event occurs.
Market conditions change.  Future market conditions are unknowable, and impossible to design into a formula. Consider the example of a real medium-size photographic processing company. With the advent of digital cameras and smart phone cameras, its film processing business was in steady decline when the founding partner wanted to retire. The pricing formula, which had been set 10 years earlier, overvalued the shares at the time of the trigger event. This led to a falling out and put a heavy burden on the remaining shareholders.  Solution: Require an independent valuation, or periodically update the formula at a minimum.
Stuff happens.  Major non-recurring events that substantially alter a company’s performance can happen at any time (think major lawsuit settlement, windfall sale, plant relocation or expansion, etc.). When such events occur during the formula’s measurement period, one side or the other gets penalized. Another issue we’ve seen many times, particularly as company owners age, is that they begin to rely on fewer and fewer major customers or suppliers for most of their business, which represents a major risk factor that won’t be accounted for in a pricing formula. For many reasons, pricing formulas can be rendered obsolete when things happen.  Solution: Have an expert evaluate the entire company at the time of the transaction.
Incomplete formula.  Most valuation formulas presented to us are too simplistic. What if, for example, the above formula was used to value an asset-intensive business — let’s say a heavy construction company. If the company had been deferring capital expenditures for several years, the formula would overvalue the company. Likewise, if it had recently replaced most of its equipment, possibly to take advantage of tax incentives, the formula would likely undervalue the company.  A formula can never be comprehensive and robust enough to capture all of the unique factors that can impact a company’s value.  I could list several dozen examples of this.  Solution: Have a seasoned appraiser thoroughly evaluate the company at the time of the transaction. If you must use a formula, have a qualified business appraiser design and update it periodically.
Formula is unclear or unfair.  Some of the pricing formulas presented to us are ambiguous in one or more significant ways; others are just plain unfair to one side or the other.  Usually the owners are completely unaware of this until a real trigger event occurs, at which point they are no longer objective. Sometimes the CPA or attorney who created the formula years ago is out of the picture or doesn’t remember what they intended.  Solution: Again, an independent valuation is the best option. Having a qualified business appraiser design and update the formula is second best. At a minimum, have your existing formula reviewed by a qualified business appraiser who can spot these types of problems and recommend improvements.
In summary, a pricing formula usually yields a share price that fails to reflect true economic value at the time of transfer; which leaves at least one party very unhappy. This is why most buy-sell agreements call for a business valuation. If you must use a formula, have it designed and reviewed periodically by a professional business appraiser for the reasons discussed here. If you have business partners and don’t have a buy-sell agreement in place, I urge you to create one now, before you are faced with a trigger event.
Business valuation plays a pivotal role in internal share transfers and all business succession plans. If I can provide additional information or advice on a current situation, please don’t hesitate to call me, Al Statz, 707-778-2040 or Email