Many courts and the Internal Revenue Service have defined fair market value as: “The amount at which property would exchange between a willing buyer and a willing seller, neither being under any compulsion to buy or sell and both having a reasonable knowledge of relevant facts.” You may have to read this several times to get the gist and depth of this definition.
The problem with this definition is that the conditions cited rarely exist in the real world of selling or buying a business. For example, the definition states that the sale of the business cannot be conducted under any duress, and neither the buyer nor the seller can be pushed into the transaction. Such factors as emotion and sentimental value cannot be a part of the sale. Surprisingly, under this definition, no actual sale or purchase has to take place to establish fair market value. That’s probably because one could never take place using the definition.
So what does make up the value of a privately-held business? A business consists of tangible and intangible assets. The tangible assets are the most visible and the ones on which buyers too often base a judgment on the value of a business. Factors of value, fixtures, equipment and leasehold improvements are often valued first by the buyer. Well maintained equipment and attractive interior surroundings are the first things a buyer sees when visiting a business for sale. Make no mistake, regardless of what prospective buyers may say, the emotional impact of a physically well-maintained business can be a very positive factor. In addition, it is much easier to finance tangible assets than intangible ones.
However, buyers have to consider what is really behind those well-maintained tangible assets. There are many businesses, especially today, in which physical assets play a very small part in the success of the business. These intangible factors include: the business’ reputation with its customer or client base, and within its industry; mailing lists and customer/client lists; quality of product or service; reputation with its vendors and suppliers; strength of the business’ technology and other systems; plus many other factors that can add a lot more value to the price of the business than can shiny equipment.
Although the intangible assets listed above cannot be seen, they are certainly an important part of the business – and purchase price. Businesses that don’t need expensive fixtures and equipment can, in many cases, be expanded more quickly and inexpensively because they do not require cash-intensive equipment purchases. Buyers, to their own detriment, do not want to pay the same price for equivalent cash flow for businesses that do not have lots of equipment. They want to buy tangible assets.
Business brokers and intermediaries know how to point out to prospective buyers the advantages of businesses that may not require lots of equipment but have those all-important intangible assets that create steady cash flow. Business owners who have a service or other type of business that does not rely on the heavy use of tangible assets and are considering selling, should talk to their professional business broker/intermediary who can point out the pluses and the hidden assets of the business.
Is there pricing elasticity?
What’s the company’s competitive advantage?
Status of employment agreements and non-competes?
Are there cost savings after purchase?
Are there significant capital expenditures pending?
Is there synergy with the seller?
Is it perceived the integration will go smoothly?
Are there substantial cross-selling possibilities?
Will the cultures blend?
The Financials: By training and education, many business appraisers emphasize the numbers. They will look at the past, current and future numbers. They will consider all the basic financial figures such as:
• growth rate
• return on investment
• gross profit percentage
• EBITDA percentage
• industry metrics
• debt to net worth
• book value
Fundamentals: Business appraisers should also consider the company’s history, its management, products, distribution, etc. The following should also be seriously considered: multi-products, different markets, wide distribution and the quality of management.
Value Drivers: These are important business elements that are most often ignored or completely overlooked by business appraisers. However, they are very important to a potential buyer.
• product differentiation
• defensible position
• dominant market share
• well-known brand(s)
• cost advantage
• proprietary customer
What is the value of your business? There are many ways to approach that question — based on complex formulas or just a good hard look at the balance sheet, but no answer based purely on numbers is going to be exactly right. Even factoring in that most popular of abstracts — goodwill — the true essence of an operation is not likely to be revealed.
To find the real value of a business, we must go to its very heart: the attitude, work habits, managerial style, customer/marketplace savvy, and community reputation of the person in charge. The business owner or manager is the final, and most cogent, indicator of business worth. Check out the following healthy signs, and then listen to the heartbeat of your own business and its leadership style:
Many business owners today are more pragmatic and take pride in being less of an “incurable optimist.” The owner of yesterday wasn’t afraid to follow the words of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman: “A salesman has got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.” A decline in optimism is an unfortunate trend. In a world driven by technology and scientific analysis, it’s easy to forget the importance of the right attitude. If business owners aren’t positive, how can they expect customers and employers to be? The owner who believes business is bad will probably not see it getting any better. Of course, there are always the real-life factors — banks that won’t lend, customers who stop buying, services that become obsolete. However, if these problems didn’t exist, there would be something else to keep the negative thinkers occupied.
How to project a positive attitude? Begin with the easiest. Sprucing up the place of business with fresh paint, newly-cleaned carpeting, well-stocked shelves, for example, will say a lot for the health of a company. Less visible, but highly important, is a positive outlook on the future of the business. Business owners should be prepared to spend what it takes to generate new business, and should take the time to explore new possibilities for long-range success. If the company currently has no mission statement or business plan, creating one will speak volumes abut owner’s enthusiasm for the future of the operation.
Healthy Managerial Style
In the modern workplace, where you can hardly see the business through the forest of “managers,” it’s good to get back to basics. Too often, owners get bogged down in busy work, or in “managing the managers.” They should occasionally take time off to work the floor, drive the delivery truck, sell the product. Owners who put themselves in the trenches are in touch with the business — and this first-hand understanding will be evident to anyone taking stock of the company’s worth.
An equally healthy approach to managing is preparing for contingencies. The owner’s style should include appropriate delegation of duties and a backup managerial plan in case of unforeseen calamity.
And finally, owners should project a general sense of well-being and energy. This may be easier said than done, but it’s important to note. Anyone taking stock of a business will draw a quick, and key, first impression from the very posture and tone of voice the owner presents.
Customer relations say a lot about the “heart” of a business. The business owner’s approach to handling customers sets the standard for everyone down the ladder. A healthy business avoids treating the customer like a number — or maybe worse, like a stranger. For example, successful big-time operations who deal with customers by telephone make it a point to ask for the proper pronunciation of a name, or request permission to use the customer’s first name. Added to basic courtesies is the sense that salespeople are happy to take the time necessary to answer questions and/or deal with problems.
Whether products and services are sold by phone or on the floor, employees should be well-versed experts on whatever they’re selling. Again, large outfits have established high standards to emulate; for instance, the outdoor equipment chain with salespeople who can not only fit hiking boots to a T (or a toe), but also know how to clean, weatherproof and care for the leather, vibram, or nylon of which the boots are made. Every hour spent training salespeople in the product pays huge dividends for the company’s long-term success.
To foster the image of an on-going, healthy business concern, business owners need to keep their image prominent before the public. Advertising can build image at the same time it attracts business. Anything from a display ad within the yellow pages listings, to a monthly “home-baked” newsletter, to the offering of free seminars, can portray the business as more than just the sum of its products. An example of image-making at its best comes from the owner of a natural foods store in a metrowest Boston town. She not only produces her own monthly newsletter (with product information and coupons, plus general health articles), but she also sponsors evening lectures on subjects such as acupuncture, aromatherapy, women’s health, and children’s nutrition. What’s more, she offers free tours of her in-house cookie “factory” to local schools. The samples the kids take home are the best cost-per-inch ad value imaginable!
For the less adventurous, there are plenty of conservative ways to make ads pay. Every Saturday for years, the sports section of a Los Angeles newspaper carried a one-inch ad for the “Best Hamburger in Town.” No catchy phrases, no dazzling graphics, but the ad was there — and there — and there again. The consistency sold the restaurant’s product and its image and eventually, the eatery became a 10 plus chain.
To further promote the business — and its owner — as a rock-solid and permanent part of the local scene, there are opportunities just waiting to be tapped. Taking an active role in the Chamber of Commerce, trade or service associations, or sponsoring worthy local events all lead to great public relations. In addition to the more traditional public donations — providing kids’ sports team uniforms, taking out ads in yearbooks — the business can band together to join walkathons, or volunteer to man the phones for public TV or radio fundraisers. Doing “good” makes the business owner and the employees feel good about themselves.
“Feeling good” is a good point at which to conclude our journey to the heart of a business. Dollars and cents will always be important in establishing value, but it’s a kind of people-sense that will give the truest reading.
1. Build a solid management team. A business with sales of $5 million and up needs a full complement of officers and directors. Such a team might include: a COO, a CFO, a sales manager and, depending on the type business, an IT director. It is also beneficial to create a Board of Directors with at least two outside members. This professionalizing of management can remove the stigma of “the one man band.” Not only will this build a stronger company, it will increase the value to a possible acquirer. Smaller firms should also build a strong management team, and creating an outside advisor group is also a good idea.
2. Loyal employees. Happy and loyal employees make for a strong company. Top management should have non-compete and/or confidentiality agreements. Solid benefits plans for all employees should be in place. A company’s greatest asset is its employees and perhaps its biggest value-increaser.
3. Growth. Some smaller companies are kept small to maximize the owner’s benefits – the proverbial “cash cows.” However, if building value is the goal, then developing new products or services, building market share, expanding markets or opening new ones, is critical. This generally requires a financial investment, but building a strong growth rate also builds value.
4. Understanding your market. The value of a company may be contingent on its industry, its place in the industry and the direction of the industry itself. How big is the industry, is it headed up or down, who is the competition and how big is the company’s market share? Is it time to change direction or diversify?
5. Size counts. Companies with less than $5 million in sales and an EBITDA of less than $1 million can be perceived as small. Therefore, they may be dependent on continuing outside financing and lack the critical mass for both buying and selling power. These companies can be perceived as too small for acquisition or are penalized when it comes to value. However, over the past few years corporate buyers, as well as private equity firms, have seen the advantages of purchasing smaller firms. Obviously, companies with $10 million or more in sales and an EBITDA of $1 million or more are considered as solid and able to stand on their own.
6. Changing direction. Small companies can be very adept at changing course and implementing change. They have to be able to change and move quickly to take advantage of new markets, to fill voids in existing markets and even to add or change products or services.
7. Documentation. Business plans, financial plans and personnel plans should all be in writing – and kept current. Terms of employment agreements should be spelled out and in writing. Business planning and company objectives, etc., should also be in writing and reviewed periodically. Contracts should be reviewed and maintained on a current basis.
8. Diversification. A major problem with many small companies is that their business is concentrated on one or two major customers or clients. Ideally, no customer or client should represent more than 10 percent of sales. Expanding to new markets, introducing new products, and finding new customers must be considered without deviating too far from the company’s core business.
9. Name and brand identity. Nothing beats the name Walt Disney, or Kleenex® or the soft drink called Coke® – they are household names. Small firms may not have the brand or name recognition of these companies, but they can work at it. This recognition is especially powerful in the consumer product area. But franchising has expanded this name or brand recognition to many different types of businesses.
10. Taking advantage of proprietary and other assets. Patents, brand names, copyrights, alliances, and joint ventures are all examples of not only proprietary assets, but, in many cases, valuable ones. Even equipment can be used in several different ways. Large landscape companies in cold climates put snowplows on their trucks, utilize their existing workforce and become a snowplowing company for their regular landscaping customers — office complexes, apartment and condo developments, etc.
11. “Lean and Mean.” Many companies lease their real estate needs, outsource their payroll, have their manufacturing done offshore, have UPS handle all of their logistical needs. Since all non-core requirements are done by someone else, the company can focus its efforts on what they do best.
12. Do it now! The owners of small firms, even large ones, have an attitude that says, “I don’t have time now, I’ll do it tomorrow” or “I’m too busy now putting our fires.” So the real challenges of building the business, and value, get sidetracked or put off indefinitely. Creating value is critical to the long-term (and short-term) success of the business.
Keep in mind that the best time to consider selling is when business is good, the business is running profitably, and many of the above “value-adders” are in place. By contacting your local professional intermediary you can explore which of the above will add the most value to your firm, so it will be ready to sell when you are.
This question can only be answered by addressing other related questions, specifically: Who’s asking and for what purpose?
From the perspective of the owner, prospective buyers, the IRS, lenders and divorce & bankruptcy courts, the value of a business for purposes of a sale, estate planning, orderly or forced liquidation, gifting, divorce, etc. can be vastly different.
Intrinsically tied to the various purposes of valuation are numerous definitions of “value.” Here are a few examples:
Investment Value – The value an acquirer places on a business based on a future return on investment determined by assessing past and current performance, future prospects, and other opportunities and risk factors involving the business.
Liquidation Value – The value derived from the sale of the assets of a business that is closed or expected to be closed following the sale.
Book Value – Book value is the difference between the total assets and total liabilities as accounted for on the company’s balance sheet.
Going Concern Value – Used to define the intangible value which may exist as a result of a business having such attributes as an established, trained and knowledgeable workforce, a loyal customer base, in-place operating systems, etc.
Fair Market Value
For the purpose of this article, the focus will be on transaction related valuations. Fair Market Value (“FMV”) is the most relevant definition of “value” and is of the most interest to business owners. The more knowledge business owners and prospective buyers have about the valuation process, the more likely they will come to an agreement on a purchase price.
FMV is the measure of value most used by business appraisers, as well as the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the courts. FMV is essentially defined as “the value for which a business would sell assuming the buyer is under no compulsion to buy and the seller is under no compulsion to sell, and both parties are aware of all of the relevant facts of the transaction.” IRS Revenue Rule 59-60 lists the following factors to consider in establishing estimates of FMV:
1. The nature and history of the business.
2. The general economic outlook and its relation to the specific industry of the business under review.
3. The earnings capacity of the business.
4. The financial condition of the business and the book value of the ownership interest.
5. The ability of the business to distribute earnings to owners.
6. Whether or not the business has goodwill and other intangible assets.
7. Previous sales of ownership interests in the business and the size of ownership interests to be valued.
8. The market price of ownership interests in similar businesses that are actively traded in a free and open market, either on an exchange or over-the-counter.
What is Goodwill?
An important element of value, when it exists, is goodwill. The IRS defines goodwill in its Revenue Rule 59-60, stating, “In the final analysis, goodwill is based upon earning capacity. The presence of goodwill and its value, therefore, rests upon the excess of net earnings over and above a fair return on the net tangible assets. While the element of goodwill may be based primarily on earnings, such factors as the prestige and renown of the business, the ownership of a trade or brand name, and a record of successful operation over a prolonged period in a particular locality, also may furnish support for the inclusion of intangible value. In some instances it may not be possible to make a separate appraisal of the tangible and intangible assets of the business. The enterprise has a value as an entity. Whatever intangible value there is, which is supportable by the facts, may be measured by the amount by which the appraised value for the tangible assets exceeds the net book value of such assets.”
Valuation Approaches and Methods
Exploring valuation techniques requires an understanding of the tools available. Which tools are utilized depends in part on the purpose of the valuation and the circumstances of the subject company. Generally there are several approaches to valuing a business. Within these approaches, there are several different methods. Listed below are the three major approaches along with some examples of specific methods that fall under each category.
• Income Approach
Discounted Cash Flow Method
Single Period Capitalization of Earnings Method
• Market Approach
Comparable Publicly Traded Company Analysis
Comparable Merger & Acquisition Analysis
• Asset-Based Approach
Adjusted Net Asset Method
Excess Earnings Method
All of the above methods and approaches are frequently used in business valuations.
Normalizing the Financial Statements
Before the approaches and methods above can be applied, it is necessary to analyze and normalize both the income statement and balance sheet of the business for the current and past periods selected to form the basis of the valuation.
• Normalizing the Income Statement
Normalizing the Income Statement generally entails adding back to earnings certain personal expenses, non-recurring and non-cash items. Examples of these “add-backs” could include depreciation, amortization, auto, boat and airplane expenses, one-time extraordinary expenses and other excess expenses such as owner’s salaries and family member’s salaries that are above fair market value, travel and entertainment, bonuses, etc. Owners usually tend to be extremely liberal when normalizing the income statement in order to bolster earnings, which can artificially inflate valuation. Each item must be carefully analyzed and scrutinized to insure that the normalization process is credible.
• Normalizing the Balance Sheet
Normalizing the Balance Sheet includes adjustments that eliminate non-operating assets and other assets and liabilities that are not included in the proposed transaction, and therefore the valuation. The book value of the assets will be adjusted up or down to reflect their fair market value. Inter-company charges will also be eliminated. Inventory may be adjusted upward or downward based on prior accounting procedures and/or obsolescence. Accounts receivable may also require an adjustment based on an analysis of collectibility.
EBIT – An acronym for earnings before interest and taxes
EBITDA – An acronym for earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization.
Capitalization Rate – Any divisor that is used to convert income into value. This is generally expressed as a percentage.
Discount Rate – The rate of return that is used to convert any future monetary gain into present value.
(Note: when determining FMV, the earnings stream selected to be capitalized or discounted should be normalized.)
Even with all the terminology and definitions discussed above, the answer to the original question has not yet completely been answered: What is the company worth?
The value driver of a business is the ability of the entity to generate future cash flow or earnings. Business appraisers will assign an appropriate capitalization rate (or multiple) to a selected earnings stream to derive an overall value for a business. The value of the net assets of the business will be compared to the cash flow valuation and may be adjusted upward or downward. For example: if the earnings based valuation is less than the net asset value, an upward adjustment may be in order. Conversely, if the net assets are negligible, a downward adjustment is more likely to occur.
Many appraisers typically use a common range of multiples to arrive at a “ballpark” indication of value (for example, 4 to 6 times EBITDA). While this approach is commonplace, an in-depth valuation of the subject company will produce a more accurate result. There are too many intangible factors to be considered to rely solely on the capitalization of earnings. Of course, the ultimate value of a company will be determined by the marketplace, which can greatly differ from a seller’s expectation, as well as the expectations of potential acquirers.
It is not uncommon for business owners to have an inflated sense of value of their company. This could be due to a variety of factors including emotional attachment to the business, unwillingness to accept the impact of the risk factors of the business, outside influence from previous market conditions, incorrect conclusion of normalized earnings, comparable transactions, etc. Conversely, acquirers often undervalue businesses. In their quest to “buy right” they often end up paying a lower multiple for a company with serious negative factors, while passing up on higher multiple opportunities, which, due to the quality, are actually better buys.
Valuation is a complex process. Owners and buyers will be well served if they rely on professional advisors such as their accountants, business appraisers, intermediaries or investment bankers.