For leaders of private, closely held companies, selling the company is an important and critical event in their lives. There are several important considerations in managing the sales process to maximize results, avoid both delays and failure to close, all centered around preparation for the entire selling cycle.
Extensive experience underlines the expectation that an auction process is the best process for achieving a good outcome. Of course, experienced buyers sometimes try and convince sellers not to hold an auction for a variety of “reasons.” The end result, intended or not, is usually much lower price and poorer economic terms for sellers.
In an auction process, the seller - or most likely, their investment banker, will prepare an offering document, (including a non-disclosure agreement) circulate to probable interested buyers, solicit bids, pick two or three of the best to negotiate with, and come to an acceptable, and painless close.
Because private equity transactions are normally leveraged, buyers will often ask sellers to be the most subordinated lender in a transaction. Again, a competitive process may reduce or eliminate the need for a seller to accept this. In reality, a seller note is often structurally similar in risk to a preferred equity with a fixed interest rate without the potential equity upside.
However, exclusivity periods can be used to stall while watching performance, especially if managers are distracted by the process itself and valuation discussions have included forecast results in the next quarter or two. Disclosing information can be used to squeeze the company during the same process.
Buyers who believe exclusivity makes sense in a given negotiation may consider limiting their exposure to risk by limiting the time period to very short intervals, and requiring reaffirmation of price and terms at each (biweekly?) time period. If there is any slippage, consider reopening conversations with others.
As sales fell and cash pressure built, the buyer lowered the offer and in the end the company accepted a 50% reduction in the sales price as an alternative to running out of cash. Part of the leaders rationalization for doing this was the promise of a bright financial and career future at the acquirer. A year later he was suing them for wrongful termination.)
Decide what the minimally acceptable price and terms are, considering the factual information gathered. Then build an alternative plan contingent on the inability to obtain a desirable transaction. Included in this thinking should be a broader definition of selling to include leveraged recapitalizations and family succession planning.
(Recently, a buyer, late in the process made an 11th hour reduction in price believing the company had no good alternative. The well-prepared seller presented his alternatives and explained that they were all superior to a reduced price. The buyer withdrew his offer, walked away and returned three weeks later, reluctantly agreeing to the original terms.
Ask knowledgeable advisors what information the buyer will likely ask for. (If you were buying rather than selling, what would you want to know?) Use standard diligence checklists to thoroughly review all possible information requests. Prepare this information carefully, and cautiously.
Standard disclosures include financial matters, customer centric data analysis, an overview of intellectual property, customer sales history and contracts, supplier agreements, litigation history, employment contracts, practices and issues; past and current performance to budget; tax matters; regulatory issues and insurance, for instance.
Sellers should always ask for and check buyer references early in the diligence process. Thorough vetting will assure sellers of the quality of offer and background of the buyer. Buyers who are motivated to build strong relationships as an essential part of a good business will welcome sellers who take these actions.
Consider informing the buyer that you have to seek approval from your advisors for proposed terms and concessions. In this way, you buy yourself time to carefully consider requests. The discipline created by agreements to review steps with advisors, even if they do not have decision making authority, can create a safety valve to avoid pressure to make decisions hastily.