Is the M&A Window Closing?

So here we are, halfway through 2019 and judging by the commentary from various talking heads, press releases, and my good friends in wealth management, it seems we really have no idea how strong the economy is. Maybe I’m just not a careful listener, but it sure seems like on one day the news is dire (tariffs! Iran! The jobs report!), and then the next day everything is fantastic (the stock market! GDP! The jobs report!) Within all of these mixed messages I think all of us have one nagging question – just how long can a good thing last?  

This leads me to probably the most frequent question I get from business owners and entrepreneurs that are thinking about selling.  The question is almost always a two part-er: how is the M&A market? And should I sell now or wait a bit to do X, Y, or Z? (And damn that last one is a doozy.  You can always wait for the next good thing to happen… but should you?).

Thanks to this constant stream of questions on this subject we’ve developed a playbook for sorting it out.  

 

Can You Afford to Sell Right Now?  

First off, this is hands down a generationally best sell side market.  If you want to sell a company and you can afford to, then by all means go to market.  How do you know if you can afford to sell right now? You need to answer two questions: what is the current value of my company?  And how much do I need? The former is best answered by a valuation – it’s a relatively modest investment to get clarity from an independent expert on how the market will price the asset you have built.  The second question should be answered by working with your financial planner. Getting granular on how your financial situation will look after the sale (using your current valuation as likely the largest input to that analysis) will help answer the question.  

Recapping: if what you have (i.e. the current value of your company) exceeds what you need (i.e. the capital that your financial plan requires in order to meet retirement goals), then by all means do-no-pass-go and go to market now.  

 

What Do I Gain by Waiting?  

For some folks the outcome of the first step will clear: you absolutely cannot afford to go to market. And clarity is great. But what seems to happen more often than not is a gray area. Perhaps the numbers are close but not quite there. That’s not a fun decision framework.

If you are in this category the real question is what do you gain by waiting? I’m constantly saying “the passage of time is not a strategy.” Waiting alone will not fix a value gap – we are already at the peak of the market. Values likely aren’t going to materially increase. Or put another way, there is at least an equal likelihood that values start to decrease.  

With this dynamic in mind, consider this: if you have an actual strategy to grow value and pursue that plan diligently, then waiting may make sense. On the other hand, if you are hoping that the market further matures and delivers a great value for your company… well I’d politely suggest that that isn’t the best strategy.    

 

What is the Probability of Success?

Let’s assume that you decide to pursue a value growth strategy to close your value gap. How confident are you that you can execute on plan?  

Similarly, entrepreneurs are constantly chasing the next big thing. We all do this – the next big project, the upcoming contract win, or maybe the new product launch. Healthy businesses always have a next new thing- it’s what feeds the beast and underpins growth. But that same cycle can feel like a hamster wheel with owners constantly chasing the next increment of success.   

In either case, it’s time to start handicapping the likelihood of successful execution. On our end, when we work with clients on value engineering assignments we do just that: by correlating actual impacts to enterprise value to both the probability of success and time to execution we can start to understand how value might change over time.  For instance, a given initiative might result in an additional $250k of income, require 18 months of time, and have a high likelihood of success. If the market currently would value that company at 5x, that initiative is worth $1.25M in enterprise value.  

 

What is the Probability that the Market Turns First?

Of course all this assumes that we have time to execute.  The market, being a nebulous collection of individual participants, doesn’t care about our plans whatsoever.  Take our example from above. What would happen if you executed on plan and in 18 months … but the market turns and now prices the company at a 4x? Well… it’s not going to feel good, that’s for sure. See below: 

 

In our example – that quarter million dollars of hard fought gains would yield exactly zero dollars in improved enterprise value in a market downturn. That’s not to say it’s not a worthy project – the company would still be delivering those earnings back to shareholders. But in terms of pursuing a sale you very well could be literally missing the market.  

 

Takeaways

We are always talking about how “timeline is everything.” If you have a short term horizon you can only impact so many things. Your decision to go to market now means you aren’t going to massively increase enterprise value suddenly. And that’s okay if the numbers work for you – it’s a great market! If you do decide you need to wait – be it for that next big win or to put in some hard work – that’s okay too. Just understand that you are on the clock and that a market downturn may erase the gains you’ve been holding out for. Finally, if you run the numbers and realize that you need to grow value beyond what can reasonably be expected in the short-term then it’s time to buckle in for the next 3-5 years and enjoy the ride.  

Need some help working on this decision matrix? Drop us a line.