Last week we discussed how business owners frequently use hearsay or incomplete information to estimate the value of their companies. They give the number to their financial planner, or include it on a personal financial statement for their banker, neither of whom bat an eyelash at the estimate. Having the amount “accepted” by financial experts, the owner starts to treat it as fact. How do you know whether it is realistic or achievable?
Valuation of a small business is a combination of art and science. No two small companies are alike. A multiple of profits or cash flow is only the starting point. Take two small companies, each with $4,000,000 in revenues and $500,000 in profits. Each pays the same salary and benefits to the owner. One does it by having systems that control most day to day activities, recurring revenue from contracts, and long-term employees who are incented by profit sharing. The other does it with an owner who works 70 hours a week, hasn’t had a two week vacation in ten years, and makes every new sale personally. Which business would you pay more to own?
Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. The multiples paid for businesses depend on the type of buyers they attract. Commonly, those that sell for less than $2,000,000 are considered “Main Street.” Their target buyers are individuals who are purchasing an income. They intend to work in the business, and to earn a regular paycheck by running it.
Main Street businesses are valued by a multiple of Seller’s Discretionary Earnings (SDE). The value of the business is based on the sum of the financial benefits resulting from ownership. That includes profits, salary, benefits and any of a long list of possible perquisites like a company car, travel, or insurance. (For more on calculating your SDE and selling a business in general, you can read my book, 11 Things You Absolutely Need to Know about Selling Your Business.)
Main Street pricing is typically between 2.1 and 2.8 times SDE. It is based on simple arithmetic. The closer you come to 3 times SDE, the less able a buyer is to pay both the bank and himself. You can run your own numbers here, to see how it works (registration required).
For larger companies, those that attract financial and industry acquirers, the multiples are higher, but the multiplier is lower. Those buyers anticipate paying for professional management, so the owner’s compensation is less of a consideration. They look at EBITDA (Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation and Amortization) to calculate available cash after all the expenses of running the business (including executive talent) are paid.
Competitors will calculate the savings they might realize from consolidation, but are usually reluctant to multiply those savings in a purchase price. Private Equity Groups (there are 7,000 in the US) and the acquisition arms of large companies seldom look at businesses with earnings of less than $1,000,000. As amazing as it seems to a small business owner, their due diligence and legal processes are too expensive to make smaller acquisitions worthwhile.
Private Equity Groups pay an average between 4.7 and 5.2 times EBITDA, year in and year out. That makes sense, because they are financial buyers with a targeted Return On Investment (ROI). Large company acquisitions of smaller businesses can range from 4 times EBITA up to around 7 or 8, although in a few cases strategic considerations (competition, exclusive contracts, proprietary methods) can drive that up substantially .
All of these are real numbers, based on actual sales data and industry surveys. Sellers often confuse the terms revenue and income, or apply EBITDA multiples to SDE. They are greatly disappointed and angry when legitimate offers fall far below their expectations. Just because your planner or your banker didn’t challenge your valuation estimate doesn’t make it fact.
My new book, Hunting in a Farmer’s World: Celebrating the Mind of an Entrepreneur, is now available on Amazon in paperback, hardcover and Kindle. It is an ownership book, not a management book, and is illustrated with the stories of real entrepreneurs who faced challenges that apply to us all.