Quality of Earnings Part 1: Revenue Traps

This will be the first of several columns on quality of earnings. While a formal, third-party Quality of Earnings Study is more often seen in mid-market transactions, even small business owners should be aware of the factors that can cause discounts to a selling price long after they thought it was settled.

There are few things as exciting as receiving a Letter of Intent to purchase your company. It may specify a dollar amount, or (as often happens with Private Equity Groups or PEGS) it may set a target range for a price based on multiples of profit. The exact profit, or earnings, that will be multiplied to calculate the price may seem obvious to you, but you shouldn’t be too sure.

Every letter of intent has a clause subjecting the transaction to due diligence. Most sellers are unconcerned about the diligence process. They’ve run a clean set of books. The assets listed on their tax returns are present and accounted for. Revenue and expenses are recorded accurately. A quality of earnings study, however, will look deeper than that.

We’ll look at earnings quality as it is affected by revenue, expense and cash flow factors. First, we will look at revenue-related issues.

Customer concentration

The first, and often the biggest item affecting purchase price is the presence of one or more key customers, without whom the business would have to downsize its operations. Just as stock pickers look at a public company’s beta, or risk factor, large customers are the chief beta influence on the value of privately held businesses.

A single customer who accounts for 10% of your business may not warrant a price discount, but one who controls 20% or more of your revenue almost certainly will trigger renegotiation. You may have a decades-long friendship with that business, but a buyer has little confidence that he or she can maintain the same relationship.

Instead of accepting a discount, you may want to offer your services in transitioning the account. Consider making some of the original price contingent on a an agreed measurement for a successful transfer.

Revenue by line or service

Most businesses do or sell more than one thing. I see this when we try to assign a National American Industry Classification System (NAICS) code to a client for valuation purposes. Many companies sell a product, but also offer service and repair. Some provide skills in several similar, but different industries. Others may have entire departments or divisions that work almost autonomously.

A quality of earnings study (their practitioners don’t call them “audits” although almost everyone else does), will parse revenue and profit by line of business. If 75% of your employees are engaged in something that provides 30% of the profits, you may be looking at another attempt to reduce the purchase price.

Contracts

This area has two components that are subject to due diligence; where you have contracts, and where you don’t.

If you don’t have written agreement with both vendors and customers, expect more strenuous examination of those relationships. How are price changes handled? What if the other party unilaterally changes payment terms? Do you carry inventory that is for a specific account, without any guarantees that it will be purchased? Can your right to distribute a product be terminated without recourse?

I was recently given the opportunity to prepare a family business for a third-party sale offering. It made white-label commodity products, and owed 75% of its revenue to one, publicly traded customer. That customer had given them orders consistently for the last 40 years, but refused to sign any agreements, project future needs, or buy in any way other than one P.O. at a time, as needed. I declined the engagement.

If you do have contracts, expect them to be examined diligently (thus the term) for dangers. While specific purchasing terms are desirable in any agreement, look them over before you start the sale process. See if they should to be updated to reflect current practice. Often conditions and processes have changed by verbal agreement, but that can be tough to explain to someone who is holding a contract in hand that doesn’t match your actual business relationship.

Contracts with public entities or large corporations may also have “change of control” provisions. These call for cancellation or automatic rebid of the business if the supplier changes. In some cases this is a key reason to consider a sale of stock, rather than assets.

First revenues, then expenses

Whether or not your buyer gets a professional quality of earnings study, these are factors that will trip you up in the due diligence process. Next time we will look at how recorded and unrecorded liabilities affect a purchase price.

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