Almost every privately owned company with multiple shareholders has a buy-sell agreement (or other agreement that acts as a buy-sell agreement).
If your business is like most companies, then you have one too. You likely had an attorney draft the document for you several years ago. You and your fellow shareholders might have had some discussions about the specifics of the buy-sell language at the time, but these discussions were likely minimal. You then signed the document, put it in a file cabinet in the office and have not looked at it or thought much about it since.
True? Well, this might be an extreme example, but it highlights an important issue – most business owners do not have a current understanding of the details and potential pitfalls that lurk within their own buy-sell agreements. Most view these agreements as obligatory legal documents that can be forgotten about until needed. Unfortunately, when a buy-sell agreement is needed it is too late to fix any problems within the agreement.
For the past several years, Chris Mercer, the CEO of Mercer Capital, has used the image of a ticking time-bomb as a metaphor of what might be awaiting some business owners within their buy-sell agreements. Would you ignore an actual bomb that was ticking away in your file cabinet? Of course not, and you should not ignore your buy-sell agreement either.
The time for a comprehensive review of your buy-sell agreement is not this year or this month – it is right now. You have finished the first quarter of the year. Make it a priority now to get your buy-sell agreement out of that file cabinet and review it with your partners and appropriate professional advisors.
As you review your buy-sell agreement, it is important to understand what the document is and what it is intended to accomplish.
Buy-sell agreements are legal documents, but they are also business and valuation documents. These agreements govern how ownership will change hands if and when something significant, often called a trigger event, happens to one or more of the shareholders. Buy-sell agreements are intended to ensure the remaining owners control the outcome during critical transitions. They do this by specifying what happens to the ownership interest of a fellow owner who dies or otherwise departs the business, and mandating that a departing owner be paid, hopefully reasonably, for his or her interest in the business.
Some buy-sell agreements call for fixed pricing or value the shares based on a set formula, while others lay out a specific appraisal process to develop the value of the subject interest.
Fixed price agreements are simple to start. The actual dollar price of the stock is set out in the buy-sell agreement and is intended to be updated on some regular basis based on agreement amongst the shareholders.
The problem with these agreements is that they are almost never updated. When it comes time that an update must be done, such as at a trigger event, the interests of the parties may have diverged and agreement could be difficult, if not impossible.
Formula agreements attempt to remove uncertainty by establishing a set calculation through which value will be determined at the appropriate date. The primary disadvantage of formula agreements is that no single formula can capture all of the complexities of change and provide reasonable and realistic conclusions over time. If your buy-sell agreement has a formula mechanism, when was the last time the formula was calculated?
Buy-sell agreements that lay out a specific valuation process as the means of valuing the shares at the appropriate date (“process agreements”) are typically preferable and tend to provide the most efficient means of achieving a fair resolution for all parties.
There are different varieties of process agreements. Multiple appraiser agreements outline processes by which two or more appraisers are employed to determine value. Generally, each party will hire their own appraiser and, if needed, will jointly hire a third appraiser to either select the appropriate value from the first two appraisers or deliver their own binding conclusion of value. Single appraiser buy-sell agreements outline processes by which a single appraiser is employed to determine the price.
We suggest a Single Appraiser – Select Now, Value Now process. For more information on this valuation process, see this article.
Regardless of whether a valuation process involves multiple appraisers or a single appraiser, there are six defining elements that must be in a buy-sell agreement in order for the valuation process to work smoothly and reasonably. If you have a valuation process as part of your buy-sell agreement, make certain that each of these six elements are present.
While the six defining elements of a valuation process may seem obvious, they are prominent in their absence or unclear treatment in many buy-sell agreements.
Buy-sell agreements are important legal documents. They are also important business and valuation documents. How they operate when triggered can have huge consequences for business owners, their family, and the business. Unresolved problems within a buy-sell agreement truly are like ticking time-bombs.
Do not wait for the countdown to run out, review your buy-sell agreement now with your partners and professional advisor(s). It will be far easier to get agreement on revisions made today than it will be after a trigger event.
Articles , Buy-Sell Agreements