Auto dealers, like most business owners, are focused on many aspects of their business: daily operations, strategic vision, competition, industry conditions, the state of the economy, etc. It is less common for auto dealers to be concerned if/when their business might need to be valued. Often, they are made aware of the need for these services by their trusted advisors including attorneys, financial planners, accountants, etc.
What are common events that trigger the need for a valuation for an auto dealership?
1. Estate Planning/Wealth Transfer
Over time, successful dealerships can accumulate tremendous value. Estate planning allows the first generation of a family to transfer wealth to the next generation through various mechanisms.
Individuals and couples can take advantage of the lifetime exemption amounts by transferring value up to the current taxable exemption of $11.7 million for individuals or $23.4 million for couples over their lifetime.1 Gifting strategies can also utilize the annual exclusion amount of $15,000 per individual.
Implementation of these strategies includes many different structures requiring the valuation of the auto dealership and the specific interest being transferred. A proper valuation assists in protecting the integrity of these transactions. Failure to support the concluded figures with a proper valuation can often lead to these transactions being challenged or audited, causing a later described litigation dispute.
2. Death of a Dealer Principal/Owner
For certain estates, an income tax return and Form-706 will have to be filed in a timely manner after the date of death. If the decedent is an owner of a business, or in this case an auto dealership, the value of the decedent’s interest will have to be valued. The valuation will need to be performed by a qualified business appraiser that can support the value of the dealership and specific ownership interest through accepted methodologies.
3. Buy-Sell Agreement
In a prior blog post, we discussed the seven elements of a highly effective buy-sell agreement. This document, along with other corporate governance documents, describes the process and criteria for a business valuation and often requires an initial valuation to set the stock price for triggering events that will be governed by the document. Further, some buy-sell agreements require updated valuations at regular intervals or upon the occurrence of future triggering events. Following the provisions in these documents and maintaining regular valuations can aid in limiting or avoiding litigation disputes.
4. Strategic Planning
Business valuations can also assist auto dealers with strategic planning. Not only can a valuation provide an indication of value at a specified point in time, but successive or regular valuations can track value over time. These valuations could be helpful for auto dealers contemplating incentive programs to reward ownership to key management. Auto dealers can also discover the value drivers of the current appraisal and set goals to enhance value through the improvement of those value drivers over time.
5. Potential Sale of Dealership
At some point, successful dealers may reach the point where they contemplate a possible exit event. If there isn’t a viable second generation to continue the operations, a sale of the dealership may be the next best option.
The auto dealer industry proved to be resilient and adaptable posting strong profitability for 2020 and continuing into 2021. Industry transaction activity also appears high for both public and private acquirors. Most auto dealers that have owned a dealership for a period of time have likely been contacted at one point or another with some interest either by phone or through the mail.
If you have not had a recent business valuation, how can you evaluate any offers or know what your dealership is worth? A business valuation can inform you as to the value of the dealership and manage expectations to assess potential offers.
6. Litigation Dispute
The next three events that we will describe all fall under the umbrella of litigation, but each is a unique event.
Shareholder disputes can come in many forms: breach of contract, wrongful termination, damages, etc. In any of these scenarios, the value of the entire dealership and a specific ownership interest will be contested. A valuation and possibly testimony can assist the attorneys and/or triers of fact determine the outcome of the case. Certain components of an auto dealership’s value, such as Blue Sky Value, can also be critical to the case.
If a proper valuation was not utilized in an estate planning transfer or if the valuation is being challenged by the IRS, another form of litigation involving a taxation dispute could arise. These disputes require similar elements as in a shareholder dispute – valuation of the dealership, value of specific ownership interest, and possibly testimony. A unique element of taxation disputes is that generally an expert’s valuation report also serves as their direct testimony should the matter end up in trial. The valuation report must communicate the expert’s methodology and support for their conclusions for the value of the dealership and any applicable discounts such as lack of marketability, lack of voting rights, etc.
Family Law Dispute
While not a popular topic, dealers or their spouses in the midst of divorce would also be in need of a business valuation and potential expert witness services. In a divorce, all of the couple’s assets and liabilities need to be compiled and valued to assist the attorneys and trier of fact in the division of assets and other matters.
Some assets, such as bank accounts and real estate, are easier to value. Other assets, such as business assets can be more difficult to value. In the auto dealer universe, these business assets can consist of more than one entity. Many dealerships are organized where the dealership operations and franchise agreements are contained in one entity, while the underlying real estate may be owned by a separate asset holding entity.
In this example, both entities would need to be valued and the methodologies to value each are different. Some auto dealers may also own additional entities such as separate repair and body shops or re-insurance companies that also might require a business valuation.
Business valuations are triggered by numerous events. By knowing the events that dictate the need for a valuation, auto dealers can be more educated in the use of these services. As we have previously written, the auto dealer industry is unique to valuation in the methodologies employed, the terminology communicated, and the financial information utilized. When a valuation need arises, auto dealers are best served by someone who is both a valuation expert or an industry expert.
Contact a professional at Mercer Capital to assist with you a business valuation or consultation of your auto dealership and related businesses for any of these events or others.
1 The lifetime exemption amounts, estate income tax rates, and corporate income tax rates could all be subject to change with the new administration in the White House and change of control in the Legislative Branch. These changes could have a dramatic impact on business valuations and the need for related services.