Valuation and M&A Trends in the Auto Dealer Industry

Full Speed Ahead or Partly Cloudy?

Mergers, Acquisitions, & Divestitures Special Topics Valuation Issues

A few weeks ago, I sat down with Kevin Nill of Haig Partners to discuss trends in the auto dealer industry and the release of their Fourth Quarter 2020 Haig Report. Specifically, I wanted to focus on the unique conditions impacting the industry, and also the changing methodology that buyers are utilizing to assess dealership values. Haig Partners is a leading investment banking firm that focuses on buy/sell transactions in the auto dealer industry, along with other transportation segments. As readers in this space are familiar, Haig Partners also publishes Blue Sky multiples for various auto manufacturers based on their observations and data from participating in transactions in this industry.

The Haig Report mentions many buyers are utilizing a three-year average of earnings to calculate the expected performance of the dealership. Why has this new trend occurred and how has a buyer’s pricing methodology shifted in 2020/2021?

KN: Prior to the pandemic, the auto retail market had effectively plateaued with sales declining slightly and dealership profitability fairly stable. The roller coaster of 2020 – a lockdown, then a big upswing as pent up demand and stimulus money flowed through the system in the summer, followed by continued retail demand and tight inventories, created a lot of “noise” in dealer financial statements. Even with exclusion of PPP fund impact, overall dealership profitability was incredibly strong with many stores achieving all-time record profits.

This created a challenge for buyers as they attempted to identify the correct income to base their buying decisions. When you apply a multiple against expected earnings to determine value, one needs to have confidence the earnings will materialize. Given the volatility in performance, buyers have been reluctant to price a deal solely on 2020 results, making the argument the performance was artificially inflated. Sellers counter by illustrating the strong results were not a summer phenomenon but have continued into 2021 and no end is in sight. Going forward inventory availability remains an issue creating nice margins, interest rates will remain low for the foreseeable future, and expense controls have taken some of the bloat out of the business.

As a result, many buyers are using a three-year average (2018-2020) as their earnings baseline. This gives the seller credit for the strong 2020 numbers but reflects expectations that future results will likely settle back to pre-pandemic numbers. Notably, some markets that were harder hit by the pandemic did not generate record numbers, and some buyers are utilizing 2019 as their baseline so as not to punish a seller for a down year in 2020. Regardless, it takes more massaging of past performance to establish a baseline for future results.

SW: The methodology described by Kevin compares to our longer-term view of a dealership’s earnings and profitability. A valuation considers the expected ongoing earnings or cash flow of the dealership, and as such, several factors should be considered including historical, current, and expected operations in the future. We are cautious not to overvalue a dealership in its best year or undervalue a dealership in its worst year, if neither are sustainable. As to the impact of the pandemic on dealership valuations, we think it is relative to each individual dealership and their unique set of factors.

Will buyers revert to Trailing 12 Months (TTM) as their baseline or will the three-year average method remain for some time?

KN: Adjusted TTM earnings became the primary baseline for applying a multiple because the industry performance had been fairly stable for some time. Yes, there were specific dealerships that had better or worse results, and those were valued with appropriate modifications to forecasted earnings. Given the aforementioned volatility in 2020, the expectations of a strong 2021 and a potential gradual return to pre-pandemic levels, using a three-year average of earnings has become a more accepted strategy. Until we see stability in the automotive retail sector for some time, it’s unlikely TTM will return as the primary earnings metric. Of course, there are always exceptions including unique market dynamics, identified changes to the business or a highly competitive market for a dealership that may require buyers to give more credit for 2020 and 2021 results.

Has there been a prior time when a three-year average was the preferred method for calculating earnings and, if so, what were the underlying conditions at the time?

KN: Using a three-year average was a fairly standard method until recently but as dealership performance became stable and predictable, both buyers and sellers gradually settled on TTM as an effective proxy to base their valuation. Simplicity and the lack of variance in performance made it an easy calculation and removed some of the tension during negotiations. Of course, there has and will continue to be discussion and debate on add-backs and proforma earnings when strategic shifts at the dealership might yield better results.
In general, the more consistent the performance, the more likely the buyer can get comfortable using the most recent financial period to calculate a value.

SW: As we discuss on a monthly basis, the auto SAAR (number of lightweight automobiles and trucks sold on an annual basis) is one of the general indicators of the conditions in the industry. To view Kevin’s rationale behind the stability in the industry through the lens of SAAR, SAAR was fairly stable and roughly averaged between 16 and 18 million units from mid-2014 through the first few months of 2020 prior to the pandemic. SAAR collapsed to 11.361 million units in March 2020, before bottoming out at 8.721 million units in April 2020.

What other changes or areas of focus are buyers concentrating on given the unique 2020 environment?

KN: As buyers look to 2021 and beyond and evaluate how a target might perform going forward, there are certainly some areas of the business that are receiving attention:

  • New vehicle margins – Given industry constraints on production, new inventory levels on dealer lots are quite low, allowing dealers to increase transaction prices and realize stronger margins. This is expected for most of 2021 and possibly into 2022. There is also dialogue that given improved profitability at OEMs, suppliers, and dealers, a more balanced production vs. demand market may continue, maintaining improved margins.
  • Used vehicle margins – The used vehicle market dropped initially during the pandemic lockdown, spiked again, and has remained fairly strong since the fall. Now with new vehicle shortages, we are hearing dealers are driving up acquisition prices on used vehicles. The lack of new availability could drive consumers to used and keep margins strong or the frenzy to buy inventory could lower margins if consumers balk at the higher costs of the vehicle.
  • Fixed operations – Most dealers saw a drop in 2020 fixed operations as the lockdown cost them weeks and months of customers. Given most dealership service bays are at or near capacity, you can’t make the business up. However, the 4Q of 2020 saw fixed revenue return to pre-pandemic levels. Thus, we expect 2021 to show nice growth in fixed operations over a lower 2020 and the past trend of annualized revenue increases should continue in 2022 and beyond.
  • SG&A expenses – Key expense categories including floor plan interest, advertising and personnel saw nice declines in 2020. It is likely interest rates will remain close to zero, possibly into 2023. Many dealers see lower advertising as a continued theme for the foreseeable future given demand is exceeding supply. Finally, as dealers refine their sales and delivery channels and more transactions move online, we hear a number of dealer principals indicate their staffing levels will be permanently lower.

SW: Gross profit per unit numbers for new and used vehicles continues to be very strong, with average reported figures for March at $2,764 and $2,859 per unit respectively, according to the average dealership statistics published by NADA Dealership Profiles. As daily reports of inventory shortages and challenges due to the microchip crisis continue, it will be interesting to see if/when these constraints catch up to the industry and halt the record profitability. Perhaps, we will begin to see some of these hiccups finally materialize in the financial performance either in the April or May figures when they are published.

With rumors of tax rates rising, what impact could this have on Blue Sky multiples?

KN: The Biden administration platform includes a material increase in capital gains taxes which directly impacts sellers of dealerships. As a result, some sellers who have been considering a sale are accelerating their plans and pursuing a sale in 2021 before a likely tax change in 2022. There are a number of attractive opportunities for buyers and dealers looking to expand so its expected values will remain robust. If/when tax rates rise, several situations might occur:

  • Fewer sellers come to market, reducing dealership inventory and putting upward pressure on valuations.
  • Less after tax proceeds to the seller pressures them to require higher valuations to sell their store.
  • Higher taxes reduce consumer spending, lower sales, reduce dealer profits and bring valuations down.

As a result, it’s difficult to predict the future but there’s no doubt higher taxes will have a ripple effect throughout the dealer buy/sell market.

SW: My colleague David Harkins previously authored a post highlighting the proposed tax changes and their impact on valuation by comparing expected earnings under several tax bracket structures.

Looking back, how did the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) affect multiples and values?

KN: Lower taxes certainly provided a boost to consumers and helped ensure stability in vehicle sales in an environment where we were beginning to see declining sales. Corporate tax rate changes did little to help dealers as most are not C-corporations, and some dealers saw personal taxes go up due to the changes in deductibility of certain items. Overall, the rates kept the momentum rolling, nice profits for dealerships, and stable valuations for stores. Buyers were also able to forecast higher after-tax proceeds from their stores to justify paying more.

We thank Kevin Nill and Haig Partners for their insightful perspectives on the auto dealer industry. While the last year has been a turbulent one for the industry, auto dealers have been resilient in navigating the changing conditions. The first four to five months of 2021 have continued the momentum of the last half of 2020 in terms of dealership profitability and transaction volume. It will be interesting to see how long these trends will continue, or if auto dealers will experience any hiccups as market constraints threaten current profitability. To discuss how recent industry trends may affect your dealership’s valuation, feel free to reach out to one of the professionals at Mercer Capital.