Identifying Acquisition Targets and Assessing Strategic Fit

Planning & Strategy

This week, we welcome Tim Lee to the Family Business Director blog. The post below originally appeared as an article in a recent Mercer Capital publication, The Transaction Advisory Update. This article is the first in a series on buy-side considerations that will be shared over the next few months in that publication.

With aggregate M&A activity setting records in 2021 and continuing a strong pace in 2022, many businesses are exhibiting a thirst for growth or conversely their shareholders are eyeing an exit at favorable valuations.

With labor tightness, supply chain disruptions for capital goods, and financing costs fluctuating in real time, buyers and sellers are increasingly strategic in their mindset. Inflation and interest rates represent potential headwinds, but pent-up demand and plentiful war chests are likely to fuel elevated M&A activity in the foreseeable future. More than a few baby boomers have held on to their business assets making ownership succession and liquidity significant concerns.

Additionally, many middle market business assets are churned by financial investors with defined holding periods. Large corporate players and private equity buy-out groups generally have their own corporate development teams. However, small and mid-market companies, occupied with day-to-day operations, often find themselves with limited bandwidth and a lack of financial advisory resource to identify, vet, and develop a well-crafted strategic M&A rationale and then execute it.

This article provides touch points and practicalities for identifying viable merger and acquisition targets and assessing strategic fit.

Motivation and Objectives

A rejuvenated appreciation for optimal capital structures and fine-tuned operations has largely debunked the oversimplified notion that bigger is always better. However, right-sizing is about achieving a proper, often larger scale at the proper time for a supportable price. A classic question in strategizing to achieve the right size is that of “buy” versus “build.”

Many acquisitions are as much about securing scarce or unavailable hard assets and labor resources as they are about expanding one’s market space.

Whether your investment mandate is to alleviate scarcities or to achieve vertical or horizontal diversification and expansion, tuning your investment criterion and financial tolerance to motivations and objectives is key.

These collective questions, among others, help address the who and the what of recognizing potential targets and assessing the pricing and structural feasibility of a business combination in whatever form that may take (outright purchase or merger in some form).

Given our experiences from years of advising clients, we have learned that the most obvious or simple solution is generally best. Many buyers already know the preferable target candidates but lack the ability to assess and the capacity to engage those targets. Additionally, many well-capitalized buyers lack the financial discipline to score, rank, and sequence their target opportunities with the expertise employed by large, active corporate developers and private equity investors.

Understanding the magnitude and timing of the returns resulting from your investment options is critical. Constructing financial models to study the options of now-versus-later and the interactive nature of deal pricing, terms, and financing is vital to the process. These technical and practical needs must be addressed competently to grant buyers the freedom of mind and energy to critically assess deal intangibles that often influence the overall decision to move forward with a target or not. Cultural fit, command and control for successful integration, brand and product synergies, and many other factors ultimately manifest in an investment’s total return on investment.

Scoring opportunities by way of traditional corporate finance disciplines using NPV and IRR modeling as well as using various frameworks such as SWOT Analysis or Porter’s Five Forces is highly recommended. However, blind ambition and soulless math may not result in the best choice of targets.

One common sense and often overlooked assessment is how a seller’s motivations may have a bearing on the risk assessment of the buyer. A seller today may be alerting today’s buyer about future realities the buyer may experience. In some cases, sellers are motivated by a deficit of ownership and management succession. In other cases, a seller’s motive may be the result of industry dynamics and disruption that may one day be the concern of today’s consolidators. Get informed, get objective and be rational when assessing a target. If you cannot do that with in-house resources, get help. If you have in-house resources, have your mandates reviewed and your target analysis checked by an experienced advisor with the right balance of valuation and transaction awareness.

Take a Walk in the Seller’s Shoes

We know that sellers often fear opening-up their financials and operations to certain logical strategic buyers. This may stem from generations of fierce competition or from a concern that not selling means the seller has revealed sensitive information that will compromise their competitive position or devalue the business in a future deal. Many sellers are extremely sensitive to retaining their staff and keeping faith with suppliers and customers. Buyers should understand that sellers require comfort and assurance regarding confidentiality.

Being proactive with non-disclosure agreements and even better using a third party such as Mercer Capital to establish contact may facilitate a process of mutual assessment that is initially a no-go for many tentative sellers. Buyers that demonstrate empathy for the seller’s position and who employ a well-conceived process to initiate exchange are more likely to gain access to essential information.

It is common for the seller’s initial market outreach to set the hurdle price for the winning buyer. That may occur as a result of the seller having reasonably skilled advisors who help establish deal expectations or through first-round indications of interest. As such, it should be no surprise for truly strategic buyers to be able to hurdle the offers of first round financial buyers or less optimal fringe buyers.

Buyers should also be aware that third party deals must win against the seller’s potential ability to execute a leveraged buy-out with family members or senior managers, which may facilitate favorable tax outcomes versus the asset-based structures in open-market M&A processes. Of course, strategic buyers should be equally aware that many private equity or family-office buyers may also be strategic in their motivations and pricing capabilities based on pre-existing portfolio holdings.

Awareness of competing concerns for the target must be considered if you intend to win the deal. Buyers, with the help of skilled advisors, can actually help sellers address the balance of considerations that underpin a decision to sell. Having plans for human resource, communicating employee benefits and compensation structures, and laying the groundwork for a smooth integration process are part of walking the talk of a successful acquisition.

Concluding Thoughts

Whether your motivations are based on synergies, efficiencies, or simply on the inertial forces of consolidation that cycle through many industries, a well-organized and disciplined process is paramount to examining and approaching the market for hopeful growth opportunities.

Regardless of your past experiences and deal acumen, we recommend retaining a transaction advisory team familiar with your industry and possessing the valuation expertise to maximize transaction opportunities and communicate the merits your firm has to offer the target and all its stakeholders.

Since Mercer Capital’s founding in 1982, we have worked with a broad range of public and private companies and financial institutions. As financial advisors, Mercer Capital looks to assess the strategic fit of every prospect through initial planning, rigorous industry and financial analysis, target or buyer screening, negotiations, and exhaustive due diligence so that our clients reach the right decision regardless of outcome. Our dedicated and responsive deal team stands ready to help your business manage the transaction process.