Considerations in Merger Transactions

When considering a buy-side transaction to expand, many middle market companies may not consider a merger transaction as an option compared to an outright acquisition. Mergers are often seen as transactions for big conglomerate-type companies on Wall Street, but they can be effective for middle-market businesses as well.

A merger is a combination of two companies on generally equal terms in which the transaction is structured as a share exchange although sometimes a modest amount of cash may be included, too. There are many questions that must be addressed. The key economic question involves the exchange ratio to establish the ownership percentages based upon the value of each company and the relative contribution of sales, EBITDA and other measures to the combined company.

Corporate governance and social issues are important factors to consider also. Because the “target” shareholders are not cashed out, a significant amount of time early in the process should be spent exploring the compatibility of directors, executive management and shareholders.

Why a Merger?

A basic premise from a shareholder perspective is that a merger will increase value through enhanced profitability, growth prospects and perhaps from the perspective of an acquirer of the combined company.

Stated differently, both shareholders should own shares in a company that will be more valuable than the interest in each independent company.

Assuming the parties are comfortable with governance and social issues, a merger can be an excellent means to grow the business when one of two conditions exist:

  1. Neither ownership group wants to truly exit; and/or
  2. Neither company has enough capital to fund a buy-out acquisition.

In the first situation, it may be that certain market, business or personal life cycle dynamics will keep one or both parties from wanting to sell the business. There is too much opportunity in the existing business to forego and owning a smaller percentage of a large pie is not an insurmountable hurdle. A merger gives both sets of ownership the value enhancements related to the expansion without forcing either group to exit their ownership position.

Mergers also have another very practical element. Cash is conserved because all or most of the consideration consists of shares issued by the surviving corporation to the shareholders of the company that will be merged into the surviving corporation. Some cash will be expended for professional fees, but the funds usually are nominal relative to the value of the combined companies. Importantly, existing excess liquidity and/or the borrowing capacity of the combined company can be used for expansion.

Relative Value

In a merger transaction, there is a two-sided valuation question. While in an acquisition, the buying party is typically bringing cash to the transaction (cash being easy to value), the merger parties are effectively both paying for the transaction with stock. The value of both companies must be set to determine the relative value percentages. If Company A (valued at $110 million) merges with Company B (valued at $90 million), the relative value percentages are 55%/45%. Following the merger, the former Company A shareholders should have 55% of the equity ownership in the merged entity, with the former Company B shareholders holding the remaining 45%.

In addition to considering the stand-alone valuation of each company, a contribution analysis should be constructed based upon sales, EBITDA, equity and other financial metrics. The valuations and contribution analysis then provides a range of exchange ratios (or ownership percentages) to conduct negotiations.

While the valuation and contribution math may be straightforward (or not at all), negotiating merger transactions can be complicated since one party is not paid to go away. Mercer Capital is often hired on a joint basis by entities seeking to negotiate a merger transaction.

While the final decision to go through with the merger remains with our clients in this situation, we serve as an independent advisor to both sides of the merger to establish the relative value parameters. An independent assessment of the relative values can help tremendously in building confidence with shareholders and boards that the terms of the merger are reasonable for both sides.

True-Ups

As with most deals, merger transactions usually include certain post-transaction “true-ups” to ensure that each entity delivers adequate levels of working capital (or other assets) at closing. A typical structure is for the parties to create escrow accounts funded with cash in amounts proportional to the post-merger ownership percentages. These escrow accounts serve as a mechanism to adjust for any shortfall at one entity.

If needed, a portion of the escrow cash is contributed into the merged entity, serving to make-up for any shortfall at closing. This keeps the ownership percentages at the agreed-upon relative value percentages. The excess cash left in the escrow accounts after these adjustments is distributed to the shareholders of the former (now merged) entities.

In our experience, shareholders and boards do not like the uncertainty of shifting ownership percentages – this escrow structure prevents the percentages from changing based on post-closing adjustments.

Who Is in Charge?

As with any acquisition, an organized post-transaction integration is critical to the success of a merger.

No matter how compelling the economics of a combination may be, the cultural fit of the two businesses will be a key element in determining the eventual success of the transaction. From the initial stages of the transaction, issues related to the cultural fit should be discussed and strategies should be implemented to increase the probability of a successful integration.

A basic question to be addressed early in the process is who will run the combined company. Public companies sometimes use co-CEOs, but not often for good reason. There should not be any question who is in charge, the responsibilities of subordinates, and the chain of command and accountability.

A comprehensive agreement on overall governance structures (including regional management, board construction, etc.) can provide some comfort for the side that might see themselves as being on the losing end of the potentially more political question of chief executive.

Shareholder control is another issue that has to be dealt with explicitly. If both entities consist of a large number of shareholders with no shareholder in direct control, the control issue is moot because there will be no controlling shareholder in the merged entity. Such prospective mergers are easier to negotiate because one shareholder (or voting block) does not have to give up control.

However, when one or both entities has a controlling shareholder (which could be represented by a single individual or a family block of stock), loss of control in a combined company may trump compelling economics. Both parties need to examine this issue closely and provide for conflict resolution mechanisms through the corporation’s by-laws and buy-sell agreements. Like marriages, getting out of a transaction is a lot harder and more expensive than entering into it.

Concluding Thoughts

We think mergers are a viable strategy to expand a business when the economics and social aspects are compelling for many small and middle market companies. Reasonable valuations and a detailed contribution analysis are the initial building blocks to quantify the economics. Mercer Capital is an active transaction advisor. While we most often are retained by one party, some of our most successful and rewarding projects have been those where we were jointly retained by both parties to advise on the transaction structure. If you are considering a merger (or in the middle of a current transaction), please call one of our Transaction Advisory Group professionals to assist.