Five Considerations for Structuring Earn-Outs in RIA Transactions

Practice Management Transactions

No Aston Martin this week, folks. The car that commercialized hybrid engine technology for the mass market was, of course, the Prius. Toyota has sold versions of the Prius for 20 years now, with global sales topping 6.25 million units. (photo from

As covered in last week’s post, RIA transactions usually feature earn-out payments as a substantial portion of total consideration because so much of the seller’s value is bound up in post-closing performance.  Just as the financial press never writes about periods of “heightened certainty,” so too buyers of RIAs are justifiably concerned about the ongoing performance of their acquisition target after the ink dries on the purchase agreement.

Earn-outs (i.e. contingent consideration) perform the function of incentives for the seller and insurance for the buyer, preserving upside for the former and protecting against downside for the latter.  In asset manager transactions, they are both compensation, focusing on the performance of key individuals, and deal consideration, being allocated to the selling shareholders pro rata.  And even though earn-out payments are triggered based on meeting performance metrics which are ultimately under the control of staff, they become part of overall deal consideration and frame the transaction value of the enterprise.

For all of these reasons, we view contingent consideration as a hybrid instrument, combining elements of equity consideration and compensation, and binding the future expectations of seller and buyer in a contractual understanding.

Twenty years ago, Toyota considered whether the future of automobiles would involve gasoline or batteries and developed a similar middle way, the hybrid engine.  A hybrid motor uses regenerative braking to charge batteries that recapture power to augment or substitute for the car’s conventional internal combustion engine.  Similar technology has been deployed in supercars like the Porsche 918 Spyder, but the Prius is responsible for helping shape the future of automotive transportation by making hybrid technology prevalent.

As hybrids go, though, earn-outs are even more prevalent in asset manager transactions than Priuses are in Whole Foods parking lots, and it’s easy to understand why.

Earn-Out Parameters

Contingent consideration makes deals possible that otherwise would not be.  When a seller wants twice what a buyer is willing to pay, one way to mediate that difference in expectations is to pay part of the price up front (usually equal to the amount a buyer believes can safely be paid) and the remainder based on the post-closing performance of the business.  In theory, earn-outs can simultaneously offer a buyer some downside protection in the event that the acquired business doesn’t perform as advertised, and the seller can get paid for some of the upside he or she is foregoing by giving up ownership.  While there is no one set of rules for structuring an earn-out, there are a few conceptual issues that can help anchor the negotiation.

1. Define the continuing business acquired that will be the subject of the earn-out

Deciding what business’s performance is to be measured after the closing is easy enough if a RIA is being acquired by, say, a bank that doesn’t currently offer investment management services.  In that case, the acquired company will likely be operated as a stand-alone enterprise with division level financial statements that make determining success or lack thereof fairly easy.

If a RIA is being rolled into an existing, and similar, investment management platform, then keeping stand-alone records after the transaction closes may be difficult.  Overhead allocations, how additions and losses to staff will be treated, expansion opportunities, and cross selling will all have some impact on the value of the acquired business to the acquirer.  Often these issues are not foreseen or even considered until after the transaction closes.  It then comes down to the personalities involved to “work it out” or be “fair.”  As my neighbor’s father used to say: “fair is just another four letter word.”

2. Determine the appropriate period for the earn-out

We have seen earn-out periods (the term over which performance is measured and over which contingent consideration is paid) as short as one year and as long as five years.  There is no magic period that fits all situations, but a term based on specific strategic considerations like proving out a business model, defined investment performance objectives, or the decision cycle of key clients are all reasons to develop an earn-out timeframe.

The buyer wants the term to be long enough to find out what the true transferred value of the business is, and the seller (who otherwise wants to be paid as quickly as possible) may want the earn-out term to be long enough to generate the performance that will achieve the maximum payment.  Generally speaking, buyer-seller relations can get very strained during an earn-out measurement period, and after they’re done no one wishes the term had been longer.

We tend to discourage terms for contingent consideration lasting longer than three years.  In most cases, three years is plenty to “discover” the value of the acquired firm, organize a merged enterprise, and generate a reliable stream of returns for the buyer.  If the measurement period is longer than three years, the “earn-out” starts to look more like bonus compensation, or some other kind of performance incentive to generate run-rate performance at the business.  Earn-outs can be interactive with compensation plans for managers at an acquired enterprise, and buyers and sellers are well advised to consider the entirety of the financial relationship between the parties after the transaction, not just equity payments on a stand-alone basis.

3. Determine to what extent the buyer will assist or impede the seller’s performance during the earn-out

Did the buyer lure the seller in with promises of technology, products, back-office support, and marketing?  Did the buyer promise the seller that they would be able to operate their business unit independently and without being micromanaged after the transaction?  These are all great reasons for an investment management firm to agree to be absorbed by a larger platform, and they may also help determine whether or not the acquired firm meets performance objectives to get contingent consideration.

We have seen bad deals saved by good markets, but counting on false confirmation is not a sound deal strategy.  Instead, buyer and seller should think through their post-close working relationships well in advance of signing a deal, deciding who works for whom, under what circumstances, and what the particulars are of their mutual obligations to shared success look like.  If things don’t go well after the transaction – and about half the time they don’t – the first person who says “I thought you were going to…” didn’t get the appropriate commitments from their counterparty on the front end.

4. Define what performance measurements will control the earn-out payments

It is obvious that you will have to do this, but in our experience buyers and sellers don’t always think through the optimal strategy for measuring post-closing performance.

Buyers, ultimately, want to see profit contributions from the seller, and so some measure of cash flow is a natural way to pay for the kind of desired performance from an acquired investment management operation.  There are at least two problems with this, however, which suggest maybe another performance metric would be more effective for the buyer (and the seller).

First, profitability is at the bottom of the P&L, and is therefore subject to lots of manipulation.  To generate a dollar of profit at a RIA, you need some measure of client AUM, market performance, a fee schedule, investment management staff, office space, marketing expense, technology and compliance, capital structure considerations, parent overhead allocations, and any number of other items, some of which may be outside of the sellers’ control.  Will the sellers accuse the buyer of impeding their success?  Can the factors influencing that success all be sufficiently isolated and defined in an earn-out agreement?  It’s more difficult than it looks.

Second, much of the post-transaction profitability of the acquired business will depend on the returns of the financial markets, over which nobody has control.  If the rising tide indeed lifts all boats, should the buyer be required to compensate the seller for beneficial markets?  By the same token, if a deal is struck on the eve of another financial crisis, does the seller want to be held accountable for huge market dislocations?  In our experience, returns from markets don’t determine success, over time, nearly as much as returns from marketing.  Consider structuring an earn-out based on net client AUM (assets added, net of assets withdrawn), given a certain aggregate fee schedule (so nobody’s giving the business away just to pad AUM).

5. Name specific considerations that determine payment terms

Is the earn-out capped at a given level of performance or does it have unlimited upside?  Can it be earned cumulatively or must each measurement period stand alone?  Will there be a clawback if later years in the earn-out term underperform an initial year?  Will there simply be one bullet payment if a given level of performance is reached?  To what extent should the earn-out be based on “best efforts” and “good faith”?

Because these specific considerations are usually unique to a given transaction between a given buyer and a given seller, there are too many to list here.  I have two quick thoughts on that: 1) transaction values implied by earn-out structures are often hard to extrapolate to other parties to other transactions.  2) The earn-out can address many of the concerns and hopes of the parties to a transaction about the future – but it cannot create the future.  Earn-outs manage uncertainty; they don’t create certainty.


Above all, we would emphasize that a plan for contingent consideration be based on the particular needs of buyers and sellers as they pertain to the specific investment management business being transacted.  There is no one-size-fits-all earn-out in any industry, much less the RIA community.  If an earn-out is truly going to bridge the difference between buyer and seller expectations, then it must be designed based on buyer and seller considerations.  A bridge that doesn’t successfully link two points is not a bridge, it’s a pier.  A pier will eventually leave either buyer or seller in deep water.

We’ll talk more next week about the structuring of earn-outs for RIAs, but drop us a line in the meantime if you’d rather not wait.