Resources for Buying and Selling Online Businesses

The Private Equity Process

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Since 2013 Quiet Light’s average transaction size has grown up to ten times. Back in those days, there were no private equity firms poking around the e-commerce space for these listings. Today it is a completely different story and more often than not we’re seeing private equity firms come into the buyer spectrum. In fact, once a business reaches a certain size, it is more likely than not that a seller’s potential buyer is going to be in the private equity space of the buyer pool. Today we are going to dissect the PE process a bit further. We’ll delve into the process, the advantages and disadvantages, and give a general education on the subject for those who are curious about it how it works.

Today’s guest, Brian Rassel, is Vice President of Private Equity with Huron Capital. He’s responsible for sourcing, evaluating, and analyzing investments made by his firm. Brian delves into ways he finds that e-commerce has entered into almost sector of investment that his group is involved in these days. Prior to joining Huron Capital, Brian was an Associate at Prophet, a global growth strategy consulting firm. Prior to Prophet, Brian was a consultant with New England Consulting Group where he led project management in their private equity practice for buy-side clients. Brian is sharing his wealth of private equity experience and how PE is entering more and more into the e-commerce space.

Episode Highlights:

  • How Brian defines private equity.
  • How PE funds traditionally start up and get solidified.
  • The difference between small, medium and large equity funds.
  • The holding periods that private equity funds usually need to secure capital.
  • Is PE all about acquiring to grow and sell or is there a category for buy and hold? Do evergreen funds exist?
  • The difference between platform and bolt-on investments.
  • Three things funds do to generate deal flow and types of business spaces they favor.
  • The behind-the-scenes processes of putting a deal together.
  • How many people are involved in the deal on the PE side.
  • The backend investors committee and if that hinders the deal for the seller. Why time commitment is actually a good thing.
  • How many deals Brian’s PE firm evaluates per year.
  • The defined process that gets them through the numbers.
  • The growth potential for e-commerce – multiple appreciations and the role of private equity.
  • Brian frames an ideal acquisition structure based on the general private equity model.
  • Why the buyer/seller fit really matters.
  • How private equity can work for sellers who want to get their business to the next stage.


Joe: Back in 2013 Mark I closed 23 transactions. It was a busy year for me. Do you have any idea what the average transaction size was?

Mark: I … what do I guess? Well, it’s you so I’m going to say like seven million dollars.

Joe: I love putting you on the spot because you do it to me all the time. The average transaction size—

Mark: You got to be like 250.

Joe: It was 125.

Mark: Holy cow.

Joe: 125; very small.

Mark: Okay.

Joe: And at that time there were no Private Equity Firms poking around the e-commerce space for these smaller listings. Today it’s a completely different story and my average transaction size was 10 times that last year. And a lot of buyers or a lot of sellers, the question I get asked all the time are who are your buyers? And it’s a mix of everyone but more often than not now we’re seeing Private Equity Firms come into this space. And I understand you had an expert in that area on the podcast.

Mark: Yeah private equity is a topic that’s coming up more and more frequently with sellers especially on the higher end of that revenue spectrum that we really work with. And it makes sense because once you get to a certain size of business your buyer is more likely than not going to be at least somewhat in the private equity place … area of the buyer pool. In addition, we’ve talked before … I had Ryan Tansom on and we talked about selling to a strategic buyer versus a marketplace buyer. And obviously, people always look at this especially at the higher ends and say I kind of want to have a strategic buyer. Well, one thing to keep in mind here is that this is kind of a spectrum right? It’s not binary; you’re either strategic or marketplace. But when you get into that private equity world, private equity is almost always going to be something of a strategic play. So I thought … look this private equity world is something that people keep asking about let’s actually start to dissect it a little bit. So Brian and I talked and we spent probably about half of this interview just kind of going over what is private equity. How does that work? What is the definition of this? What are the sizes of it? And really just trying to ask some of those silly questions that maybe you kind of wonder about but don’t want to ask because you don’t want to sound like you don’t know what you’re talking about. And so we went over a bunch of those questions but then we also went over what does the process looked like. What does it look like to sell to a private equity firm? What are the drawbacks to it and what are the benefits of it as well? And really it’s kind of a general education podcast but I think also … and maybe more importantly for those of you out there who are thinking about selling down the road and you’re looking and trying to peg the different values that you want to get from an exit and maybe you think well I want a 10 million dollar exit or a 15 million dollar exit, if you get to that point what’s it going to look like to sell to a private equity and what do you need to do to really make yourself appealing for a Private Equity Firm? And how does the deal change when you’re signed to private equity as well. So we really covered a lot of ground in about 30 minutes. Brian is super knowledgeable obviously. He works in this space. And I really appreciated him coming on the podcast because … again I just downloaded a ton of information.

Joe: Well let’s get right to it.

Mark: All right Brian thanks for joining me on the podcast. I really appreciate you coming on.

Brian: Yeah I know. It’s great to be here. Thanks for hosting.

Mark: All right so I don’t expect people to listen … my guests to have listened to the podcast in advance and I know … I don’t know if Joe’s been doing this, he records like 9 out of 10 episodes and I don’t know if he’s continued on the tradition but we like to have our guests introduce themselves mainly because you know your story better than I know your story and I figure it’s a little bit easier. So why don’t you give just kind of a quick 30 second to one minute rundown on who you are?

Brian: Yeah I’m Brian Rassel. I’m a vice president with Huron Capital Partners which is a middle market private equity firm based at Detroit Michigan. The firm is 20 years old and has invested in … we’re typically enthralled buyout investors where we’ll buy a majority of a business and have done that through five successive fawns starting back in 1999. And the industries that we play in are business services, consumer, and specialty manufacturing. You know it’d kind of be interesting how I got to know you Mark for those listening is that believe it or not all of those basins are being affected by e-commerce or different kind of SaaS business models that are internet based. And I’m taking it upon myself to maybe be the person of the firm who is trying to understand those influences on all of our companies and make sure that we’re in a position to incorporate those changes that are going on out and new coming at large number and being done by a lot of people who probably listen to your podcast and make sure that we’re bringing more of the [inaudible 00:05:51.4] in the businesses we own so that they can be successful today and be well into the 21st century.

Mark: All right, well I got a lot of questions for you because this world of private equity is encroaching or coming into the internet business acquisition world more and more. And whether it’s because at Quiet Light our deal value is moving up or private equity is starting to look at different price ranges and maybe this convergence of these worlds and also private equity looking more in the online space is just becoming an increasing topic that we’re seeing more and more of. We’re also seeing individuals that have started up on their own raising funds to do large acquisitions or to string acquisitions together.

Brian: Yeah.

Mark: So what I’d like to do and I already kind of told you this in our conversation before I hit record, I’d like to go over some of the basics here of the private equity world and how it looks in the Internet space as well. And then know a little bit more about your fund and some of the things that you guys are doing over there and all that. So a quick shout out to Chris from Centurica and Rhodium I know that we’ve talked about him so much that it’s almost as if he’s a sponsor. He’s not. But this is again how we got introduced. You spoke at the Rhodium and then you and I had a chance to speak after that and a good conversation. So thanks Chris for the introduction again. So let’s start out really really basic here. How do you define private equity?

Brian: Private equity is capital … private capital being put to work in private businesses. And so I like to name [inaudible 00:07:22.6] for folks who really don’t know much about it a little quick stat just kind of on the US economy. There are half as many publicly listed companies as there were in 1996 or 1994 something like that. So even if the value of the public markets is larger the amount of places you can park that capital in the public markets is small in the total number of listed names. Private equity is a big part of either big institutionally managed money. Whether that’s from insurance companies, [inaudible 00:07:52.4], pension funds, universities, those kinds of things. This is their way to go participate in the forces of economy that are still private companies that they can’t get access to otherwise unless folks like me help them get access to it. It also includes folks that can kind of go into different flavors of private equity but depending on the size from the bing capitals of the world down to very very small funds that are more entrepreneurial. There’s sort of every flavor under design in certain family offices and other things like that. That would be private equity, pooled private capital going into private businesses.

Mark: Well how did these funds start-up traditionally? And I imagine that there’s a lot of ways that they can start up. You’ve listed a number of sources of money and I think sometimes we forget just how much money there is in some of these places. So yeah [crosstalk 00:08:46.6].

Brian: For sure I mean there’s just [crosstalk 00:08:49.4] I’m going to get this off, I’ll be wrong by a hundred billion dollars. But I think something like 600 billion dollars flowed into private equity firms last year. So these … and the source of a fund or the way a fund works is that a fund manager like the folks I work for here where I’m a part of, they go out and they make their pitch about how talented their professionals are and what their track record is and the fact that they can get access to great deal flow and great opportunities, places to put private capital where it will go earn a reasonable return. And they raise this money from these other institutional or independent investors. It could be high in net worth individuals or anybody like that but … so they get started that way. They’ll hold this farm estate back to the 1960s and there are new ones being created all the time. And frankly, as hedge funds have declined I believe in a large way in popularity just because of the efficiency of public markets there’s been more and more money directed towards these private pools of capital and the private equity market. And when I say private equity I mean both kind of traditional buy-out funds for more mature businesses that have healthy positive cash flows on the one hand and on the other hand I mean venture capital is the son segment of private equity. And that might be for really really high growth businesses like the next dewberry of the world or whatever it might be.

Mark: Right, absolutely. Okay, that makes a lot of sense. And as far as the breakdown as to sizes what would you consider to be a small private equity firm and what are we talking about in terms of their capitalization rates when they start up? What would be the difference between the small, medium, large type of firms? We can get an idea for how much money we’re actually dealing with?

Brian: So I would say just kind of from my understanding again all this caviada being dead this is sort of Brian Rassell’s take on private equity and my interpretation and may not really be the opinions of United Capital, I can only speak for myself as an individual but they have a dedicated fund. And when I say dedicated fund these are groups of people that other folks, other investors have made a promise and a pledge that is legally binding and written their name at the bottom that that dedicated fund, the small one might be 50 million dollars. That’d be very small. Folks who are trying to invest less than that, generally speaking, have something more akin to a pledge fund. They have a number of people that they can pass the hat with to raise money in a deal by deal basis versus having committed capital to go invest in five, six, 10, 12 companies in that particular fawn. So just kind of … back at the envelope type map that you can think of is every firm should have plus or minus roughly 10 investments that have enough diversification in it. So a 50 million dollar fund is looking to put five million dollars to work in the 10 different companies. And that would be the equity capital going to those companies. There’s oftentimes a mix of equity and debt coming into those companies and we could talk about that later. And then a midsize fund might be three or four hundred million up and pawn up to the 2KR’s of the world or Apollo or the very big managers who are doing 15 billion dollar funds and so all different world.

Mark: Very.

Brian: They’re taking hotels private or something like that.

Mark: I was going to say they’re buying something completely different than your Amazon business.

Brian: Yeah that’s right. It’s a whole different world.

Mark: All right you talked about you have successive funds. In my understanding again is that we go through these rounds of investment that coming up. We had Andy Jones from on and he talked a lot about the holding periods that private equity looks for. Can you just again quickly touch on that? We’re kind of doing private equity 101 here.

Brian: Yeah. I didn’t hear Andy’s remarks but just as it relates to a whole period I would think of it just to be linear about it that a private equity firm once our capital is raised [inaudible 00:13:01.9] the time that it takes to raise that money they committed capital or even the past they had capital they’re going to take that money and let’s just use this fictional 50 million dollar fund. And they’ll take something like four years to deploy the first 80% of it. And the goal would be you take 20% of that money and get it into a new platform company. Companies they had no money in before. In the first year or the next year next 20%, next year next 20%, next year next 20% thus 80%. The point at that point you can’t do necessarily new investments you’re reserving that last 20% for either a company that’s struggling that you need to give more money to to keep it going or to do an add on investment to buy something else and add it on to something that’s in the portfolio. That might take four or five years to really deploy the majority of it and then another four to five … you know an investment from year one that you only … you’re exiting that investment three to seven years later and let’s just use five as kind of a round middle of the road number there. So an investment from year one is maybe gone in year six so it’s being harvested. It could be sooner, it could be later. And the investment that was your last platform investment from year four might be heading out the door in year eight or nine. So fund life is something like eight to ten years. It can be longer. And a traditional as you kind of draw it up on the whiteboard like I have behind me here is sort of a five year hold. Now there’s … I’ve seen many that are much much shorter and many that are much much longer but those are the fat parts of the [inaudible 00:14:36.2] if you want.

Mark: Sure. So is private equity … is the goal of all private equity companies to grow and sell? So acquire, grow, sell, or are there other strategies? Buy it and hold for long periods of time?

Brian: There are certainly evergreen funds out there. They’re much more … when I say evergreen they have the ability to hold and recycle the capital. They may be designed to have heard of a number that has committed capital from particularly family offices that never want to do the tax consequences of becoming liquid in an investment and actually realizing the gains so they’re structured to reinvest the money that they make. Or if they sell something to quickly find someone else new for it to go into. Now that would be a more unique situation. And then certainly family offices there’s a number out there that looks for longer hold periods and there are certain funds that are designed for a longer hold period.

Mark: All right so this is going to be again another basic question but I want to make sure our terms are all well-defined here. We hear these terms of platform versus bolt on or add on investments. Just real quick the difference between a platform investment versus a bolt on.

Brian: Yeah I’ll just keep it simple. I’ll say anything that is a brand new business, new industry for that firm to go into. They don’t currently own something in that space. Whether that’s a tiny initial acquisition or a big one that would be the platform investment. So let’s just say with a … I don’t know Internet broker pencils, I’m just making this up, all right? And they don’t have any other investments in the internet broker pencils space and they invest in a company in that space that would be the platform [inaudible 00:16:17.1] that. And maybe there are 10 companies that make … that do internet broker pencils and they buy two other ones of their competitors and they make it bigger or somebody [inaudible 00:16:25.3] and now they’re putting it all together those might be add-ons to that original entity that they purchased or recapitalized. That’s what we mean. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with size which can be confusing. Sometimes you start with something small and you get the opportunity and do an add-on that’s much bigger than the original investment. So it’s more just where is the starting point in you can do a space or an industry.

Mark: And if we think about the terms it makes sense right?

Brian: Yeah.

Mark: You build on top of the platform and you add-on top of the platform. So it makes … that makes complete sense.

Brian: Or bolt-on, yup that’s where the nomenclature comes from.

Mark: Or bolt-on, absolutely. It’s amazing when you dig in to definitions it’s like the terms actually have a meaning and it makes sense.

Brian: They do. Generally, they come from somewhere.

Mark: They come from somewhere. There’s logic to this stuff. I love it. All right so now I’ll get into questions that I’m starting to be genuinely interested in and that is how does a fund develop a thesis or an entire direction to go after a particular platform investment? I mean if you’re selling blue widgets and also if somebody comes and says no you don’t need widgets what you really need are sprockets, if you don’t do anything with sprockets at all how does that enter into a fund’s psyche at all?

Brian: There’s really three things that we’re doing here to generate the sort of deal flow and the ideas and spaces we want to go into. So here I’ll speak more from Huron Capital. There are other firms who follow a similar philosophy potentially. So the first is businesses we didn’t know about but are being represented by a broker or an investment banker like yourself Mark who … those are opportunities that are coming to us. They are being listed. They’re being actively shopped around. We may have never thought of the sprocket industry before or we didn’t know too much about it or we read materials on it and we say it has a lot of characteristics and things we like; great cash flow, seems very resilient, seems countercyclical, if the economy goes down it’ll still do well, it’s a leader on its space, any of those kinds of things. Those are opportunities that come to us and that is more of a passive thing. And then we get active once we realize that it fits a lot of criteria and we believe we could be successful with it. And that sets into motion a whole chain of things where we kind of prove out of the pieces that we might like this business and we try to get educated. The second that we spend a lot of time on is networking with executives from a broad, broad variety of industries. Those people know where there are spaces that are changing. And generally speaking, change creates opportunities. Change creates winners on one side and losers on the other side. And less be to the losers but you need that kind of disruption to create any sort of sort interesting investment outcome. The study ID is probably the market’s sufficient enough that the study ID is not going to return the greatest returns. So we’ve spent a lot of time with executives unless I knew them about spaces that could be interesting and trying to listen to areas they know about and start to build some [inaudible 00:19:37.4]. And then even more proactively than that there’s a lot of opportunities where we meet the executive who has a view of one particular thing they want to do here at Huron it’s got a registered trademark or the like of the firm. We call that an exact factor investment where we will actually flip the process and say we really believe in the sprocket industry. We met Phil who is going to be our perspective CEO in the space and he has this vision that is going to totally turn the industry [inaudible 00:20:11.5]. To do that we need to go find the platform, we call that like getting fuel behind the wheel. We need to find a car to fulfill the drive. We believe he’s the best driver in that industry. And we will do all the work, we’ll go write a hundred page white paper on it to prove to our investment committee why it’s such a fabulous opportunity and Phil is the greatest operator in this space. And then we will commit dollars into going and finding businesses in that space and find Phil the car he can drive and we’ll get off to the races that way. So it starts with a commitment from our farms for a certain amount of money behind Phil to go do an acquisition more and more in this space. So it … I guess ranges from that passive we find things and then we get educated too. We educate ourselves as much as possible and align ourselves with an executive who can execute and work the process the other way.

Mark: Cool. All right that [inaudible 00:21:04.07]. So let’s talk a little bit about the process that goes on behind the scenes when you are evaluating an opportunity. And I think for a lot of potential sellers this sort of conversation is going to be really insightful. So let’s say we have somebody that they have an e-com business, 30 million in revenue, eight, nine million in earnings on an annual basis and they’ve got a couple of private equity firms looking at their business. Where does that start and what is the process going through? And you can talk about maybe Huron’s process and then if there are variations that you know as well. The number of people that are going to look and touch that deal as it goes through the steps.

Brian: Yeah.

Mark: What are some of those behind the scenes looks?

Brian: Yeah so once you’ve got that moment where there’s a couple of firms interested there’s going to be an incredible amount of information about the business across insurance, benefits, compliance with laws and regulatory statutes, information about the market; anything the business can possibly produce about itself, fairly every file that’s off the shelf that they have, every non-disclosure agreement they have with somebody that they on boarded or employment agreement, every contract they have with a customer, or maybe it’s an industry where you don’t have a lot of contracts with customers but you have a lot of contracts with suppliers. All that information needs to be made available for these perspective buyers to digest. And the more they can be made available, the more that that’s organized into different pockets of legal,  employee, insurance, benefits, all of that, the better. It’s going to save the company a lot of time from serving requests versus being proactive by getting that stuff out there. And you know well everything here all the buyers be under a non-disclosure agreement and that’s just a very kind of well-oiled machine around making that information available to give your last few buyers down to the one you would like to choose and have them under a Letter of Intent. And that starts to be an exclusive relationship where the buyer is going to spend a lot of money in due diligence and in exchange for spending that money, they would like the exclusive right to [inaudible 00:23:19.3] business for a period of time. 60 days … 90 days where they engage and here is where it starts to get to be a lot more kind of in your trousers and really analyzing your business but they’re going to engage in quality of earnings earned to go and understand did you actually produce the amount of revenue, if you put it in the right time periods, if you really counted for every cost etcetera. They’re going to engage legal professionals who are going first to sort of just again a full work up of registration, compliance, [inaudible 00:23:51.9] and then those folks are going to work on the actual transaction documents as well as a host of other advisors. And that would be like again a 60 to 90 day process. It could be 30 days on the short end. There are firms who can do it in that time particularly if you’re a smaller business and an add-on to a much larger or a very simple business.

Mark: So how many people are we talking about there that are going to be involved in the process? Outside of the consultants like a Q of E … a quality of earnings report that’s going to be an outside accounting firm right?

Brian: Yeah.

Mark: So we’re not going to—

Brian: Okay so from the acquiring firm?

Mark: Mm-hmm. And we can start at the beginning. We can start at your interns that are digesting deals. That’s going to be part one.

Brian: Sure call it four and they’re going to be answering to the remainder of their firm particularly their investment committee. Ideally, it’s a tighter team and there’s four and if it’s an add-on expect more. So you’ll have the management team of that kind of platform investment as well. So four to eight and then when you get to the advisor well now you’re talking 20 something more.

Mark: Right, getting all those outside advisers. Now one of the things I know people get worried about during this process is you start out again with that guy who’s that in deals up front and he sees some he passes it on to the team and they end up liking it so now you’re dealing with a handful of people that are asking the questions digging deep in that due diligence right? Pages and pages of collecting information possibly even submitting an offer because on the surface things look okay.

Brian: Yup.

Mark: There seems to be these back end investors committee as well which can also kind of wash the deal far in the process. What would you say to people that get kind of frustrated when they hear that and they think do I really want to work with private equity because there are so many people that could potentially disrupt this deal?

Brian: So I would think about the time investment to it. So the private equity firm is in no way interested in wasting any of their time. Huron looks at something like little over a thousand deals a year. That takes a lot of time and we’re very thoughtful about moving things to the funnel and connecting our firm’s resources to evaluating an opportunity. So if somebody is spending the time I would tell the listeners that they are encouraged. If everything checks out the way I told to them so far or they’ve written so far about that business then there are absolutely no issues. The firm, an organized and real firm is going to be thoughtful and time is kind of their most valuable resource and they’re set up to be able to make a number of staged gates kind of we’re interested and we’re not interested. We’re interested subject to confirm affirmation I want two and three. And you can have a very quick conversation like you and I are having now to say is this the case is this not the case? Here’s a big concern we have, should we be worried? And they will both take your answer and that gives them that kind of gumption to proceed. And they’ll probably have to go validate that as well later. And that validation just has to support what’s been told to them. But they are also making a big commitment with their time in the same way that the seller is and I would take it as genuine on their part that they’re not looking for it to fall apart. It’s just things do. Certain deals fall apart because new information becomes available. I’ve seen that happen a number of times where the seller learns things about their business or thinks about their business in a way they hadn’t before and can agree that that’s a genuine risk and may be something they want to work out within a course of another year and then they might be back to market.

Mark: Yeah, that happens often. We see that all the time even in the amount of work that we put a seller through upfront it pales in comparison to what you guys are going to be doing in your actual dig deep due diligence. And the number of times that we have people come back and tell us that was a lot of work but that was really useful.

Brian: Yeah.

Mark: I have learned a lot about my own business, right?

Brian: Yeah a great advisor like somebody like you and using a broker who’s been through and understands the questions that are going to be asked is going to save a tremendous amount of time. And we call folks like you Mark a river guide we’re using on our side and we love them. Sellers use them too because they’re that much more prepared for the process.

Mark: Yeah. And I can tell you like the one thing that … I’m going to play both sides here, I would say the one thing that can be difficult with working with private equity is because there are so many people that can come in with a dissenting viewpoint. You’re not trying to … convince is a bad word but show the opportunity to one person and have them agree to it; you’re having to show a number of people. But the great thing and I love working with private equity on is that it’s completely unemotional throughout the process.

Brian: Yeah.

Mark: I mean it really is does this check the boxes we needed to check and if it doesn’t we’re going to find out as quick as we can. You said something, I was going to ask this question, you guys evaluate you said about a thousand deals per year?

Brian: Yeah the pipeline you think about now it’s working its way down at the top of the funnel and so we’re a thousand and then that’s working its way down to 250 that real solid time is being spent on and then 75 that we’re spending real tons of resources and traveling around to visit them … maybe 80. Now I’ll get these numbers wrong this is kind of directional and then down to the 30 or so that are getting a Letter Of Intention and we’ll close 22 transactions a year.

Mark: Yeah so that’s an amazing amount of data to be pulling in. And you guys have criteria at every stage I assume that you’re looking for up front?

Brian: That’s right.

Mark: Okay. All right that makes sense. Do you publish those criteria? I know we get a lot of just the very broad stuff sent to us.

Brian: We don’t only because it’s just so bespoke for every company. There are so many things that really are as you just said that are check the box and we’re highly confident that we will go confirm later. We’re highly confident that’s not an issue and we are trying to get to it very, very quickly. The three or four things we want to make sure are the reasons we’re most excited and confirm that that is factual and that was going to continue. Whatever that might be; on the customer relationship or the recurring purchasing or … whatever it might be. And then at the same time the three or four things that are kind of we’re concerned that could be deal killers. We believe we’re spending the time because we think that’s going to turn out to be true or we need to get to a yes no about is this a real problem very, very quickly. And so you know it’s just they’re different for every business.

Mark: Yeah I know a lot of people listening right now you guys are buyers that are out there looking to acquire. So technically Brian you guys are somewhat of competitors although I think that you operate at a range that a lot of our buyers wouldn’t. But I think one thing interesting that they should hear is this idea of having this defined process number one and then number two the amount of deal flow that you have to look at. I’ve talked to buyers that been out there looking for a year, year and a half but then you find out the number of deals that they’re actually looking at doesn’t really … this is a numbers game. I mean it’s purely a numbers game.

Brian: It is and one thing I want to say on that numbers game for us and it may be different for some of your buyers or not is that we’re looking for situations that are great for us and we’re also looking for situations where the seller in some ways choosing us. Now I don’t want to overstate that but I do want to say that there has to be a great fit in every piece and why we’re a better owner than someone else for that business. Some angle that we have, some affinity we have for what they do, or some prior experience or something. Otherwise and it could be a little different for particularly small businesses. Maybe it’s a little bit less like that and it doesn’t need as much of the chemistry but that’s a big part of what we’re looking for, for sure.

Mark: And we talk about that a lot on these pockets. I know you guys are probably tired of hearing Joe and I talk about the need for a buyer being a good fit. And we talked a lot about this general concept of being likable because sellers do eventually choose and for most of these sellers they do have a choice. I mean right now it’s a seller’s market. They do have a choice of who they’re going to work with. I want to talk about the exciting stuff. Let’s talk about the actual deals; the money.

Brian: Sure.

Mark: Why is selling to a private equity something that people should be excited about?

Brian: I think I spoke a little bit about this at Rhodium but I just … I see then the difference in multiples that are paid for businesses that are exclusively e-commerce or SaaS based businesses. Those multiples are so much lower than what private equity firms are paying for more traditional businesses out in the economy. And I believe that those worlds will come together. And I believe that businesses that are a hybrid of both or have excellence in both and are flipping both worlds are going to be extremely, extremely valuable. Because on the one hand, they have the relevance for the future, it’s coming from kind of the types of businesses that you represent. And also they have that anchor of the traditional business that makes them more under writable and it makes them more predictable because it’s a less dynamic place that they’re out in. And so that’s where I think private equity firms in the coming two, three, four, five years are number one going to become much more comfortable with standalone e-commerce business models that are exclusive that and there are going to be people participating from the much more kind of like formal private equity world participating in your markets. And then I think there’s going to be a convergence where a lot of more traditional business models are going to look for the influence and the DNA as well as the revenue and the profits but the influence and the DNA and the growth that comes from the types of businesses you work with Joe. And I think that means that the market that you’re playing in, the multiples will rise there. For every dollar of earnings they’ll be more valuable in the future and I believe that’s for now in a very significant way in 2018.

Mark: Yeah and we talked about this this idea of multiple appreciation that we see. And a lot of it reaches over to the fact that this is where private equity starts to play right? So we often talk if your EBIDTA is less than a million dollars per year the … just again for the sake of a multiple, it’s going to vary for each business but maybe 3 … maybe 3.5 would be the multiple on that EBIDTA depending on the type of business that you have. But once you start getting up into two, three, four million dollars of EBIDTA now we start seeing the multiples jump up in the different ranges. And the reason for this again is that we’re no longer playing as much with an individual investor who really has a much higher risk profile because they don’t necessarily have the entire team behind them or a portfolio behind them to be able to take some of that risk but also get the staff in the background and all the resources in private equity.

Brian: Yeah.

Mark: So let’s talk … I am not going to pin you down because it would be a really bad idea for you to say hey we generally paid 25x on earnings which I know you don’t. What does a deal structure often look like? Because I know these deals structures do change as well when we’re talking about a private equity acquiring a small company. What does an ideal acquisition look like for you in terms of its structure of cash that the owner is going to be getting, maybe equity or debt that you would hope that they stay around and I’d also like to address the idea that a lot of private equity likes to have or prefers to have an owner stay on board with the new company and why that’s a good thing also for that owner to think about that. So that’s a lot; the general structure, the ideals for a structure.

Brian: Okay so let’s keep this out of your space and let’s just talk about the general PE model. When deals were cheaper a couple of years ago you might get a higher ratio of debt than equity in a deal but for this sake, I’m just going to make it 50-50. I think that more reflects the market today in terms of underwriting. But let’s take a deal where a private equity firm is paying at least eight times. That’s still a relatively rich multiple. I could have said six but let’s use eight times. So we’re paying four times the earnings in their own cash that they’re talking and they are going and putting the company on the hook or raising four times and they do it. Private equity firm does it but on behalf of the company of debt for the business to take on. So let’s say it’s a business with 10 million dollars of EBIDTA. So it’s an 80 million dollar transaction and a firm like Huron is putting 40 million of equity and raising 40 million of debt in that transaction. And that 40 million of equity can come either from Huron or some portion of it could be rolled over from the seller. If that seller has no debt on the business today, no capital leases or anything else that could be thought of as indebtedness over the normal trade payables. And in your day to day you’ve got cash coming in and cash going out; that thing that keeps the shop running. And they have no debt on the business theoretically on the day of closing they’re getting a check for 80 million dollars. If they choose to roll over some of that … let’s just say 10% of the purchase price, eight million of it I would argue that a private equity firm or somebody like me would take that as them stating a high degree of confidence in the future of the business that they want to continue participating and have a relatively [inaudible 00:37:34.7] portion of their net worth tied up in that outcome. Or that they see the opportunity to turn that eight million into 16 or whatever it might be that there is a great opportunity to continue driving growth and equity value in that business. They’ll … I start there that the rollover investments are very useful because if you’re saying you want to do no roll over whatsoever and you just want to walk away from the business it’s not conveying a lot of confidence in the future of the business. There are certainly reasons to do that but it’s not conveying a lot of confidence in the future of the business. And where somebody might have been agreeing to pay you eight if you were rolling over and giving that kind of tacit support for the business going over, they might kind of say this is we’re not so sure. It makes them a little more nervous and it might be a seven times deal. So you may actually be shooting yourself in the foot in terms of the total proceeds you perceive. Again so it’s an 80 million dollar deal, 40 million of debt, the seller is choosing to roll over. They got their 80 million dollar check, it doesn’t work like this you’re actually [inaudible 00:28:28.9] but they got their 80 million dollar check and maybe we wrote one back for eight and so Huron holds 32 million of the equity and that seller holds eight million of it. So Huron owns 80% of the business and they own 20% and we’ve got some obligations to pay. That would be kind of the middle of the road structure. There’s certainly a lot more that happens as it relates to creating incentives for management teams and that’s a very, very big part of what we do to make sure that if we do well they do well and vice versa so that we’re all talking in terms of growing the underlying equity value of the business. And that can often be very different for a business that didn’t have that before. And it was just solely kind of the founder driving it or minding the growth of equity value. We believe in creating a broad base of ownership so that we’re all on the same page.

Mark: Yeah.

Brian: Our management team is on incentives exclusively through their salary or bonus or both.

Mark: Right so one of the things that I’ve talked a lot in the past especially on like the main street sort of deals is this almost dichotomy and it really shouldn’t be set up as a dichotomy of a marketplace based sale where you only have an investor looking to acquire business in a strategic sale where you have a company that it would effectively be like an add-on acquisition in your world right? They already have the sort of strategic advantage to acquiring that company. Within your world, it seems like so much of what you do is going to be the strategy based type of acquisition anyways.

Brian: Right.

Mark: So it’s like you’re not going to do an acquisition unless you think that you have a strategic advantage. And when we … you and I talked out in Las Vegas back last October one thing that you talked about quite a bit was we want to pour gasoline on the fire that’s already existing. So whatever that might be and so as a seller who’s out there thinking about this and saying man I’ve been growing my business like crazy but I’m investing all this cash back into acquiring more inventory and expanding the product line and I’d like to take money off the table and then keep growing it. This is that perfect sort of handoff to a private equity because you can say you know what you [inaudible 00:40:54.0] your income statement rich in cash flow pour.

Brian: Yup.

Mark: We got cash. We’ll help you out there. You’re going to get some cash on the table and then let’s grow this from a 30 million dollar business to a hundred million dollar business.

Brian: Right.

Mark: And so there’s an incentive there for that owner to double dip that [inaudible 00:41:11.7].

Brian: Absolutely. Particularly in situations … we see this all the time where additional capital is going to be an accelerant to growth. So capital is what we have and we’re trying to find a smart place to put it work and if that means we can buy a business and continue and support that business with more dollars and we believe in the strategy and what’s going on in the way it’s being operated there’s nothing … that’s the easiest dollar for us to put out versus the whole re-under writing process of a new investment. And then for that seller to have all their eggs in one basket … I don’t care what their life situation is they could be in their 30’s and just want to diversify or they could be somebody who’s looking at kids who are about to go to college and it just doesn’t make sense to have 100% of their net worth or close to it tied up in their business. And if they could diversify a little bit or generate a little bit of cash but their vision hasn’t changed at all that’s a great situation to bring on a strategic partner like a private equity firm. And that’s where that [inaudible 00:42:11.9] fit it really matters and the chemistry between the seller. For the most part, you’re not going to sell it to a private equity firm, they don’t want to be in the business or definitely not in the business of operating these companies. So round the business and investing in them helping to bring the right resources to it and bring the right capital solutions or capital availability all that. Helping them set strategy and all the other things but the actual day to day operations. So it’s not going to be for your sellers or for buyers [inaudible 00:42:45.1] sellers who are looking to exit the business and hand it off somebody else private equity is not going to be the right solution. But for those companies that they either want to go to be a division of something larger and they think they can be a great cross selling opportunity or the way they’ve built their mousetrap if just they had more to sell in the same way, and I’ll say like let’s say you’re the number one muffler seller online and you also want to do transmissions and drive cams and stuff but you don’t have the capital and you don’t have the ability to go source and expand that way, going and selling to a larger entity and being that e-commerce division is a very powerful idea. Or just continue and do your own business and double down … accelerate the organic growth, private equity firm could be a great partner.

Mark: Yeah, we’re just about out of time in fact we’ve gone a bit long but one thing I wanted to emphasize here, you said that capital obviously is the resource you guys have and are able to invest and I know a lot of people that I talk to say look I don’t really need money from this, the business is making money and I feel good about this. But what I find when I actually start to dig in with these guys is I say well what would it take to move to that next level. Oh well, I would have to hire out this other division or create this other division and you know okay but what’s the obstacle to that? I don’t want to invest in it. It often comes up. Okay, that’s the area where a firm like yours can also come in and say well look we have the capital to be able to invest in this. You know what you need; do you want to invest in it to get to that next stage? And even if that means bringing in someone and you can help with that let’s do it. Exactly we can do that and we could—

Brian: Not to mention that I think we find that often business owners are willing to do one out of their five ideas that are like that and were willing to do all five knowing that three won’t work but two should work out beautifully and we’re willing to go [inaudible 00:44:39.4] the bodies of the business and the capital and have the appetite to take two steps backward to take four forward and understand that they’re not going to all work. And where maybe an independent owner would do those sequentially, try idea one it wasn’t really working, didn’t feel pleased with making that investment and losing that cash flow, fired that new sales person who was supposed to do something else. We’re willing to go do things faster and make sure that that doesn’t hover around in the business and the core of what we’re interested in the first place. And so we’ll work through that with the business owner by giving them that support and the dollars needed to make that happen.

Mark: Brian, I really appreciate you taking the time here [inaudible 00:45:19.8] some of the small questions I had but really good to get those things—

Brian: No it’s my pleasure. It’s fine.

Mark: So thanks again and maybe we’ll have you back again in the future at some point.

Brian: That sounds great. Yeah, I enjoyed it. Thanks, Mark.


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