The Modern-Day Sell-Side Process

The Modern-Day Sell-Side Process

Early engagement, accelerated timelines and significant up-front deal costs are table stakes for buyers in today’s private equity-focused sell-side processes

By Tim Shea, Managing Director, Solomon Partners

In the world of sought-after companies, the days of the traditional sales process are over.

The old way of doing things looked something like this: Potential buyers would get a call from a banker outlining an attractive investment opportunity on a “no names” basis. Those buyers would review the teaser, sign a nondisclosure agreement and receive a confidential information memorandum (CIM) or confidential information presentation (CIP).

From there, potential buyers would submit an indication of interest largely based on reviewing the CIP and conversations with the banker. The banker would then select the 10 or so highest bidders to meet with the management team and learn more about the company.

After the management meeting, potential buyers would submit an updated bid, while the top few parties would continue to review the data room and conduct substantive due diligence. Potential buyers would eventually submit a final bid, where a party is selected to complete due diligence. In some cases, that party would be granted exclusivity for a couple of weeks.

The Present

In contrast, in today’s market, where values are elevated and high-quality assets are in demand, processes are moving extremely quickly and buyers understand that “if you’re not ahead, you’re behind.” To get ahead of processes and seek a competitive advantage, many private equity buyers are doing significant pre-process work on businesses they expect to come to market over the next 12-24 months.

Examples of that pre-work include conducting market diligence with third-party firms to assess the overall market opportunity and the competitive position of specific companies in those markets.

That pre-work might also include building a relationship with the current private equity owner and expressing interest in the business so the prospective buyer will be taken seriously (and hopefully prioritized) in the sell-side process. The buyer might meet with the CEO or management team, many times at a private company conference hosted by an investment bank that is aimed at showcasing companies coming to market soon. Finally, that advance work might include thinking about angles to further build a competitive edge, including potential executive additions, strategic combinations and revenue synergies that may exist from current investments.

When the time comes for the process to begin, these well-prepared buyers are ready to strike and move quickly. They have done the work in advance and built internal consensus around the opportunity with their investment committees. As a result, processes have become significantly compressed.

They have also become more competitive: We are seeing a significant amount of data shared prior to the indication of interest (IOI) submission, including market studies, quality of earnings (QofEs) analysis and data packs. This information allows for highly informed IOIs and a higher likelihood that IOIs will “stick.”

We’re also seeing many prospective buyers complete their own third-party work prior to the IOI submission, including market studies and their own buy-side QofE analysis. By doing as much work as possible, buyers are hoping to differentiate their bids not only in terms of value but in terms of providing a more accelerated timeline and a higher degree of certainty.

In many processes, select buyers will have the opportunity to meet management either prior to the process or during the initial stage of the process. And after the IOI submission, instead of going to traditional “dog and pony show” management presentations, buyers are moving immediately into substantive due diligence on all fronts (business, legal, market, etc.) while management meetings are focused on key diligence items and the go-forward strategic plan. Instead of eight weeks or more of meetings, diligence and multiple process rounds, many deals are now being signed up three to four weeks after data room access is provided.

Legal and Financing Changes

We are also seeing a drastic change on the legal and financing front causing an acceleration in processes. Historical bottlenecks included arduous negotiation of representations and warranties and related indemnities, and the need to secure and negotiate financing commitments.

Most deals in today’s market resemble the traditional “public company” deal, whereby the seller has no or limited indemnity obligations post-closing. In many cases, buyers are securing reps and warranties insurance as a recourse mechanism against a potential breach. However, that process can sometimes create a bottleneck, and many buyers are now further streamlining the process by either securing reps and warranties insurance between signing and closing, or self-insuring.

On the financing front, in the face of highly accommodative credit markets, lenders are moving quickly to provide debt commitments and buyers are increasingly willing to sign an agreement without a financing contingency. That is, if the lenders do not deliver on their commitments, the buyer is still on the hook to close or pay a predetermined break-up fee. This dynamic of providing an “equity backstop” was historically reserved for larger deals and larger funds. Like the evolution in other aspects of the M&A process, willingness to provide an equity backstop has also spread to middle-market firms. //

Tim Shea is a managing director and serves as group head of business services for Solomon Partners. He has over 15 years of experience advising clients on M&A transactions, specializing in the facility and residential services sectors. Prior to joining Solomon Partners, Shea was a managing director and head of facility services for Truist Securities and Piper Sandler. His past experience also includes executive roles at two leading facility services companies and as an M&A attorney at a national law firm.

Article featured in Middle Market Dealmaker Summer 2022 Issue

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