Selling the Company? Get Your House In Order First

1/12/09

The recent downturn in the economy is having—and will continue to have—a significant impact on the ability of many companies to raise money and fund continued growth. This in turn will have significant ramifications on exit strategy. Luckily, for some at least, there are still potential buyers out there with sufficient cash to fund acquisitions. The Wall Street Journal, for example, reported that Oracle CEO Larry Ellison said at the company’s October shareholder meeting, “Acquisitions that we have been looking at for some time may now be more attractive.” As the current economic conditions are likely to move M&A towards a buyer’s market, potential targets should be asking themselves what they can do to make themselves more attractive and to make it easier for a buyer to close the deal.

Let’s face it—many smaller companies don’t spend a lot of time or resources getting their houses in order. They are focusing their primary efforts on R&D and marketing and sales, as they should. But if at some point a potential buyer is interested enough in your business to take a look at you, it would be in your best interest to be prepared as an organization. This includes the formalities related to the business’s legal existence and its relationships with other parties such as customers, vendors and employees.

At the top of the list are corporate organization documents (e.g., charter, bylaws and stock records), corporate administrative records (e.g., shareholder and board minutes and resolutions), contracts (of both the vendor and customer varieties), and employee and contractor agreements. A company has to ask itself: If a buyer knocked on the door tomorrow and wanted to start due diligence, could I find all of these documents? Are they up to date? Has everything been properly signed and dated?

The inability to produce these materials for due diligence could cause a buyer to worry about the state of the business. A lack of shareholder and board minutes books can call into question whether the company’s actions have been conducted with all necessary approvals. A buyer needs to be able to rely on the fact that all prior actions taken by the company or its officers were properly authorized. Without this knowledge, the buyer faces a risk that some prior actions could be challenged. For example, the buyer wants to be assured that critical material contracts have been properly handled.

Improperly maintained stock records prevent proper determination of the various ownership stakes in the company. A buyer needs to know exactly who owns what, which will ordinarily determine how the money is divvied up when the deal closes. Without this information, the buyer doesn’t really know what it is buying and runs a significant risk of becoming embroiled in an ownership dispute involving founders, investors and other stockholders.

Failure to organize properly signed contracts can have numerous ramifications. Do you have all necessary rights to the intellectual property used in your business? Do you own it? A careful review of your contracts with vendors and licensors will be necessary to make this determination.

The buyer will also want to verify that your employees and consultants have signed agreements confirming that the company owns (in the case of employees) or at minimum has sufficient license rights (in the case of contractors and licensors) to all intellectual property used in the business. If it takes a few weeks to find these documents and get them to the buyer’s due diligence team, the team may rightfully wonder whether you have a handle on things.

Demonstrating to a buyer that your company has adequate contracting practices for customer deals is equally important. Your (and eventually the buyer’s) ability to recognize revenue – and the timing of revenue recognition—will be highly dependent on the existence of properly signed and dated contracts. A serious buyer will very likely want … Next Page »

Ari Buchler is senior vice president and general counsel at Phase Forward in Waltham, MA. Follow @

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  • http://www.bayhammocks.com/default.aspx Anne

    Thank you for sharing this very wise advice. It is useful information for any small business person planning to sell a business at some point.