Musings on business value, sale preparation, sale negotiations, sale structure.

Archive for April, 2015

Secret profits

There are few elements of South African labour law which work for business owners. The protection afforded in respect of secret profits being made, is one which does.

Imagine for a minute the devastation to your business if one of your fellow directors were to take the marketing information you had paid so much for in money, time, blood, sweat and tears; and started a similar enterprise in his own time, perhaps on the internet.

Now that would be devastating. As most of us know, a director has a fiduciary duty to his (or her) company to not do such things. However, this fiduciary duty of care extends beyond the board room to agents who act for the business, such as attorneys, accountants and brokers.

But even further beyond the obvious, a fiduciary is anyone who is able to act in a position of trust to his employer or any other person.

  • So if a salesman who has been authorised to give a particularly large discount in order to accelerate cash flow at month end does a secret kickback deal with the customer’s representative, so that somehow he gets a kick back from the customer who is allowed a bigger discount than he would otherwise have insisted upon, then that salesman has made a secret profit.
  • On the other side of the product movement, buyers may be induced to authorise supplies at prices higher than that which the supplies could otherwise be purchased, care of a secret arrangement.

There cannot be any argument in mitigation that the principal had been willing to forego this money anyway, as the contracts were entered into within budget guidelines. The fiduciary has a duty of care to work for the best benefit of the employer; to work towards maximising the profits.

There are elements of this in a relationship of tenders being awarded to suppliers at inflated prices, over the head of less avaricious suppliers, while the heads of departments are able to live beyond their means.

The secret profits made by somebody in this manner can be claimed in their entirety by the legal or natural person to whom the fiduciary duty was owed. It gets even better for the principal, in that it is not necessary for him to have suffered any loss by the fiduciary’s actions. The naughty person is able to claim from the principal, the costs of acquiring the profits, but will have to bear a heavy burden of proving the costs involved.

So if your vindictive juices have been stirred in any way, perhaps it’s time to speak to your attorney about getting some people to pay back the money?

Allergy to BEE stings?

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Keith Levenstein is about to tell us all about where the new BBBEE situation stands in his brief seminars, following the imposition of the new codes next week. At the time of writing this, Rob Davies was intent on imposing the new codes from 1 May. I have a slightly jaundiced view of BEE as a whole, notwithstanding the fact that something (meaningful) needs to be done to sort out the inequities of the past.

I guess I am just a bit tired of poor and indifferent service from people who have jobs because of their skin colour, and not because of their abilities. Indifference arises from the employees knowing that their numbers add to the employer’s score card first, and second; the employees knowledge that employers find it is a leap too far to dismiss the useless, care of the CCMA.

From front line call centre staff to sportsmen in the best teams. They know it and we know it. “Quota” is a four letter word. No really, it is.

There are unintended consequences to this social engineering. None of this is new, of course. When I left school, I was told I would never get a job unless I first got a degree because jobs were all reserved for Afikaners. Life was a lot worse for our black fellow citizens at the time.

Soon after leaving university, I decided that I was unemployable, anyway. Thank goodness for that self realisation as I struggled to create my own space without the luxury of a monthly pay cheque.

That is the thing about the future of South Africa. When the patronising dust has settled, the unintended consequences will simply perpetuate the inequalities of the past and present.

However, it is worth noting that in South Africa in 2015 there are many jobs which are considered very valuable, but falling into a few broad spectra:

  • Most public sector jobs seem to be regarded as “reward – without – work” jobs. But apart from those:
    • Consultants are becoming the life blood of the nation as cadre deployment relies on them to get the job done.
  • BEE has spawned a whole extra layer between those who are able, and those who can connect. Well if nothing else, it is a way of distributing wealth to the connected. We can only hope that some of it filters down to their respective communities. Personally, I have run out of puff, holding that breath.
  • A whole raft of very capable white people who are unable to find employment the various sectors which now place small print at the end of their job adverts: “Preference will be given to PDIs”. Those people become struggling business owners, sometimes employing those with less initiative, other than “always being able to find a job because I am black”.

That last group is going to perpetuate a problem. White people are unable to find jobs commensurate with their abilities. So they take their skills to the small business sector, where they scrape and starve for years, building up one man operations, perhaps with a few staff members in support. The thing with being made to struggle, is that if the struggle does not kill, it strengthens.

When the dust has finally settled, and the strong are left standing, the employers of the future will be the strong who had to fight for their crusts. The workers will be those who rely only on their melanin to get their daily bread. That is a great sadness for a country with so much talent being wasted while it receives handouts.

These “businesses” or “jobs” if you prefer are, in a normal society, difficult to sell. However, South Africa has been an abnormal society for as long as it has had any sort of society in the last 300 years. The current hogs at the trough have no interest in changing that. Much like the pigs before them, and all the previous artiodactylous rulers before them.

The thing with abnormal societies is that abnormal practices flourish. So when a self employed businessman arrives at the end of his career in this abnormal society, there is a ready stream of one man operators willing and desperate to buy themselves into that job. It is not the way it should be. But is the way it is. And it is a meaningful way for small business owners to exit with some accumulated value.

The thing is, while banks may not be interested in financing these acquisitions, the youngsters in question often have access to family funds by way of cash or security, to help put them into jobs which will one day be the employers of the weak sons and daughters of today’s ruling elite.

It’s very depressing for the country as a whole, but it offers a way out for those who need to move on to a new phase in their respective careers.

 


 


 


 

Statues must fall

Agreements are agreements. “But you agreed”. “Let’s look at the agreement”. “We have it in writing”.

Businesses are sold on a daily basis; here in South Africa and around the world. For the most part those agreements are reduced to writing, with much hither and thither to sort out and negotiate the small print. Eventually the bottom line is reduced to the seller worrying about receiving the money promised, and the purchaser being satisfied that he is not buying a lemon – the fruit of an elaborate scam.

Generally amongst much nervousness, the deal is done.

The early 90s were momentous years for South Africa. (Bear with me here, please) As negotiations progressed, demonstrations and lawlessness continued. Free trade sound bytes were born and done to death: “AK47 wielding gunmen”, “levelling the playing fields”, “nothing is set in stone”.

“Nothing is set in stone” has had special meaning for one of our clients recently. Some background:

  • Kiyosaki wrote about a business only being a business if it could run itself without the intervention of the owner
  • Gerber wrote about having a franchise type operations manual, so the business could be run without the owner
  • Carpenter wrote about the joy of systemising absolutely everything
  • Marrillow finally put them all together in a series of “Ted’s tips”.

The common theme for all these gurus is simply; if the business cannot be run without the owner, then it is at best a self employment vehicle.

With that in mind, and the establishment of another business, our client had made sure that the target business was going to be run by professionals. He had one of the best men in the industry working for him, and everything ran smoothly with little more than a brief weekly meeting to take the blood pressure, pulse and temperature of the operation.

Mindful of the fact that one day he may want to sell the business, he entered into an agreement with the general manager that should this ever occur, the GM would receive 20% of the proceeds of the sale. This was reduced to writing, and confirmed by the trustees of the holding trust. All set in stone, one might think.

Several years later, an opportunity arose to sell the business, and we were retained to help negotiate the deal. I initially met with the owner and the GM. As usual, the issues which we anticipated would materialise during the course of negotiations were aired. Chief amongst them was the question of managerial and specialist continuity, post deal. The GM was fully supportive of an exit for the owner, but was not interested in acquiring the business for himself.

And so on we went. Several interested parties, some investigations, and the expected fading of prospective buyers before the eventual buyer arrived at the negotiating table, with some serious intent.

Through that process the price was edged upwards in a few leaps until an amount was agreed. There followed a due diligence, followed by a clanger. The buyer had discovered a flaw in the accounting involving a single customer paying three years in advance, against which the business would have to deliver under the ownership of the buyer, with obvious profit implications. A straight forward, honest mistake, and a product of Ted’s Tip #5 in Built to Sell.

Quite agreeably, a new price was struck subject to the same requirements about the GM agreeing to stay on for at least a year… Which is where the wheels almost came off. The original price agreed had set in the mind of the GM, a 20% share quantum. It was this amount which he had taken to his family over Christmas. It became a fixation amount. So there was no chance that he was ever going to accept 20% of a lower amount. He dug his heels in.

“Mark, you need to understand that without me that business is worth nothing. Now either I get {fixation amount} or I walk.”

The seller was over a very uncomfortable barrel at that point. He had to either give up on his sale, or pay the difference to the GM. Of course we could have played a game of poker for a while, but generally at this sharp end of the game most sellers have had enough. So it proved to be. He paid significantly more than the originally anticipated 20% amount to the GM.

Interestingly, the new owners of the business were fully apprised of all these developments, and so they know what they are up against in the GM, going forward.

So while the undertaking from the shareholder of the company to the GM had been “set in stone” in the mind of the seller, in the final push the GM had no respect for this, and instead chose to insist on something outside the agreement which he knew he could achieve.

Where did our client go wrong? He had a single proxy for himself in the business, handling absolutely everything in his stead. That is almost as weak as a one man owner operation. One of the questions we ask in 0ur valuation of businesses, has to do with the cover of all key personnel, beyond the owner. It is better to be able to go away on holiday at will, leaving the company in the hands of “others”, rather than in the hands of “an other”.

So back to my early paragraph:

South Africa still has AK47 wielding gunmen. Disappointingly, it still has very much unlevel playing fields. While the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa may have come about as a result of a negotiated settlement, “nothing is cast in stone”. We have a president in Jacob Zuma who regularly espouses opinions and plans in direct contradiction of the constitution and the law. Sometimes he is beaten back by “clever blacks” and others. Not always.

Nothing is cast in stone. All statues can fall.