Confidentiality Agreements

“Confidentiality Agreement – A pact that forbids buyers, sellers, and their agents in a given business deal from disclosing information about the transaction to others.”

The M&A Dictionary

It is common practice for the seller, or his or her intermediary, to require a prospective buyer to sign a confidentiality agreement, sometimes referred to as a non-disclosure agreement. This is almost always done prior to the seller providing any important or proprietary information to a prospective buyer. The purpose is to protect the seller and his or her business from the buyer disclosing or using any of the information provided by the seller and restricted by the confidentiality agreement.

These agreements, most likely, were originally used so that a prospective buyer wouldn’t tell the world that the business was for sale. Their purpose now covers a multitude of items to protect the seller. A seller’s primary concerns are to insure that a potential buyer doesn’t capitalize on trade secrets, proprietary data, or any other information that could essentially harm the selling company. A concern of the prospective buyer may be that similar information or data is already known or is being developed by his or her company. This can mean that both parties have to enter into some discussion of what the confidentiality agreement will cover, unless it is general in nature and non-threatening to the prospective buyer.

A general confidentiality agreement will normally cover the following items:

  • The purpose of the agreement – it is assumed that in this case it is to provide information to a prospective acquirer.
  • What is confidential and what is not. Obviously, any information that is common knowledge or is in the public realm is not confidential.
  • What information is going to be disclosed? And what information is going to be excluded under the disclosure requirements?
  • How will confidential information be handled? For example, will it be marked “confidential,” etc?
  • What will be the term of the agreement? Obviously, the seller would like it to be “for life” while the buyer will want a set number of years – for example, two or three years.
  • The return of the information will be specified. For example, if the sale were terminated, then all documentation would be returned.
  • Remedy for breach, or determination of what will be the seller’s remedies if the prospective acquirer discloses, or threatens to disclose any information covered by the confidentiality agreement.
  • Obviously, the agreement would contain the legal jargon necessary to make it legally enforceable.

One important item that should be included in the confidentiality agreement is a proviso that the prospective acquirer will not hire any key people from the selling firm. This prohibition works both ways: the prospective acquirer agrees not to solicit key people from the seller and will not hire any even if the key people do the approaching. This provision can have a termination date; for example, two years post-closing.

The sale of a company involves the disclosure of important and confidential company information. The selling company is entitled to protection from a potential acquirer using such information to its own advantage.

The confidentiality agreement may need to be more specific and detailed prior to commencing due diligence than a generic one that is used initially to provide general information to a prospective buyer.

Tips on Maintaining Confidentiality

  • Use a code word or name for the proposed merger or acquisition.
  • Don’t refer to any principal’s names in outside discussions.
  • Conversations concerning the merger or acquisition should be held in private.
  • Paperwork should be facedown unless being used.
  • All documents should be kept under lock and key.
  • Important data maintained on the computer should be protected by a password.
  • Faxing documents should be done guardedly.

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The Anatomy of a Deal

The following might be a subtitle for this true account of how one deal was put together: “In spite of everything, you need only one buyer – the right one!” (Although the details are factual, names and financial data are fictional.)

The company (let’s call it ElectroCo) has carved a niche in a billion dollar industry. It manufactures proprietary electronic products and is owned by a private equity firm that wants to sell it for liquidity reasons. At the beginning of 2001, the private equity group retained an intermediary firm (fictional name — United Associates) to take the company to market. The goal was to have it sold by the end of the year.

ElectroCo had annual sales of about $12 million, gross margins of 50 percent, an EBITDA of $1.8 million (15 percent) and a reconstructed EBITDA of $2 million. It also had been growing over the past ten years at a 10 percent rate and had always been profitable. It had a diverse customer base split about equally between end-users and OEM accounts. However, the seller wanted to set a very aggressive full price, with all-cash in a not-so-vibrant M&A market.

On the plus side, however, the seller was cooperative and provided any information that United needed. It also had audited statements, conservative accounting and instant monthly statements. ElectroCo was, in addition to these factors, on the verge of getting a substantial amount of new business.

In preparing to take the business to market, United Associates came up with a basic game plan. For confidentiality reasons, direct competitors were eliminated from the buyer search. Synergistic buyers were targeted-either because they served similar markets or utilized similar manufacturing methods. United also elected to contact selected private equity groups and other intermediary firms.

More specifically, United planned on creating a list of 100 potential buyers. A buyer was defined as an entity that had signed a Confidentiality Agreement, had been pre-approved by the seller, and therefore, had been sent an Offering Memorandum. United anticipated 15 written Term Sheets leading to five Letters of Intent which, hopefully, would lead to the best deal. United was not sure that they could sell the business at the multiples asked by the seller. However, they succeeded, and that success was to be based on the following:

Preparing a thorough and compelling Offering Memorandum and pointing out the positive future prospects. This required the complete cooperation of ElectroCo’s management team.

  • Developing a complete list of possible buyers both in the U.S. and abroad.
  • Contacting the buyers to see if they would be interested in the company, but still maintaining confidentiality.
  • Administering all of the potential buyer activity and sending the Offering Memorandum to the appropriate parties.
  • Following up with all of the prospects who received the Offering memorandum and arranging tours of the facilities with the serious prospects.
  • Setting time frames for expressions of interest and term sheets, and fielding questions from the serious prospects.
  • Holding the deal together in spite of the tragic events of September 11th, which resulted in a two-month delay that could have been much longer.
  • Making sure that complete confidentiality was maintained and making sure that any future confidentiality leaks did not occur.
  • Constantly reminding ElectroCo’s management to stay focused on maintaining sales and profit goals.
  • Maintaining communications with both the buyers and ElectroCo’s lawyers and other outside advisors.

United was able to develop a list of 85 possible acquirers; however, five would not sign the Confidentiality Agreement. Here is a breakdown of the 85 possible buyers:

Buyer Type                  Number of Buyers
Strategic                      45
Some Synergy              20
Private Equity Groups     20

Of the 85 possible buyers, 15 were companies or divisions of firms with annual revenues of $1 billion or more. 12 of these 15 were foreign or owned by foreign companies. ElectroCo chose not to deal with four of the buyer firms due to negative industry knowledge. Two of the buyers were individuals that had financial backers. Four buyers were just “bottom fishing.” Three of the 85 decided not to move forward due to the events of September 11. One buyer only wanted to acquire assets, not the stock, of ElectroCo. Interestingly, eight of the 85 firms had previously talked to ElectroCo about a possible merger or acquisition.

Of the buyers who elected not to proceed or move forward, the majority felt that acquiring ElectroCo was just not a good fit. Some of the other reasons why other buyers decided not to continue were:

  • Management was too thin
  • Since ElectroCo was a good company, the price would most likely be too high
  • Buyer purchased another firm
  • One potential acquirer was acquired itself
  • Buying company was having its own internal problems
  • Buyer wanted to move company – this was unacceptable to the seller

After all of this, United Associates arranged five visits for acceptable buyers – the target number. Overall, United received:

  • Term Sheets 4
  • Verbal Offers 2
  • Letters of Intent 4

Of the five buyers who visited the business and met with ElectroCo’s management, two wanted to acquire the company. These were the best prospects. There were also two other firms, held in abeyance, in case one of the other two didn’t work out. One of the original two and ElectroCo’s preferred acquirer offered the desired price and terms. The buyer was:

  • A public company that wanted to grow through acquisition.
  • One with a synergistic product line.
  • Unlike some of the private equity groups, not totally focused on the financial aspects.
  • One with an appreciation of ElectroCo’s product lines, its technology and the company’s potential.

United Associates started with 85 possible buyers. The final list came down to just a few and the September 11 tragedy certainly did not help in the sales efforts. ElectroCo was not a company for just anyone. Despite all of this, United got the deal done – proving once again, that you need only one buyer – the right one!

Representations and Warranties

From the buyer’s point of view, “the critical aspect of negotiations is what is stated in the representations and warranties such that the document reflects the following:

Everything you know, you told us.
Everything you told us is true.
Everything you didn’t know, you should have known.”

Nelson Gifford, former CEO of Dennison Manufacturing Company

Both parties and their advisors must understand that Representations and Warranties are not a measure of anyone’s honesty, sincerity or integrity, but a method of allocating some of the risks inherent in any transaction. After all, buyers and sellers are entitled to all the benefits of their bargain – nothing more and nothing less.

In almost any sale of a business, the seller makes certain representations. Their purpose is to insure that the seller, and the buyer, are truthfully and accurately representing themselves and their business. These representations and warranties may focus on various legal, financial or environmental aspects of the sale such as: undisclosed liabilities, pending litigation and tax issues. Their purpose is that the seller is warranting that none of these issues will impede the closing or impact the new ownership. The purchasing entity also represents and warrants, for example, that it has the financial capability to purchase the business. These are usually included in the final agreement between the buyer and the seller. They can be as simple as the seller warranting to the buyer that there is a clear and marketable title to the business being sold. Representations and warranties can also be a lot more complicated. For example, they may not only contain a warranty or representation, but also provide for a remedy if things aren’t as stated or certain future events happen. These are much more important in a stock sale than one of just assets. In the stock sale, the buyer is assuming all of the outstanding issues, risks and, if any, future problems. The seller might warrant that there is no pending litigation and then a disgruntled customer files a post-closing lawsuit. The final agreement might state that an agreed-upon dollar amount would be set aside to cover such contingencies. This remedy is known as an indemnification. The purpose of an indemnification is to provide a solution to a breach of the representations and warranties.

Representations and warranties should be discussed and agreed upon in the early negotiations of the sale. These early discussions can clear up future misunderstandings and provide a safety net for both parties. There is probably little point in continuing negotiations if the representations and warranties can’t be mutually agreed upon at the outset. Intermediaries generally prefer to get agreement on them prior to a Letter of Intent being prepared. From a seller’s standpoint, the company should not be taken off the market prior to a general understanding of the Representations and Warranties.

They are one of the most important aspects of any final agreement. The buyer obviously wants to have as many of them, and as broad in scope, as possible. They create a sort of built-in insurance policy. The seller, on the other hand, would like there to be none, or as few, and as restricted, as possible.

Problems can develop when the buyer, for example, inserts among the representations and warranties an item that is open-ended or beyond the seller’s control. For example, the seller warrants that there are no equipment leases or equipment rental agreements other than described in Schedule F. The buyer doesn’t want to be responsible for any equipment agreements that have not been mentioned. However, the seller wants to limit the company’s exposure. Keep in mind that in privately held companies, the owner is usually responsible for any indemnification of the representations and warranties, so he or she is very concerned with them. The seller’s lawyer might limit the exposure to a dollar amount along with a time period – say three years. Or, as is most common, the buyer agrees to absorb any of the leases up to a dollar amount, anything over which the seller must cover. This means that if some equipment leases do turn-up after the closing, assuming that there has not been any fraud or deception, the method of handling them has already been covered in the agreement.

This time period on the Representations and Warranties is a big concern for sellers. The time periods for the Representations and Warranties surviving the closing can be a deal-killer in the seller’s eyes. How long should a seller be responsible for them? Obviously, this is a critical area and has to be carefully negotiated between the parties. Some that might survive the closing would be matters of litigation, insurance and employee issues. Today, an important post-closing issue can be the intellectual property that may be included in the sale. The buyer entity wants to protect itself from any attack on the ownership of the intellectual property, as it may be a key ingredient of the acquisition. By placing a cap on the dollar amount that the seller and/or his or her company is responsible for and placing reasonable time frames on this section of the agreement can usually resolve this sensitive area.

Sellers often want to couch their Representations and Warranties by using the term material in them. In other words the defect must be material to be considered for any type of remedy. Some sellers even want to limit their exposure by stating that the representation is to the sellers’ best knowledge. Experts feel that the buyer is buying the business and anything that makes the deal riskier threatens the sale. The seller’s claim that to the best of his knowledge there is no other litigation, except that stated on Schedule K, doesn’t provide the buyer the protection that he or she needs. Since the words material or sellers’ best knowledge might be considered vague or ambiguous, placing dollar limits can usually resolve them.

What all this means is that the Representations and Warranties are a big part of the deal. They should not be left to the last. Many sales have fallen apart because a Representation or Warranty and Indemnification were just not acceptable to the seller, or to the firm’s board of directors. The buyer’s due diligence should uncover many of the issues that will be subsequently incorporated in the agreement as Representations and Warranties, and be addressed prior to the drafting of the agreement. The drafting of them should be left to the pros.

Too many deals have fallen apart, or been delayed, because the buyer or his advisors decided, at the last minute, to insert a “surprise” representation or warranty, that the seller not only did not agree to, but had not even seen – causing the seller to become disillusioned with the buyer. Representations and Warranties should be discussed early in a transaction, perhaps be part of the deal structure items, and any changes after the due diligence period disclosed (or proposed) well before the final draft of documents is circulated.

Note: The above article is not intended to provide legal advice. It is designed merely to offer some insight into the subject of Representations and Warranties. For more information, the reader is advised to consult an attorney, intermediary or other competent advisor.

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Does the Deal Fit?

“The most successful integrations were directed by people who placed the common good of the combined organization and its customers before all else.”

From: The Mergers & Acquisitions Handbook.

By now, most business owners are familiar with the problems created by the merger of Daimler, the German automobile company, and Chrysler, the American car maker. Here is the classic case of cultural friction adversely impacting what was originally promoted as the merger of “equals.” If any deal can point out the importance of a cultural fit in a merger or acquisition – this is it. The officers of Daimler took complete control and the executives of Chrysler left in droves. Not only were the management styles completely different – centralized versus decentralized, quick decisions versus decisions by committee, supplier rivalries versus supplier partnerships — but, in addition, the American management team received huge compensation packages, while the Daimler people worked on small salaries, but huge “perks.”

Mergers and acquisitions are supposed to produce synergies that bring results.  If they don’t, the culture is too often the reason. John Chambers, the CEO of Cisco Systems, who has been involved in some seventy acquisitions, says that he will not do a deal unless there is a cultural fit. Culture according to one dictionary is defined as the “customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a … social group.” The word “compatible” may be a better choice defined by the same dictionary as: “able to exist or act together harmoniously.” Regardless of the semantics, if both companies can’t work well together, the deal is a bad one. The importance of this cultural fit may be influenced by the nature of the deal and the desires of the seller. Here are some examples:

  • The seller sells the company on an all-cash basis and doesn’t really care what happens to the employees, the customers or the new owners. In other words, the seller takes the money and runs.
  • The seller receives sufficient cash that he or she is secure about the transaction. Despite this almost all-cash deal, or the quality of the security for the balance, there is serious concern for the employees and their future with the new ownership.
  • The seller merges the company and/or receives stock in the acquiring firm. Further, the seller’s compensation, to say nothing of any increase in the equity, may be determined by the success or failure of the cultural fit of the merged companies.

Obviously, in the first example, the question of a cultural fit, or any fit, for that matter, is moot. Assuming, however, that the prospective seller fits into one of the two latter situations, how does one determine the compatibility of the two firms? It may be a non-issue if the seller’s company is going to remain autonomous. Or, the acquiring firm may have been through several similar situations and is experienced in the assimilation process. These two examples do not necessarily mean that the companies will mesh perfectly, but they do help. However, if a cultural fit is of concern, what can be done to help assure an orderly blending of the two firms?

It can be as simple as the seller having a casual dinner with the owner or CEO of the acquiring or merging company. Much can be learned one-on-one about how the other company is managed and about its owner’s business philosophy. Is it based on teamwork? Is it entrepreneurial or hierarchical? Is the company customer or policy driven? If the CEO of the acquiring company is reluctant to share a social occasion, then the seller may have already received the answer to the cultural fit question.

Other areas that should be considered: how are the employees of the other company compensated? Or, for example, something as mundane as the company’s product return policy may provide insight into the successful integration of the two businesses. How far apart are the companies’ mission statements?

Absorbing smaller companies can be a lot easier than two firms of approximately the same size merging. There are few companies whose cultural styles are so similar that integration is an easy matter. In many cases, where there may not be a perfect cultural fit, proper communication can resolve most of the issues. Unfortunately, there are some situations, like the Daimler Chrysler example, in which the two companies may never be integrated successfully.

Sellers who are concerned about the right cultural fit should investigate this before the deal gets too far along and, obviously, prior to closing. An intermediary has the knowledge and experience to work with both buyers and sellers on this all-important issue. The right culture may be a “soft” issue when it comes to mergers and acquisitions, but just may be one of the most important.

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Selling Your Company — Some Key Points

  • Settle all litigation and environmental issues before putting the company on the market.
  • Hire a good transaction lawyer, because the buyer will also.
  • If company owners are totally inflexible, the buyer may walk away from the transaction.
  • Be prepared to accept a lower price for lack of management depth, dependence on a small number of customers or clients, and lack of geographical distribution.
  • When a buyer indicates he or she may be ready to submit a Letter of Intent, tell them up front what items you want included. For example, price and terms; what assets and liabilities are to assumed, if an asset purchase; what contracts and warranties are to be assumed; and time schedule for due diligence and closing.  (These are just some of the items a seller might want included.)
  • Be advised that many buyers will view the value of Sub Chapter S corporations to be worth less than if the company is a C Corporation.
  • Make the company more visible by attending trade shows.  Tie up patents, copyrights and trademarks.  Create a public relations program.  These areas all create perceived value.
  • Selling a company involves sometimes-inconsistent objectives: speed, confidentiality and value – pick the two that are the most important.
  • Keep in mind that companies get stale after sitting on the shelf for awhile.
  • Don’t expect your lawyer to win every point of contention – you want a dealmaker, not a dealbreaker.

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You Can Help!

You, as the seller, are an integral part of the total marketing program. We would like to offer a few friendly recommendations that will help in the marketing efforts.

It might also be helpful if you took a good look at your business from the perspective of a buyer. Try to put yourself in the place of a prospective purchaser of the business. What would you do to make it more attractive or more saleable? Obviously, the financial records of your business are critical to the sale of your business, but how it looks is also important. First impressions really count! If a potential buyer doesn’t like the appearance of your business, the rest of it may never get a chance.

Here are some suggestions. Check the following to see if any of them are applicable:

Keep normal operating hours. There may be a tendency to “let down” when you put your business up for sale. However, it’s important that prospective buyers see your business at its best.
Repair signs, replace outside lights, etc. You don’t want your business to look as if it has been neglected.
Maintain inventory at a constant level. If you let your inventory slide, your business will look neglected. If anything, increase it so your business will look busy.
Remove items that are not included in the sale or unnecessary items, especially if inoperative.
Repair non-operating equipment or remove it if you are not using it.
Tidy up outside premises.
Spruce up the inside of the business.

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What Do Buyers Want to Know?

What is the required capital investment?

What is the annual net increase in sales?

What is in inventory?

What is the debt?

What is the prospect of the owner staying on?

What makes this company different/special/unique?

What further defines the product or service? Bid work? Repeat business?

What can be done to grow the business?

What can the buyer do to add value?

What is the profit picture in bad times as well as good?

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Why Do People Go Into Business?

41% joined the family business

36% wanted more control over their future

27% tired of working for someone else

5% were downsized or laid off

*Source: Dun & Bradstreet 19th Annual Small Business Survey May 2000. Totals add up to more than 100% because respondents could choose more than one reason for going into business for themselves. This was published in the May 2001 issue of INC magazine.

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