Dec, 2007 – Get Serious About Your Perpetuation Plan

Unrealistic expectations can doom internal perpetuation plan
By Kevin P. Donoghue, CFA, CPA
The 75 million Americans who are part of the Baby Boom generation are now
beginning to approach retirement age, and the average age of the United States
population is increasing. Likewise, the average age of owners of insurance agencies
and brokerages is also on the rise.
As advisors who focus exclusively on the insurance industry, we find that agency
perpetuation is a hot topic of conversation for both the current owners who are
considering a sale, and the next generation of prospective agency principals. When I
take part in conversations about agency perpetuation, I am often surprised by the
numbers of misconceptions and the lack of planning relating to the process.
Here are a few examples of recent real conversations I have had with individuals on
both sides of the perpetuation transactionósellers and buyersówith the names of
individuals changed.
Conversation #1: The perpetuation plan that appeared to be a ‘lay-up’ may
have just bounced off the rim.
Advisor: “Hey, Tom, how is everything going with the perpetuation of your agency?”
Tom (current agency principal): “Great. My daughter, Emily, is really doing well as a
producer and is firmly positioned to be my perpetuation for ownership of the agency.”
Advisor: “She must be excited. I hope she is ready to take on the financial burden of
buying you out.”
Tom: “What burden? My agency makes a lot of pre-tax money. This will be a lay-up
for her.”
Advisor: “That’s great, Tom, but since you are a C-Corporation, she will likely be
paying the obligation with after-tax dollars. Have you and Emily done any after-tax
financial scenario analyses to determine how she will be able to purchase your
Tom: “No, we didn’t get that far; we just decided that she should be able to purchase
the agency at a fair price because it is very profitable.”
Advisor: “Tom, for your sake and your daughter’s sake, you need to take a close
look at the process. She needs to plan ahead and know that if the business doesn’t
grow, she may have to take a pay cut to stay current with any note obligation.”
Tom: “She has three kids getting close to college; Iím not sure she can afford that.”
Advisor: “Well, Tom, it sounds like you and Emily need to consult with an advisor on
how to make the deal work, and you need to consider what happens if revenues
donít continue to grow or expenses are not properly managed.”
Conversation #2: The inexperienced business appraiser creates unrealistic
valuation expectations.
Steve: “Can I talk to you about the MGA (managing general agency) I work for?”
Advisor: “Sure Steve; what’s on your mind?”
Steve: “Well, I am currently a 10% owner in the business, and my partner wants to
retire at the end of the year. He hired a local business valuation firm to appraise the
business, and they said our agency was worth about 1.5x gross commissions. Our
agency is quite profitable, but I am not sure whether the cash flows produced could
pay off a perpetuation loan.”
Advisor: “On the surface the valuation seems high. Assuming that your net revenues
are about 50% of your gross commissions, this would imply a 3x net revenue
valuation. What is your EBITA (earnings before interest, taxes, and amortization)
margin off net revenues?”
Steve: “Before dividends and personal expenses, we produce about 30% pro forma
Advisor: “That implies a 10x EBITA multiple, which is totally unrealistic. How did the
appraiser justify the valuation?”
Steve: “The appraiser said that he was involved in a couple of retail agency deals in
the past few years and both sold for about 1.5x gross commissions. As a rule of
thumb, he assumed we would too. My partner knew the guy from his golf club and
he barely charged us for the work.”
Advisor: “As you know, there are huge differences between a retail agency and an
MGA. For an MGA the key revenue figure is net revenue, which is defined as
revenue after outside brokerage expense. Comparing gross commissions of a retail
agency to gross commissions of an MGA is like comparing apples to hubcaps. It
sounds as though the appraiser wasn’t familiar with MGAs. Also, any time we hear
that someone is using a ërule of thumb’ approach, we get concerned.”
Steve: “Well, what do you suggest?”
Advisor: “Your instincts about the valuation being too high are most likely right. The
problem now is that it may be difficult for you to convince your partner otherwise. I
would suggest you get a second valuation opinion from a qualified advisor who
understands your business model and can help you and your partner put a realistic
perpetuation plan in place. Unless your partner is realistic about the true valuation,
the perpetuation is almost surely doomed to fail.”
In both of these scenarios, the parties tried to shortcut the perpetuation process.
Without solid perpetuation planning, the risk of failure dramatically increases. You
should be aware that an ‘in-house’ perpetuation is really a leveraged buyout
(LBO). The inside team borrows the money to purchase the agency and uses the
future cash flows of the business to pay off the note(s).
There have been numerous studies produced on LBOs over the years, and the
conclusions always seem to say that approximately 75% of them fail to achieve their
objective. The most common reason given is failure to plan appropriately for risk.
Optimism abounds in buyout plans. Risk associated with failure to grow (or even
revenue contraction) is rarely assessed. This is especially of concern in a market
with softening prices.
When you go to purchase a house, do you assess how you will make the monthly
mortgage payments? What happens if you lose your job? What happens if your
Adjusted Rate Mortgage (ARM) causes your payments to skyrocket? Understanding
the upside of an opportunity is one thing; not planning for the downside is completely
Let’s discuss a fundamental valuation example for the retail agency discussed in
Conversation #1 (above). Assume the following:
Now let’s assume the money can be borrowed over 5, 7 and 10 years:
As you can see, absent of growth, the business will not generate enough cash flow
to pay the annual payments, no matter what terms are used for the note. Therefore,
in order to succeed: (1) Selling Agency Owner (Tom) will have to sell the business
for a much lower price than Fair Value, or (2) The In-house Buyer (Emily) will have to
either cut expenses (often by taking a major pay cut), and/or grow the operation
significantly. Any loss of revenue will dramatically increase the chances of default.
Running some basic scenarios will quickly force Tom and Emily to come to grips with
the challenges of a successful perpetuation. From here, a real perpetuation plan can
start to emerge.
How can an agency get serious about developing a perpetuation plan?
Step 1: Identify individuals who should be considered to be on a perpetuation team.
Step 2: Ask the individuals if they have an interest in becoming an owner.
Step 3: Engage an experienced industry advisor to prepare an agency valuation and
financial perpetuation plan.
Step 4: Include all parties in the review of the valuation and plan. This includes all
existing principals and all potential principals.
Step 5: Run various scenarios for all participants so that each individual understands
the risks of the deal and can assess his or her true willingness and capability to
become an owner.
Step 6: Implement a perpetuation plan that is achievable, but not easily achievable.
Keeping the kite in the air
What is the secret to keeping a kite in the air? The answer is keeping the correct
amount of tension on the string. A successful perpetuation plan should also have the
correct amount of ‘tension on the string.’ Any member of the buying group who is
not losing sleep worrying about the success of the buyout will likely fail to put forth
the effort needed to avoid default on the obligation.
Requiring the buying group to borrow money with personal liability exposure creates
tension. Another tension-creating truth is knowing that if they donít grow the firm,
they will likely take cuts in compensation. Knowing that the firm is focused on the
success of the buyout and the fear of letting down the other members of the buyer
group, creates tension.
Ultimately, the reward of ownership is great, but the risk of failure is high. If you take
your perpetuation lightly, you greatly increase the risk. Agency principals and
potential buyers need to get serious about a perpetuation plan. *
The author
Kevin P. Donoghue, CFA, CPA, is Managing Director of Mystic Capital Advisors
Group, LLC, a national mergers & acquisitions consulting firm.

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