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Executive compensation: Making or breaking an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP)

11.05.18

Executive compensation is often a contentious issue in business valuations, as business valuations are often valued by reference to the income they produce. If the business being valued pays its employees an above-market rate, its income will be depressed. Accordingly, if no compensation adjustments are made, the value of the business will also be diminished.

When valuing controlling ownership interests, valuation analysts often restate above- or below-market executive compensation to a market level to reflect what a hypothetical buyer would pay the executives. In the valuation of companies with ESOPs, the issue of executive compensation gets more complicated. The following hypothetical example illustrates why.

Glamorous Grocery is a company that is 100% owned by an ESOP. A valuation analyst is retained to estimate the fair market value of each ESOP share. Glamorous Grocery generates very little income, in part because several executives are overcompensated. The valuation analyst normalizes executive compensation to a market level, thereby increasing Glamorous Grocery income, the fair market value of Glamorous Grocery, and the ESOP share value.

Glamorous Grocery’s trustee then uses this valuation to establish the market price of ESOP shares for the following year. When employees retire, Glamorous Grocery buys employees out at the established share price. The problem? As mentioned before, Glamorous Grocery generates very little income and as a result has difficulty obtaining the liquidity to buy out employees.

This simple example illustrates the concerns about normalizing executive compensation in ESOP valuations. If you reduce executive compensation for valuation purposes, the share price increases, putting a heavier burden on the company when you redeem shares. The company, which already has reduced income from paying above-market executive compensation, may struggle to redeem shares at the established price.

A second issue is whether control-level adjustments are appropriate in ESOP valuations. A company might be 100% ESOP-owned, but an owner of an ESOP share may not actually be able to reduce executive compensation.

Interested in learning more? Please leave a comment below, or contact me. For additional discussion of the shareholder/executive compensation federal tax statutes and historical judicial precedents and sources of executive compensation data, please click here.

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In a closely held business, ownership always means far more than business value. Valuing your business will put a dollar figure on your business (and with any luck, it might even be accurate!). However, ownership of a business is about much more than the “number.” To many of our clients, ownership is about identity, personal fulfillment, developing a legacy, funding their lifestyle, and much more. 

We explored the topic of what business ownership means on Wednesday, May 8th, in the final presentation of our value acceleration series, exploring how to increase business value and liquidity. In this final installment, we discussed the decision of whether to grow your business or exit, and which liquidity options are available for each path. 

While it may seem counterintuitive, we find that it is best to delay the decision to grow or exit until the very end of the value acceleration process. After identifying and implementing business improvement and de-risking projects in the discover stage and the prepare stage (see below), people may find themselves more open to the idea of keeping their business and using that business to build liquidity while they explore other options. 

Once people have completed the discover and prepare stages and are ready to decide whether to exit or grow their business, we frame the conversation around personal and business readiness. Many personal readiness factors relate to what ownership means to each client. In this process, clients ask themselves the following questions:

  • Am I ready to not be in charge?
  • Am I ready to not be identified as the business?
  • Do I have a plan for what comes next?
  • Do I have the resources to fund what’s next? 
  • Have I communicated my plan?

On the business end, readiness topics include the following:

  • Is the team in place to carry on without me?
  • Do all employees know their role?
  • Does the team know the strategic plan?
  • Have we minimized risk? 
  • Have I communicated my plan?

Whether you choose to grow your business or exit it, you have various liquidity options to choose from. Liquidity options if you keep your business include 401(k) profit sharing, distributions, bonuses, and dividend recapitalization. Alternatively, liquidity options if you choose to exit your business include selling to strategic buyers, ESOPs, private equity firms, management, or family. 

In our discussion about liquidity, we addressed several other topics that audience members were curious about. One of these topics was the use of earn-outs in the sale of a business. In an earn-out, a portion of the price of the business is suspended, contingent on business performance. The “short and sweet” on this topic is that we typically find them to be most effective over a two- to three-year time period. When selecting a metric to base the earn-out on (such as revenue, profit, or customer retention), consider what is in your control. Will the new owner change the capital structure or cost structure in a way that reduces income? Further, if the planned liquidity event involves merging your company into another company, specify how costs will be allocated for earn-out purposes. 

We also discussed rollover equity (receiving equity in the acquiring company as part of the deal structure) and the use of warrants/synthetic equity (incentives tied to increases in stock price). Here are some of the key points from this discussion:

  • Make sure you know how you will turn your rollover equity into cash.
  • Understand potential dilution of your rollover equity if the acquiring company continues to acquire other targets. 
  • Make sure the percentage of equity relative to total deal consideration is reasonable.
  • Seller financing typically has lower interest rates and favorable terms, so warrants are often attached to compensate the seller. 
  • Warrants are subject to capital gains tax while synthetic equity is typically ordinary income. As a result, warrants often have lower tax consequences.
  • Synthetic equity may work well for long-term incentive plans and for management buyouts. 

We enjoyed talking with business owners, management, and their advisors during this five-session series. We have found that through the value acceleration process, clients are able to increase business value and liquidity, giving them control over how they spend their time and resources.

If you are interested in learning more about value acceleration, please contact me. I would be happy to meet with you, answer any questions you may have, and provide you with information on upcoming value acceleration presentations. 

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Decide: Value acceleration series part five (of five)

So far in our value acceleration series, we have talked about increasing the value of your business and building liquidity into your life starting with taking inventory of where you are at and aligning values, reducing risk, and increasing intangible value.

This month, we focused on planning and execution. How these action items are introduced and executed may be just as important as the action items themselves. We still need to protect value before we can help it grow. Let’s say you had a plan, a good plan, to sell your business and start a new one. Maybe a bed-and-breakfast on the coast? You’ve earmarked the 70% in cash proceeds to bolster your retirement accounts. The remaining 30% was designed to generate cash for the down payment on the bed-and-breakfast. And it is stuck in escrow or, worse yet, tied to an earn-out. Now, the waiting begins. When do you get to move on to the next phase? After all that hard work in the value acceleration process, you still didn’t get where you wanted to go. What went wrong?

Many business owners stumble at the end because they lack a master plan that incorporates their business action items and personal action items. Planning and execution in the value acceleration process was the focus of our conversation with a group of business owners and advisors on Thursday, April 11th.

Business valuation master plan steps to take

A master plan should include both business actions and personal actions. We uncovered a number of points that resonated with business owners in the room. Almost every business owner has some sort of action item related to employees, whether it’s hiring new employees, advancing employees into new roles, or helping employees succeed in their current roles. A review of financial practices may also benefit many businesses. For example, by revisiting variable vs. fixed costs, companies may improve their bidding process and enhance profitability. 

Master plan business improvement action items:

  • Customer diversification and contract implementation
  • Inventory management
  • Use of relevant metrics and dashboards
  • Financial history and projections
  • Systems and process refinement

A comprehensive master plan should also include personal action items. Personal goals and objectives play a huge role in the actions taken by a business. As with the hypothetical bed-and-breakfast example, personal goals may influence your exit options and the selected deal structure. 

Master plan personal action items:

  •  Family involvement in the business
  •  Needs vs. wants
  •  Development of an advisory team
  •  Life after planning

A master plan incorporates all of the previously identified action items into an implementation timeline. Each master plan is different and reflects the underlying realities of the specific business. However, a practical framework to use as guidance is presented below.


The value acceleration process requires critical thinking and hard work. Just as important as identifying action items is creating a process to execute them effectively. Through proper planning and execution, we help our clients not only become wealthier but to use their wealth to better their lives. 

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Planning and execution: Value acceleration series part four (of five)

What are the top three areas of improvement right now for your business? I asked this question of 20 business leaders and advisors on Wednesday morning (March 13th) during the third session of our value acceleration series. In this discussion, we focused on how to increase business value by aligning values, decreasing risk, and improving what we call the “four C’s.”

To back up for a minute, value acceleration is the process of helping clients increase the value of their business and build liquidity into their lives. Previously, we looked at the Discover stage, in which business owners take inventory of their personal, financial, and business goals and assemble information into a prioritized action plan. On Wednesday, we focused on the Prepare stage of the value acceleration process.

Aligning values may sound like an abstract concept, but it has a real world impact on business performance and profitability. For example, if a business has multiple owners with different future plans, the company can be pulled in two competing directions. Another example of poor alignment would be if a shareholder’s business plans (such as expanding the asset base to drive revenue) compete with personal plans (such as pulling money out of the business to fund retirement). Friction creates problems. The first step in the prepare stage is therefore to reduce friction by aligning values.

Reducing risk

Personal risk creates business risk, and business risk creates personal risk. For example, if a business owner suddenly needs cash to fund unexpected medical bills, planned business expansion may be delayed to provide liquidity to the owner. If a key employee unexpectedly quits, the business owner may have to carve time away from their personal life to juggle new responsibilities. 

Business owners should therefore seek to reduce risk in their personal lives, (e.g., life insurance, use of wills, time management planning) and in their business, (e.g., employee contracts, customer contracts, supplier and customer diversification, etc.).

Intangible value and the four C's

Now more than ever, the value of a business is driven by intangible value rather than tangible asset value. One study found that intangible asset value made up 87% of S&P 500 market value in 2015 (up from 17% in 1975). We Therefore, we focused on how to increase business value by increasing intangible asset value. Specifically, we talked about the “four C’s” of intangible asset value: human capital, structural capital, social capital, and consumer capital. 

We highlighted a couple of strategies to increase intangible asset value. First of all, do a cost-benefit analysis before implementing any strategies to boost intangible asset value. Second, to avoid employee burnout, break planned improvements into 90-day increments with specific targets.

At BerryDunn, we often diagram company performance on the underlying drivers of the 4 C’s (below). We use this tool to identify and assess the areas for greatest potential improvements:

By aligning values, decreasing risk, and improving the four C’s, business owners can achieve a spike in cash flow and business value, and obtain liquidity to fund their plans outside of their business.

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The four C's: Value acceleration series part three (of five)

We are two for two when choosing value acceleration presentation dates that align with winter storms. It turns out we may be a more reliable indicator of winter weather than Punxsutawney Phil, who has a track record of 36 percent accuracy over the last 50 years.

After a last-minute rescheduling due to the weather, we held our second discussion in the value acceleration series on Friday, February 15th. Value acceleration is our process of helping clients increase the value of their business and build liquidity into their lives. In the first session, we presented an overview of the three stages of the value acceleration process (Discover, Prepare, and Decide). In our conversation on Friday, we took a closer look at the first stage of the value acceleration process: the Discover stage, aka the “triggering event.”

In our first session, we walked through a high-level overview of the value acceleration process. This process has three stages, diagrammed here:

© Exit Planning Institute

In the Discover stage, business owners take inventory of their personal, financial, and business goals, noting ways to increase alignment and reduce risk. The objective of the Discover stage is to gather data and assemble information into a prioritized action plan, using the following general framework.

 

Every client we have talked to so far has plans and priorities outside of their business. Accordingly, the first topic in the Discover stage is to explore your personal plans and how they may affect business goals and operations. What do you want to do next in your personal life? How will you get it done?

Another area to explore is your personal financial plan, and how this interacts with your personal goals and business plans. What do you currently have? How much do you need to fund your other goals?

The third leg of the value acceleration “three-legged stool” is business goals. How much can the business contribute to your other goals? How much do you need from your business? What are the strengths and weaknesses of your business? How do these compare to other businesses? How can business value be enhanced? A business valuation can help you to answer these questions.

A business valuation can clarify the standing of your business regarding the qualities buyers find attractive. Relevant business attractiveness factors include the following:

Market factors, such as barriers to entry, competitive advantages, market leadership, economic prosperity, and market growth
Forecast factors, such as potential profit and revenue growth, revenue stream predictability, and whether or not revenue comes from recurring sources
Business factors, such as years of operation, management strength, customer loyalty, branding, customer database, intellectual property/technology, staff contracts, location, business owner reliance, marketing systems, and business systems


Your company’s performance in these areas may lead to a gap between what your business is worth and what it could be worth. Armed with the information from this assessment, you can prepare a plan to address this “value gap” and look towards your plans for the future.

Next up in our value acceleration blog series is all about what we call the four C's of the value acceleration process. 

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The discover stage: Value acceleration series part two (of five)

We held our first discussion on value acceleration on January 9th as the first of a six-part series. If you were unable to attend (because the weather was not in your favor, or if you are outside of the Portland, Maine area), or are a business owner or executive interested in increasing the value of your business, read on to see what you missed.

One of the statistics that really caught participants’ attention was this one: 12 months after selling, three out of four business owners surveyed “profoundly regretted” their decision. Situations like these highlight the importance of the value acceleration process, which focuses on increasing value and aligning business, personal, and financial goals. Through this process, business owners will be better prepared for business transition, and therefore be significantly more satisfied with their decisions.

In our first session, we walked through a high-level overview of the value acceleration process. This process has three stages, diagrammed here:

© Exit Planning Institute

The Discover stage is also called the “triggering event.” This is where business owners take inventory of their situation, focusing on risk reduction and alignment of their business, personal, and financial goals. The information gleaned in this stage is then compiled into a prioritized action plan utilized in future stages.

In the Prepare stage, business owners follow through on business improvement and personal/financial planning action items formed in the discover stage. Examples of action items include the following:

Addressing weakness identified in the Discover stage, in the business or in personal financial planning
Protecting value through planning documents and making sure appropriate insurance is in place
Analyzing and prioritizing projects to improve the value of the business, as identified in Discover stage
Developing strategies to increase liquidity and retirement savings


The last stage in the process is the Decide stage. At this point, business owners choose between continuing to drive additional value into the business or to sell it.

Through the value acceleration process, we help business owners build value into their businesses and liquidity into their lives.

Read more! In our next installment of the value acceleration blog series, we cover the discover stage.

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The process: Value acceleration series number one (of five)

Consider the implications of the following statistics:

Sixty-three percent of private businesses are owned by baby boomers.
Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age each day. 
Seventy-eight percent of business owners expect to fund 80% or more of their retirement through the sale of their business.
Only 20% to 30% of the businesses that go to market actually sell.


While a massive number of people are retiring each year and counting on the value of their business as part of their retirement plan, many are unable to actually generate any liquidity beyond normal compensation. They may even have a very valuable business, but can’t convert any of that value into cash. What a terrible situation! They may feel like a sailor stranded on a desert island—surrounded by water, but dying of thirst.

Attaining liquidity from your business and increasing business value are two topics that go hand in hand. Factors that increase business value often also increase the ease of selling the business. Even if your plan is to never sell, increasing profitability and liquidity will make planning easier. In this blog post, we will identify five ways business owners can improve business value and increase the likelihood of selling the business at a desirable price.

Businesses are often valued by using an income metric (such as earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization, or EBITDA) and a valuation pricing multiple.


To increase business value, business owners can increase the valuation pricing multiple, increase income, or both. Focusing on improving the multiple is often a more effective way to increase business value.

Business risk is the key driver of the multiple. Five effective ways to improve the multiple are:

1. Reduce reliance on the owner of the business
2. Incentivize key employees to sign long-term employment contracts
3. Diversify the customer base
4. Create sustainable recurring revenue 
5. Maintain immaculate financial statements


By planning ahead and implementing the above steps, business owners may be in a much better position for retirement.

P.S. We will be exploring these topics in our Value Acceleration presentation series, beginning on Wednesday, January 9th at 8:00 a.m. in our Portland office. If you would like to attend this session, please contact me. We would love to have you attend. We’re going to be focused on the process to increase the value of your business and build liquidity into your life.

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Value acceleration—The gas pedal for the value of your business

The IRS announced plans to conduct examinations of the universal availability requirements for 403(b) plans (Plans) this summer. Noncompliance with these requirements results in operational errors for Plans―ultimately requiring correction. Plan sponsors should review their Plans for proper inclusion and exclusion of employees. Such review can help you avoid costly penalties if the IRS does conduct an examination and uncovers an issue with the Plan’s implementation of universal availability.

Universal availability requires that, if you permit one employee to make elective deferrals into a 403(b) plan, then all other employees must receive the same opportunity. There are a few exceptions to this rule. Plan sponsors may exclude employees who meet one of the following exceptions:

  • Employees who will contribute $200 annually or less
  • Employees eligible to participate in a § 401(k), 457(b), or other 403(b) plan of the same employer
  • Employees who normally work less than 20 hours per week (the equivalent of less than 1,000 hours in a year)
  • Students performing services described in Internal Revenue Code § 3121(b)(10)

Of these exceptions, errors in applying the universal availability requirements are typically found with the less than 20 hours per week exception. Even if an employee works less than 20 hours per week (essentially a part-time employee), if this employee works 1,000 hours or more, you must allow this employee to make elective deferrals into the Plan. Further, you can’t revoke this permission in subsequent years―once the employee meets the 1,000 hour requirement, they are no longer included in the less than 20 hours per week employee class.

We recommend Plan sponsors review their Plan documents to ensure they are appropriately applying elected eligibility provisions. Further, we recommend Plan sponsors annually review an employee census to ensure those exceptions (listed above) remain appropriate for any employees excluded from the Plan. For instance, if you note that an employee worked 1,000 hours during the year, who was being excluded as part of the “less than 20 hours per week” category, you should ensure you notify this employee of their eligibility to participate in the Plan. In addition, you should retain documentation regarding the employee’s deferral election or election to opt out of the Plan. Such practices will help ensure, if your Plan is selected for IRS examination, it passes with no issues.

For more information: https://www.irs.gov/retirement-plans/403b-plan-fix-it-guide-you-didnt-give-all-employees-of-the-organization-the-opportunity-to-make-a-salary-deferral
 

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Not the summer of love: IRS universal availability examinations

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