Earn-outs: Uses, Pitfalls, and Opportunities
What is an "Earn-out" as it relates to the sale of a business? An earn-out is a contingent payment agreement whereby the buyer agrees to pay additional money for the business upon the attainment of certain post-closing performance targets. An earn-out is a financial tool used to bridge the gap between the seller's price expectations and the buyer's perceived value for the business. The most common reason for a gap between the offer and the seller's price expectations results from the two parties to the transaction having differing views of "business risks." The sale of a business is extremely complex, and involves risk factors related to revenue, customer retention, the management team, and many others, which are viewed through different lenses by the buyer and seller.
Let's remember - in an "all cash" purchase, the buyer has all the risk, therefore the selling price will usually be at the lower end of the spectrum. In a transaction with cash plus a promissory note to seller, there is some level of risk tied to the promissory note - so the seller can justify a price that is a bit higher than "all cash." If an earn-out is included in the transaction structure, the seller expects to receive more for their business, but the last piece of the consideration is tied to future events, so both parties share the risk.
Earn-out structures will be very specific to each transaction. A typical earn-out structure may start with "If revenue in year #1, year #2 and year #3 after closing is equal to or above these targets, "X", "Y", and "Z", then the seller is paid a certain amount each year." As simple as that concept sounds, each earn-out structure will be as unique as the business itself. Many times the seller wants the earn-out tied to gross revenue, while the buyer typically wants the earn-out tied to EBITDA. At that point, the negotiation begins, and the actual measured performance often ends up tied to a metric somewhere in between revenue and EBITDA. In our experience, the least amount of computations that must be made to compute the earn-out will result in the most desirable structure.
Our firm recently represented the seller in a transaction whereby approximately $6,000,000 of the price was fixed, and another $3,000,000 of the consideration was based upon an earn-out tied to gross profit earned each year for the first twenty four months after closing. This company was in a cyclical industry, and the seller believed that the industry would maintain their momentum for several years. The buyer was not willing to pay the full price without some part being tied to future performance. The seller was willing to stay with the business through the term of the earn-out, to insure that it would be met. This client has now collected the targeted payments for year one, and is now completing year two.
One tip to remember is that earn-outs should not be "all or none," but rather based upon incremental levels of the performance metric. They should also be structured whereby meeting the target on a cumulative basis over multiple years will still trigger payments, even if one year was below the target (a "lookback provision").
Our firm does not begin marketing a business with an earn-out in mind, but it may be an appropriate financial tool used to facilitate a transaction in certain situations. Earn-out structures are complex and require the seller to evaluate the risk they are willing to assume in utilizing that structure to achieve the maximum consideration. A seller will need an experienced M&A professional and transactional lawyer to carefully negotiate the earn-out and make sure their agreements are well drafted.