Entrepreneurs may often be under the wrong impression that their business debt will disappear when the business is sold. In some cases, the debt is absorbed or is assumed by the buyer. But usually this is not the case. Knowing what happens to business debt when selling a business is a critical part of the exit planning process and in determining which buyer is making the best offer. Furthermore, understanding how the debt on the company’s books ultimately affects the purchase price paid by a buyer or investors is important. And regardless of how the business is transferred, it’s important to understand how debt on the company’s books influences the price paid by the buyer or group of investors.
Stock vs. Asset Sale
While larger businesses and those sold in the public markets are typically sold under a Stock Purchase Agreement, such transactions can occur in the lower-middle and middle market. Stock sales are consummated with the transfer of the common and/or preferred shares of stock to a new owner. When this occurs, the buyer or investor is responsible for all debt and liabilities recorded on the books, as well as any undisclosed liabilities which may be present. Because of this, many small businesses are not sold under a ‘stock sale’ arrangement.
Asset sale arrangements between a business owner and a buyer involve the transfer of title to certain assets and in some cases certain liabilities. The combination of assets and liabilities transferred in an ‘asset sale’ is varied and subject to negotiation. For example, in an asset sale a buyer may purchase the Inventory and one half of the Accounts Receivable while assuming all of the Trade Accounts Payable. The seller may retain one half of the Accounts Receivable and the Line of Credit. Any combination of Assets and Liabilities may be transferred to a buyer and/or retained by the seller in an asset sale transaction. A better term for an asset sale may be a non-stock sale.
As you can imagine, every buyer wants to acquire different assets and may be agreeable to assume certain forms of debt or liabilities, so comparing multiple offers in an apples-to-apples fashion can be challenging. To further complicate the comparison process, each asset being transferred holds a different tax basis which affects the net amount of cash the seller receives after filing his federal and state tax returns. Don’t try this at home!
When public companies are compared in acquisitions, sophisticated Investors use a financial measurement called Enterprise Value to compare companies with different capital or debt structures. Enterprise Value is a measurement of how much it takes to buy the entire company, not just the stock or equity. A company may sell its shares of common and preferred stock to investors for a sum of ‘X”, and at the same time assume the debt or liabilities equal to ‘Y’ and enjoy the cash on its balance sheet equal to ‘Z’. Enterprise Value considers all three factors: Stock Price (X); plus the debt or liabilities on the books (Y); less the cash on the books (Z). EV = X + Y – Z. Enterprise Value is a more accurate measurement of a company’s value because it includes the debt that the business must pay to its creditors and also accounts for the offsetting cash on its books.
Debt Counts No Matter What the Size or Kind of Business Sale
Business buyers, who understand capital structure and how a company’s debt negatively impacts its value, incorporate debt into the amount they offer to the seller. This is true whether the transaction is a stock or an asset sale. If it is a stock sale, the buyer has added the amount of debt owed and subtracted the cash on the books to compute the company’s value. If it is an asset sale, the debt is accounted for. However, it is not a straightforward computation and the debt’s impact on the cash they ultimately receive from the sale is not always obvious to the seller.
When selling a business, the entrepreneur will be well-served if he seeks advisors who are able to provide apple-to-apple comparisons while accounting for debt and other liabilities. Although the computations needed to do so are not as simple as calculating the Enterprise Value of a public company, the principle is the same.