Take two seemingly identical companies with very similar financials, but one of the companies was worth substantially more than the other company. One company will sell for $10 million “as is” or some changes can be made and the same company can be sold for $15 million. Following is a partial list of potential company weaknesses to consider in order to assess a company’s vulnerability.
Customer Concentration: First, one has to analyze the situation. The Government of Canada might be considered one customer but from ten different purchasing agents. Or, GM might have one purchasing agent but be directed to ten different plants. One office product manufacturer with $20 million in sales had 75% of its business with one customer — Staples. They had three choices: 1. Cross their fingers and remain the same; 2. Acquire another company with a different customer base; or 3. Sell out to another company. They selected the third choice and took their chips off the table. The acquirer was a $125 million competitor which was unable to sell to Staples, so after absorbing the smaller company, the customer concentration to Staples was only about 10% ($125m + $20m=$145m of which $15 million was sold to Staples or 10+%).
Single Product: Perhaps the most famous example of a single product acquisition is when General Motors overtook Ford’s single product, the Model A, with Alfred Sloan’s brilliant concept of a different model for people with different financial thresholds. Henry Ford’s stubbornness to stay with one product (Model A) almost cost the company its existence.
Regional Sales/Limited Marketing: Companies with parochial focus have limited capabilities to grow other than within their own domain. A widget company with national and international sales has substantially greater prospects to grow than one limited to its own region.
Aging Workforce/Decaying Culture: Skilled workers in certain trades, such as tool and die shops, are not being replaced by the younger generation. This is a sign that the next generation will not provide the companies with a skilled workforce in certain industries.
Declining Industry: Some companies are agile enough to completely change their industry, such as Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway and Fashion Neckwear Company which completely changed from neckties to polo shirts.
Pricing Constraints/Rising Costs: Companies who sell a commodity product often lack pricing elasticity and are unable to pass on their increased costs to their customers. For a while, the steel industry was in this predicament, but through massive industry consolidation and a booming demand from China, the situation changed.
CEO Dependency/No Succession Plan: Many middle market companies have successfully been built up by the founder/entrepreneur/owner and some critics call these individuals a “one-man-band” for good reason. These superman types tend to dominate most aspects of the company, but this is no way to build a sustainable business long term. Furthermore, these CEOs usually have not created a succession plan.
If the owners of a company, many of whom may be outsiders, want to increase the value of their investment, they should, through the Board of Directors, try to overcome the company’s weaknesses. On the other hand, the CEO may not be either capable or motivated to do so. The alternative is to implement a CEO succession plan, preferably with the cooperation of the current CEO. Kenneth Freeman’s thesis in “The CEO’s Real Legacy” (Harvard Business Review, Nov 2004) is that the CEO’s real legacy is implementing a succession plan.
“Your true legacy as a CEO is what happens to the company after you leave the corner office.
“Begin early, look first inside your company for exceptional talent, see that candidates gain experience in all aspects of the business, help them develop the skills they’ll need in the top job…
“During good times, most boards simply don’t want to talk about CEO succession…During bad times when the board is ready to fire the CEO, it’s too late to talk about a plan for smoothly passing the baton…Succession planning is one of the best ways for you to ensure the long-term health of your company.”
Both buyers and sellers should assess the company’s weaknesses. While some weaknesses are difficult to overcome, especially in the short term, one potential weakness that is very easy to overcome is to implement a succession plan…especially during the company’s good times before things go bad and it’s too late.