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How a Covenant not to Compete Affects Value

When someone sells a privately-held company, the buyer usually insists that the seller sign a covenant not to compete. In fact, in over 20 years of business sales and acquisitions, I have yet to see a purchase agreement without a covenant-not-to-compete (CNTC) provision. Now let’s say that your Company or its shareholders purchase all of a departing 50% shareholder’s interest for fair market value; is it reasonable to expect that the selling shareholder would not compete with the Company? I think so.

Yet, many buy-sell agreements (BSA’s) are silent on the non-compete issue, allowing the departing shareholder to receive full value for their shares AND start, join or back a competing business. I briefly surveyed the last 10 buy-sell agreements that I’ve reviewed for valuation purposes, and found that fully half of them were missing a non-compete provision!

A covenant-not-to-compete provision in a BSA usually restricts the selling shareholder from soliciting customers and employees, and otherwise competing with the Company for a specified length of time within a specified geographic area. A CNTC is considered an intangible asset of the Company and may have significant value. Stated differently, the Company’s shares, post transaction, may have significantly less value without a covenant not to compete from the selling shareholder. CNTC’s have value because they protect the future revenue and profitability of the Company.

How does the absence of a covenant not to compete affect share value?

One common approach to valuing a CNTC is called the differential valuation approach; where the business is valued under two scenarios. The first valuation scenario assumes that a CNTC is in place, and the second scenario assumes that it is not. Another approach involves determining the present value of the potential future economic damages that would occur as a result of competition. In either case, the valuation expert’s job is to determine the net impact on revenue, margins and future cash flows arising from potential competition by the selling shareholder. The difference in company value for each scenario is the value of the CNTC.

To project cash flows, the business appraiser will have in-depth discussions with company management to understand and develop assumptions regarding:

  1. Seller’s business expertise in the industry and general ability to compete
  2. Seller’s intent to compete
  3. Seller’s economic resources
  4. Seller’s contacts and relationships with customers, suppliers, and other business contacts
  5. Seller’s age and health
  6. Seller’s intent to reside in the geographic area
  7. Barriers to entry that would limit the seller’s ability to compete
  8. Probability and timing of seller competing
  9. Probability that competition will harm the company
  10. Potential damage to the company due to the seller’s competition
  11. Ability of the company to prevent a customer from leaving
  12. Buyer’s interest in eliminating competition
  13. Duration and geographic scope of the (typical) CNTC
  14. Enforceability of the CNTC under State law

If valuing a CNTC sounds time consuming, subjective, speculative and expensive, it is.  You could be faced with a situation like this if your buy-sell agreement doesn’t prohibit competition. Or someone could be buying shares at a premium someday.

What does your buy-sell agreement say?

The main objective of a buy-sell agreement is to provide for the orderly and reasonable transfer of shares in the event an owner dies or leaves your Company. Yet many BSA’s don’t accomplish this because terms are ambiguous or incomplete, leading to contentious disputes and litigation when a trigger event occurs. Exit Strategies regularly appraises businesses for buy-sell events, and in doing this work we get to read lots of buy-sell agreements (and other corporate documents governing the transfer of shares), and witness firsthand how they don’t operate as originally intended by the parties.

As a business valuation expert, I recommend that you: a) have a buy-sell agreement, b) understand what it says, c) are convinced that it accurately reflects the intentions of your shareholders, and d) have great legal, tax, financial and valuation advisors to help you get it right. Otherwise you may have a time bomb ticking away in your file cabinet.

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