Inside M&A Banking

By Kuhn, Robert Lawrence | Chief Executive (U.S.), September 2006 | Go to article overview

Inside M&A Banking


Kuhn, Robert Lawrence, Chief Executive (U.S.)


How do you protect a CEO from paying too much?

The relationship between CEOs and investment bankers is like that of medieval popes with Knights Templar, the famous order of warrior monks who raised their own revenue and were a power that the Church as much feared for its independence as relied upon for protection. M&A bankers present their profession as High Art, charging large fees for what seems quite modest work. When clients thought my M&A firm's hourly charge outrageously high, I would smile sagely and tell the following story.

A rich man brings a rough diamond to an old jeweler. The old jeweler studies the stone, positions his chisel, and, with a single sharp blow of his hammer, splits the stone with perfect cleavage, yielding four perfect gems. A week later, the rich man receives a bill for $100,000. Enraged, he calls the old jeweler: "Are you nuts? $100,000? You didn't work an hour!" "I'm sorry," responds the old jeweler, "I should have itemized my bill: For cutting the diamond, $10; for knowing where to cut the diamond, $99,990."

For investment bankers, relationships are key. The inside term is "coverage," which means that bankers are assigned, usually by industry, to particular corporate clients and tasked to "cover" them. Translation? To smother or metaphorically kidnap them if necessary, with the twin goals of eliciting some new fee-generating deal and preventing competing bankers from getting or staying too close.

The fact is that despite all the front-page glory M&A transactions receive, most prove less lucrative than corporate buyers initially expect. This does not mean, of course, that successful acquisitions are not done. They occur all the time: Astute buyers pay high prices, turn their acquisitions into star performers and generate even higher returns. These rare-but not random-occurrences happen when perceptive buyers discern deep, untapped, even unrecognized opportunities, often involving operational leverage.

In the first article of this two-part series ("What M&A Bankers Would Rather I Not Write," July/August), I revealed the kinds of manipulations that investment bankers use to make CEOs pay too much for acquisitions. In this article, I explain the 10 principles by which CEOs can defend themselves against overpaying.

* Never Believe M&A Bankers. M&A bankers are not your friends. Not even those on your side, much less those on the other. This does not mean that what they tell you is knowingly false; indeed much of what they say is probably true. Most bankers, most of the time, tell the truth. The problem is twofold. First, what is true may not be the whole truth. Second, you don't know when they're not telling the truth-and sometimes neither do they.

This does not mean that you, as a buyer, should not listen to bankers representing a seller. Listen hard, because the one thing you know for sure is that whatever they tell you is crafted to get you to pay more. You'd be surprised how much you learn when you listen through this filter. For example, if bankers are stressing one thing, say, increasing net profits, why are they neglecting another, say, decreasing gross margins?

* Run Your Own Numbers. Never rely on numbers generated by the other side's bankers. You shouldn't even use their models. There is great benefit working de novo: Build your own models; start from first principles.

* Speak Directly With the Seller. Try to get time alone with the sellers, without bankers present-yours or theirs. Bankers will not like this. They fear that if buyers and sellers meet privately, this may diminish their perceived value, an unhealthy psychology when it comes time for M&A fees agreed to in principle to actually be paid.

At my firm, we told our bankers never to allow our clients, the sellers, to be alone with the buyers. It was as if our clients were underage juveniles and potential buyers were sexual predators.

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