In his three-part series, Build or Buy? Equiteq’s Adam Blatchford discusses the pillars for successful growth through acquisition. In part one Adam addressed the strategic advantages acquisitions can offer.
Here in part two, he looks at the ways a professional service firm can fund an acquisition.
Generally, M&A news tends to give the impression that acquisition is an exercise exclusive to huge corporations with big cash balances. In the last year the consulting sector has seen a number of multi-billion dollar deals, including Blackstone spending $4.8 billion for Aon’s HR Outsourcing business to create Alight Solutions, and $2.6 billion for British engineering consultancy Atkins from SNC-Lavalin.
This perception fails to scratch the surface of acquisitions and hides the real picture. Of more than 2,500 consulting deals that took place in 2017, the mean deal size was a more reasonable $69 million. The median deal was even lower at $12 million, meaning half of all deals took place below this threshold. These numbers are far more attainable for a ‘regular’ growth-stage business and demonstrate that an acquisition is more achievable than one might have initially thought.
2017 was a busy year for Equiteq, closing deals and advising consulting firm owners on their growth and exit strategies across Europe, the US, Australia and Asia. Within our market there are unique takeaways and insights for owners to consider when thinking about a sale.
As owners and acquirers set their 2018 priorities, we recap the learnings from Equiteq’s most read blogs of 2017.
Our fourth annual global survey of buyers of consulting businesses delivers current, actionable intelligence in the five segments Equiteq specializes in: Management consulting, IT consulting, Media & Marketing, Engineering consulting and HR consulting. Findings, published today, reveal:
Buyers expect to initiate 50% more acquisitions year-on-year
Convergence continues to be a key trend as buyers look to diversify
55% of buyers think targets could be better at communicating their market proposition
94% of buyers say it is important to retain management teams post-acquisition
Over 70% of targets do not make their IP apparent to prospective buyers
Three quarters of buyers expect at least 40% of a target’s clients to be blue chip
In his three-part series, Build or Buy? Equiteq’s Adam Blatchford discusses the pillars for successful growth through acquisition. Adam begins by addressing the fundamental question: Should you acquire?
As a shareholder, you have set goals, both personally and for your firm.
Those goals may include building enough equity value to retire, start a new venture, or support your family; everyone is different, but most owners have a timescale and an amount in mind.
Acquisition could help you achieve those shareholder goals; it can add value to your firm if it is carefully and clearly aligned to your overall business strategy.
Acquisition is not a strategy in itself, it is a means which can be used to deliver the strategic needs of your business plan. First your strategy must be aligned to your shareholder goals, then you can consider if acquisition is the right way to accomplish that strategy.
There are right and wrong ways to grow through acquisition; you want to be scaling smart, ensuring business growth translates into equity value growth by avoiding mistakes and missteps, so that you can deliver your business plan and create value in your firm. The best way to do this is to view your firm through the eyes of a buyer, considering how the shape of firm you are building will be attractive to a future investor.
There are a number of ways that acquisition can be valuable to deliver your strategic needs and to simultaneously build value to a potential buyer.
We recently ran two 30-minute webinars on putting margins at the centre of your business. The first of these outlined the steps businesses must take to improve margins which you can view here, while the second was a more specific look at how to implement these steps in order to improve margins in a sustainable way which you can view here. This week, we’re looking at some of the questions asked during the second webinar.
Our sales leaders are all about closing the deal and trying to increase the size of the deal. But our delivery staff are often challenged to translate that into the expected profits, can you comment on that?
When we look at the root causes of problems with margins, it’s often the lack of collaboration between sales and delivery. We commonly find this lack of collaboration can result in delivery managers discovering deals aren’t scoped properly, or the wrong skillsets were assigned.
It’s therefore important that delivery managers have early visibility of the pipeline to get resources lined up for the right client and at the right rates. That can only happen if there’s collaboration, and with both sales and delivery having access to the same information.
It’s now well established that millennials are changing the nature of the workplace and businesses need to respond. However, the extent to which millennials are influencing M&A activity – as well as how creating a culture in which millennials can thrive can drive equity value – is yet to receive the same level of recognition.
The importance of millennial views when it comes to M&A was underlined most recently by research from the consultancy EY. This found that almost three quarters (74%) of senior executives consider millennial attitudes and preferences when making M&A decisions.
With millennials a growing section of the workforce, they could be set to influence M&A activity further still. Those organizations that meet their needs and earn their loyalty will become more attractive to prospective buyers – who will naturally gravitate towards firms with an engaged and loyal workforce. That’s because engagement is a major driver of productivity, encouraging people to perform at their best, as well as central to retaining talent. All of these things are crucial to accelerating growth and driving business success.
Also, because a culture that meets the needs of millennials can also help boost engagement amongst the wider organization, focusing on business culture can be an effective way to drive equity value by motivating and engaging the entire workforce.
Clients give knowledge-intensive services firms such as consulting, IT services and media agencies difficult and constantly evolving problems to solve. Markets change, competitors emerge and macroeconomics shift, all of which have an impact on what’s hot and what’s not when it comes to M&A.
That means buyers are attracted to firms with a clear value proposition that transcends service offerings and the capability to respond and deliver a relevant service portfolio in a changing environment. Simply put, a firm is worth more when it is bought for its strategic capability rather than just offering the buyer additional service capacity.
Achieving a relevant and effective service portfolio means more than investing in new service lines, because it’s also important for consulting firms to phase out what is no longer working for the future value of the business.
David Ogilvy explained in his “principles of management” (which took his firm from a start-up to generating billions) that dropping services that have become unprofitable must be driven by management:
“To keep your ship moving through the water at maximum efficiency, you have to keep scraping the barnacles off its bottom. It is rare for a department head to recommend the abolition of a job, or even the elimination of a man; the pressure from below is always adding. If the initiative for barnacle-scraping does not come from management, barnacles will never be scraped.”
There’s perhaps no topic more important for consulting firms than improving profits. Because of this, we recently ran two 30-minute webinars on improving margins. This week, we’re looking at questions asked during the first of these, which explored how to put margins at the center of your business.
If 20% EBIT is a good target for a consulting firm, would a firm achieving 40% EBIT be viewed as considerably more valuable?
At face value, a 40% margin business might appear more valuable, but it depends on whether the buyer considers this sustainable.
Some will interpret a margin of this size as indication that the firm has under invested in itself and will discount this. Because of this, we typically recommend that 50% of revenue be spent on the delivery of your services and 30% should be allocated for overheads – such as selling or marketing the business, admin costs or recruitment or IT fees – leaving the remaining 20% for EBIT.
Firm owners might be wise to consider investing any EBIT above 20-25% into growing the top-line instead.
Smart Scaling is all about growing revenues and profits while also building your equity value, as opposed to doing one at the expense of the other. Intellectual Property is central to that, it is a ‘win-win’ because buyers want it and it drives profitable growth in your firm.
Whether your firm generates revenues of $20m or $100m, IP differentiates you. It ensures clients buy your services, means you can deliver profitably, and makes investors love you. This blog will focus on how to achieve that in your firm.
What is IP?
In simple terms, intellectual property is any knowledge recorded and maintained as a usable business asset. In most consulting firms, this means ‘trade secrets’, such as process maps, methodologies, training systems and software tools, rather than just copyrights and trademarks.
There are three main types of IP:
IP to market the business
IP to deliver business
IP to run the business
All three are important, but in the context of Smart Scaling we will focus on delivery IP. See here for a deeper discussion of the three types.
Last year, Considerati, a Dutch legal and public affairs consulting firm, was named one of Holland’s fastest growing businesses by a prestigious Dutch financial newspaper, Het Financieele Dagblad. Last month, the UK’s most respected financial newspaper, the Financial Times, included the company in the FT1000, its list of the fast-growing companies it considers the driving force of the European economy. In this blog, we catch up with Considerati managing partner Ton Wagemans to discuss the secrets of this success and the challenges that were overcome to achieve such high growth.
From our chat with Ton, we’ve put together three things to get right if you want to break through the growth ceiling that traps many consulting firms.
Ton and his business partner, Bart Schemer, come from academic backgrounds and have developed expertise in designing the ecosystems in which technology companies and data-intensive organizations can thrive.
Ton and Bart positioned their firm to help digital businesses deal with the legal and policy challenges regarding new technologies (i.e. privacy, security and data protection) – essentially helping clients build trust with their stakeholders.
“In 2007, we started a business in what we believed was a very niche market at the time, so had very little competition,” says Ton. Despite the lack of competition, Ton and his partner found it difficult to translate their knowledge into a successful, viable proposition that businesses would pay for.