I'M THINKING OF BUYING A BUSINESS

3. How do I work out the value of the business I plan to buy?

There is no accepted formula for working out whether a new business is a good investment. However, there are a number of factors that can be assessed in order to make an informed decision.

Most importantly, it’s important to stay objective about whether this new business is the right fit for you. It’s normal to feel emotionally attached to the idea of a business, but if you’re going to make a smart choice, you’ll need to use your head and do your research.

Consider:

  • What the business is worth.
  • Whether prospective returns are worth your time and money.
  • What other similar businesses are selling for in the market.
  • How many potential buyers are in the market.
  • Future trends in the industry you’re looking to buy into.
  • The location of the business, and possible future developments or plans for the area.

How much is the business worth?
The value of any business is subjective – what one person believes it to be worth may differ greatly from another. Ultimately, the value of the business you’re looking to buy will depend on what you believe it to be. This will obviously guide what you’re willing to pay.

Working out the value of a business isn’t as simple as matching the amount invested by the current owner. They may have overcapitalised, or invested in refurbishments you don’t believe add value to the business.

There may also be intangible assets, like exclusive licenses to sell specific products, which add value to the operation. All of these factors, when considered together, help you to determine a possible price.

Factors influencing value

Individual circumstances
The reasons for selling a business can affect its value. For example, a forced sale is likely to drive down the value. An owner–manager forced to sell by ill health may have to accept the first offer that comes along.

If you’re closing a business, its value will be the sum of its realisable assets, less its liabilities. Often the longer you have to sell, the better the price you’re likely to receive.

Tangible assets
How tangible are the business’s assets? A business that owns property, machinery or stock-in-hand has tangible assets that will have some resale value. This makes the business easier to value.

Intangible assets
Many businesses have almost no tangible assets beyond office equipment; however, their intangible assets may have significant value. Some examples are a well-respected brand, customer goodwill, intellectual property (such as patents or protected designs), and potential for growth. These intangibles can be harder to value. Your business banker or accountant may be able to give you guidance with these.

Length of time

The longer the business has been operating, the better, because it will have a proven track record and cash flow, and possibly loyal customers who provide repeat business. Be wary of young businesses for sale (between one and two years), as they may be experiencing current popularity (like bars and cafés can do) before the market turns away.

Valuation techniques
Remember, the true value of a business is always what someone is willing to pay for it. To arrive at this figure, buyers use various valuation methods, usually to give a sense of reassurance that they are not paying too much. The main methods are as follows.

Asset valuations
Add up the assets of a business, subtract the liabilities, and you have an asset valuation – nice and simple. So if a business has $500,000 in machinery and equipment, and owes $50,000 on outstanding invoices, the asset value of the business is $450,000.

As a buyer, you could decide to just buy the assets of a business rather than take over the business as a going concern. This way, any outstanding debts or tax payments are all payable by the previous owner.

Use an asset valuation if you own, or are interested in, a stable, asset-rich business. The starting point for an asset valuation is the assets listed in the accounts. This is known as the ‘net book value’ (NBV) of the business.

You then refine the NBV figures for the major items, to reflect economic reality. Take into account:

  • Debts to the business that are clearly not going to be paid.
  • Property or other fixed assets that may have changed in value.
  • Old or obsolete stock may need to be sold at a discount.

Intangible items, such as software development costs, are usually excluded.

Price earnings ratio

The price earnings ratio (P/E ratio) is the value of a business divided by its profits after tax. For example, a company with a share price of $40 per share and earnings per share after tax of $8 would have a P/E ratio of 5 ($40/8 = 5).

When you’re valuing a business, you can use this equation:

Value = Earnings after tax × P/E ratio.

Once you’ve decided on the appropriate P/E ratio to use, you multiply the business’s most recent profits after tax by this figure. For example, using a P/E ratio of 6 for a business with post-tax profits of $100,000 gives a business valuation of $600,000.

What P/E ratio to use?
Deciding on an appropriate P/E ratio to use is not easy and you’ll have to justify your choice of P/E ratio to a potential buyer (or seller) or anyone providing financial assistance. Some industries have ‘standard’ P/E ratios for valuing a business, so ask your business broker or accountant if there are industry averages you can use.

Also, try contacting your industry association or Chamber of Commerce for their advice on determining the most appropriate P/E ratio. Another possible source of guidance is the financial section in newspapers that gives historic P/E ratios for listed companies.

Entry cost valuation
Rather than buy a business, you could start a similar venture from scratch. An entry cost valuation reflects what this process would cost you. To make an entry cost valuation, calculate the cost to the business of:

  • Purchasing or financing its assets.
  • Developing products or services.
  • Recruiting and training the employees.
  • Building up a customer base.

This allows you to make a comparative assessment. Suppose you calculate that it would:

  • Cost $500,000 to buy the set-up equipment.
  • Cost $50,000 a month for overheads.
  • Require 12 months’ trading to get a customer base.

A business that already has all of the above is worth at least $1.1m ($500,000 for equipment, and $600,000 overheads for 12 months).

You can now factor in any cost savings you could make, such as use of better technology, setting up in a less expensive area, or other cheaper alternatives.

Industry rules of thumb
In some industry sectors, buying and selling businesses is common. This has led to industry-wide rules of thumb. These rules of thumb are dependent on factors other than profit. For example:

  • Turnover for a computer maintenance business or a mail-order business.
  • Number of customers for a mobile phone airtime provider.
  • Number of outlets for a real estate agency business.

Buyers will work out what the business is worth to them. Take the example of a computer maintenance business with 10,000 contracts but no profits. To one buyer, the business may be worth comparatively little. However, a larger competitor may pay $100 per contract to buy the business. This is because it could merge the two businesses and make larger profits.

Other issues
The key source of value in a business may be something that can’t easily be measured. Putting a value on intangible assets is not easy because that value can vary depending on the nature of the assets and the industry. Get advice from your business advisers, Chamber of Commerce, or industry association.

Some examples:

  • Strong relationships with key customers or suppliers. For example, if a business holds a licence or distributorship rights across Australia for a product expected to be successful, the business’s value will increase accordingly.
  • Management stability. If the owner–manager or other key people are going to leave, the business may be worth far less. For example, the profitability of an advertising agency may collapse if a key creative person leaves. Similarly, if key salespeople leave, they may take important customers with them. Any written agreements or incentives to retain key employees could add value. But they could also damage the value if a potential buyer intends to bring in a new team.
  • Intellectual property ownership. If the business owns the rights to patents, copyrights or well-established trademarks, these will add value to the purchase price of a business. For example, if you’re selling a patented invention, you can value your business higher than a similar business selling an unprotected product.

Next steps

  • Get expert advice. Talk to your accountant or small business adviser about possible valuations of your business.
  • Search online for similar businesses that are for sale to get a feel for the market.
  • Determine which method of valuing your business creates the most value for you.
  • Ask your business broker or accountant if they have past examples of similar businesses for sale and what they were sold for. Remember that ultimately, your business is worth whatever someone will pay for it.
  • Review the IP Australia website for steps you can take to protect and enhance the value of intangible business assets such as trademarks and designs. If you’re buying a business, check what intellectual property they have protected.

If you need support with researching the value of a business, our accountants1 can guide you through the decision-making process, and help you to make informed choices.

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