Posted March 31, 2011, by Larry Walsh, CEO and president of The 2112 Group
The channel has been hearing about the rolling wave of consolidation in the managed services market for more than a year. In the first quarter of 2011, there's been at least a dozen publicized and probably a few dozen more unpublicized mergers and acquisitions amongst MSPs. The demand for services capabilities is driving this activity as many see MSPs as the foundation for building channel-based cloud businesses.
Headlines about managed services acquisitions and consolidation are creating higher expectations for the value of these businesses. The MSP business-model promise is the creation of recurring revenue streams that ensuring predictable cash flow and profitability. Conventional wisdom says services are more margin resistant than hardware or software sales. And because managed services requires fewer people to support multiple clients, the cost of operations is lower. All of this adds up to a healthy, more valuable business.
Many of the managed services business sales are actually coming in lower than what owners expect. Rather than getting generous multiples on top-line revenue, they're getting valued based on their pre-tax profits or EBITDA (Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation and Amortization). The problem with placing a value on a managed service business is the lack of tangible assets beyond the customer accounts. Without a product, unique processes or real infrastructure, there's little to assess the value against besides people and accounts – both of which are transient.
A good example of low MSP valuation is ValCom Technology, an Illinois-based managed services company with nearly $40 million in annual sales. PC connection bought the company for $8 million with a $3.6 million earn-out if the management team meets its goals over the next 18 months. The companies report ValCom had an operating profit of 7.5 percent, which would place its net earnings at roughly $3 million. Assuming ValCom achieves its post-acquisition goals, the total acquisition will fetch 3.8 times operating profit.
The ValCom valuation may seem low to some managed services owners, but it's actually on the high side. Some merger experts and vendors tell Channelnomics that many MSPs are getting 1 to 1.5 times operating profit as their valuation.
Working against the sale of a managed service is oversupply. A dozen or more MSP acquisitions this quarter sounds impressive, but there are literally thousands of managed services companies of varying sizes dotting North America. Within any metropolitan area, you can find dozens of managed services companies that rarely run into one another in the field. An acquiring company has plenty of choice if all they're looking for is expansion.
Acquisition is the favorite exit strategy of many managed services business owners. They idea is to build a business to what they consider a reasonable level or to the point where they can no longer grow organically, then sell to the highest bidder so they can start their early retirement or move on to their next venture. But managed services acquisitions is hardly a "Field of Dreams" scenario in which you build it and they will come. Managed services need a plan ahead if acquisition is their ultimate exit.
Here are 7 tips for managed services looking to sell their companies. These tips aren't intended to be implemented at the beginning of an acquisition process, but long before acquisition is on the table.
These are simple tips for managed services looking to be acquired. If and when acquisition talks get to the point of talking money and passing papers, MSPs should consult with an experienced M&A attorney and accountant to ensure the proper due diligence is done and their interests are protected. The point here is that acquisition strategies don't start when a suitor knocks on the door; smart MSPs plan for acquisitions long before it ever gets to that point.
Lawrence M. Walsh is CEO and president of The 2112 Group, a technology business advisory service that specializes in optimizing indirect channels and partner relationships. He's also the executive director of the Channel Vanguard Council. He is the former publisher of Channel Insider and editor of VARBusiness Magazine. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org