Most corporate governance articles, presentations, and conferences are focused on publicly owned businesses. With corporate and executive scandals galore occurring over the past few years, there have been outcries for better controls, systems, and oversight guidelines. Yet, the same emphasis and attention is grossly lacking in the privately owned business community. One of the areas in which governance best practices could be applied is in the realm of mergers and acquisitions. Nick Miller of Clayton Utz law firm in Australia offers some insights below for this unique situation:
Increasing the level of formal governance can assist in reducing risk, identifying issues that might emerge upon a sale and generally enhancing the credibility with which the business presents itself to potential buyers. Perhaps even more powerfully, governance is a means by which, both in fact and in perception, a business can present as less dependent on the involvement of its founders than it would without governance. This can add very significantly to value.
Many private business owners think that the absence of governance procedures makes them more flexible, more adaptable and more opportunistic. That may be so, but the benefits of that should be weighed against the benefits of formal governance when planning a sale.
There are a range of ways to adopt some greater formality in governance:
- without changing the make up of the board of a company, the company could implement a more structured system of monthly meetings. These may or may not be formal board meetings, but should nonetheless involve the directors and those who report into the CEO;
- a company can set up one or more committees. These can be formal board committees or more informal, but they are set up to address areas of need, to bring in expertise and focus on how risk management can be improved and issues for the business addressed. Examples are an audit and risk committee, a brand development committee and an employee policies committee, to assist in developing those aspects of the business in readiness for sale. These committees might have outsiders on them and they might not, depending upon the need and the expertise available in the business;
- an advisory board could be established. Properly structured, members of an advisory board will not carry director duties and liabilities and this can be a sensible stepping stone towards a more fully independent board;
- one or more outsiders can be brought onto the board. This can be very beneficial, but it needs to be right for the business; and
- governance can also be improved by developing appropriate governance policies and procedures.
Corporate buyers and private equity see many poorly organised privately‑owned businesses. They will take the opportunity to highlight the possible risks to them in undertaking an acquisition of a poorly organized or more risky business. Some investment in governance can dispel most of these apprehensions, and allow private business owners to defend the level of risk in the business and so achieve higher value for a seller. Nonetheless, formal governance should be introduced carefully, to ensure the owner’s ability to drive and control the business is not unduly impeded.
In summary, shareholder value is enhanced in privately owned businesses through better corporate governance. Opinions of value are enhanced by checks and balances, independent processes, and a decreased dependence on the founder(s). Make the necessary adjustments to your business. You will make better decisions, increase the market value of the business, and create an environment wherein others can grow in their roles and responsibilities.