Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Managing Corporate Turnarounds

This week, I’m taking a block week course (one week intensive following the 10 week standard course period) at LBS: Managing Corporate Turnarounds. So far this course has actually been really interesting, with us looking at business cases for salvaging distressed companies and learning about the mechanics and considerations of struggling businesses.

Unlike my undergraduate strategy course, which I nicknamed “doom and gloom” because the distressed companies in our cases never seemed to recover, this course talks about different cases that were successfully turned around using a variety of different techniques to improve operational efficiencies and use financial tools like LBOs to capture the upside.

We’ve also had great guest speakers come talk about their specific experiences and their perspective on different aspects of turning companies around (shedding assets for cash, improving operations, recovering debt, how to identify target companies etc.) One of our requirements in class is to summarize some key learnings from the class, and in a similar fashion to the Latin America study tour which had a similar component, I plan on using this blog to jot a few notes for me to recall later as I compile my thoughts:


In turning a company around, it is important to understand where control lies. Since equity is flirting with bankruptcy, it may lose control to the debt holders. Some debt investors may be holding “grenades”, the intent to liquidate their holdings ASAP when a trigger event happens (broken covenants, default etc), and may not be interested in salvaging the company, even if there is potential to recover equity value because they just want to unwind their positions.

Companies need to have good strategies when it comes to M&A, otherwise they can fall victim of a vicious cycle: accretive acquisitions increase EPS (albeit in an inorganic manner) and can give false impressions of growth, which could potentially boost the P/E multiple. A higher P/E multiple gives the company expensive equity which it can use as a better transaction currency for buying other companies (low P/E) and still be accretive. This is a vicious cycle if the M&A is not well integrated with substantial delivery of synergies and/or overpays for targets. This typically occurs in new industries where there are a limited number of potential buyers (targets with low P/Es as there is no other mechanism for exit) and the industry is consolidating into larger players (large strategic buyers displace financial buyers niche shopping).

Another version of the problem above is when companies which are asset-light use M&A as a backdoor for raising leverage. Services companies cannot raise leverage in a traditional manner because they have neither hard assets nor collateral to borrow against, so they can acquire companies which have higher leverage ratios to boost their own ratios. Also, this type of reckless acquisition can divert focus from the core business. In turning around companies which have fallen along this path, one of the immediate remedies is to spin off non-core assets for cash.


When you are on the buyside for any company (not just distressed companies for turnaround), it is important to have multiple targets in the pipe, not just for the more obvious negotiation leverage points, but to prevent yourself from getting too much deal heat over one deal and to avoid negotiating against yourself and your emotions.

Negotiating a transaction involves much more than a “price”. There are terms of payment, the structure of the compensation, workouts, milestones, terms and conditions. A price which is seemingly too high can be restructured to be paid out overtime so that the undiscounted amount remains the same, but the risk and cash outflows can be spread over a longer period with the appropriate covenants and milestones.

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