In negotiating a recent acquisition for a client selling a business in Santa Cruz, we were presented with a letter of intent outlining the terms of the transaction. The letter was well-constructed, and contained the material aspects of the deal, all of which were nonbinding. There were, however, a number of terms that were expressly made binding.
There are four binding terms most commonly used in nonbinding letters of intent for acquisitions of privately held companies. The first is that the parties will agree to standard nondisclosure obligations. The second is that the acquirer will be allowed to conduct a diligence investigation of the target. The third is that each party will pay its own fees incurred in connection with the transaction. If the transaction is a stock transaction, there may be some negotiation over whether the target can pay fees, under the theory that a stock deal is a deal among stockholders, rather than the corporation.
The fourth is the most hotly negotiated term - the "no shop" or "exclusivity" provision. The no shop is just as it sounds: the target company agrees not to "shop" itself while the transaction is in process. Acquirers usually demand this term so that their offer is not used by the target to get a better deal, and so that the time and expense they spend in the due diligence and negotiation process is not thwarted by another suitor. An acquirer will also ask that the target company stop any discussions with any other potential acquirer, and notify the acquirer if the target company receives any other acquisition inquiries.
Target companies attempt to insert a number of qualifications and limitations to the no shop clause. First, the target will request a "fiduciary out". In this exception, the no shop is ineffective where an unsolicited alternate offer must be accepted in order for the target's board of directors to satisfy its fiduciary duties. Second, the target will attempt to impose strict time deadlines which, if not met, will cause the no shop to expire. The primary deadline will be on the parties entering into a definitive agreement. Other deadlines include the acquirer's completion of its due diligence investigation, and the closing of the acquisition.
Other binding terms include break-up fees where one party, typically the acquirer, will pay the other party, typically the target, if the acquirer decides not to proceed with the transaction.
As with most deals, the extent of number and type of binding terms in a letter of intent depends on the relative bargaining strength of the parties.