Although most of my career as a merger and acquisition and corporate lawyer has been spent in San Jose, issues involving earnouts do not have geographic boundaries. While many companies are acquired for their team or their technology, other companies are acquired because they make money for their stockholders. Earnouts provide an opportunity for a buyer to be assured that the company it has just bought will meet its objectives for the deal.
To construct an earnout that measures a company's success in making money, a tension arises between allowing the selling company to operate on its own, thereby mimicking its performance as it existed before it was sold, and integrating the seller's operations with the buyer. Buyers will want to integrate the seller as quickly as possible, but doing so will prevent the parties from determining how well the seller itself is performing.
The most important issue to determine is how profits will be calculated. As discussed in a previous blog, issues involving the use of GAAP become much more important as more revenue and expense items are measured. A detailed approach to calculating profits will help reduce disputes and provide guidance for the seller's managers to use in maximizing the earnout.
Earnouts constructed to measure profits typically require the seller to operate as a separate division, or even a separate entity. To take advantage of synergies, some operations are centralized with the buyer, such as finance and administration. The first area of dispute involves the manner in which administrative overhead, and the type of overhead, will be charged against the earnout. Outside of textbook ratios, there is no magic number and the result is usually reached through negotiation.
Often sales forces are consolidated, and the allocation of sales-related expenses and commissions can be very difficult, especially when the buyer's existing sales department is leveraged to produce sales for the seller. As with overhead, there are no easy answers and the approaches ultimately used are reached through negotiation.
Because of their complexity, earnout amounts are often disputed. Because of this, care must be taken to create an appropriate dispute resolution mechanism. Regardless of the dispute resolution process used for the acquisition agreement as a whole, arbitrating any earnout disputes has a number of advantages. First, the arbiter, or arbiters, can be specified as having expertise in accounting issues, or even in calculating earnouts. Relevant industry experience can be listed as a necessary attribute. Second, the arbitration can focus solely on determining the arbitration amount. Third, the parties can be required to go through nonbinding mediation. If successful, mediation can avoid the expense of an arbitration proceeding. Fourth, the proceedings can be kept confidential.
Earnouts, especially those based on profits, can be very complex and prone to dispute. Because of this, care must be taken by all parties to create a mechanism that will adequately measure performance while minimizing the opportunity for controversy.
Contact Structure Law Group, LLP if you need help structuring an earnout or evaluating an acquisition agreement.