Saturday, July 3, 2010

The CFO Must Find The Softest Landing Possible

One of the biggest challenges I have as a Part Time CFO is working with distressed companies. These are companies that are very insolvent and have had a recent history of significant operating losses or were companies that were always on the edge and then developed more significant problems during the current economic downturn. These are usually companies whose business owners never admitted there was a problem until it was too late. These are usually companies who did not prepare business or cash flow forecasts or a strategic plan or exit plan. These are usually companies who are reactive versus proactive. Since in business it is 80% ingenuity and guts and 20% luck, these could be companies that were simply not lucky.

When working in these situations you look for the softest landing possible. 95% of the time the softest landing possible is viewed by the business owner as a nightmare. This is understandable because the softest landing possible usually isn’t selling the business for millions of dollars which is the dream of most business owners. Most of the time the softest landing possible crushes the hopes and the dreams of the business owner and it is not an easy position for the CFO.

The personal liability situation of the business is an important consideration when seeking the softest landing possible. Usually the rule of thumb is the more personal liability exposure the harder the landing. This is usually the case because the more personal liability exposure the business owner has the less the impact the corporation has to protect the business owner.

I am going to write about 3 possible options when a business is insolvent that may provide the softest landing. I am going to explain each one only briefly because I am not an attorney and I urge everyone contemplating these options to consult an attorney.

1. Bankruptcy – I think we are all familiar with this one. This may have to be combined with personal bankruptcy of the business owner due to excessive personal liability incurred in the business. Another consideration with this route is also the cost. It can be expensive especially the business bankruptcy. Sometimes a bankruptcy filing can be used as leverage with creditors and also at times with hostile partners. You have two forms of business bankruptcy which are Chapter 7 which is a complete liquidation and closure and Chapter 11 which is a reorganization. With a Chapter 11 or reorganization one of the most important factors is will the trade supply you? This is when the business owner has to rely on whatever relationship equity they have built with the trade. Chapter 11 is only viable if there is some type of debtor in possession financing available or if operations can be funded by only paying current expenses and a very small piece of old debt.

2. Private Foreclosure Sale – This is when there is a bank or other senior creditor in first position to be able to take all of the assets under a security agreement with a filed UCC. An acceptable offer is made to the senior creditor by an outside investor usually for less than what is owed the senior lender but probably for more than the senior lender would get if they liquidated the company. Only the assets of the company are simultaneously seized and sold to the investor in a private foreclosure sale. The liabilities are left in the old company. A deal is made by the outside investor with the current business owner for either equity in the new company or a job/consulting position or both depending on the business owners desires. Available cash before the foreclosure sale is used to pay down or negotiate with personal liability creditors. Another consideration with the Private Foreclosure sale is how the trade will react. On one hand the trade loses what ever the company owed them, but on the other hand they could perceive new management and new majority ownership and a new day to do business with someone who will pay.

3. Strategic buyer – This is when you can find a buyer who is in the substantially the same business. A strategic buyer will be in a better position to work fast and also will pay the most while seeing an opportunity to expand their business. The strategic buyer buys all or selected assets and none or selected liabilities. The purchase price and earn out (there is likely to be an earn out as we are talking about a depressed business with an uncertain future) needs to exceed personal liabilities and any secured creditors with perfected security interests (filed UCC’s). The seller needs to be prepared to offer settlements to creditors giving priority to creditors with personal guarantees. This is not easy to do but can be a way out. In this option the trade knows the strategic buyer and although the trade knows they have probably lost the receivable they have a stronger company to do business with who they are familiar with.

Once again, these are all complex strategies and every situation is different. Experienced lawyers must be obtained to see if any of these options is right for you. I have personal experience with all of these scenarios and it is important to review each option carefully to flag the risks and opportunities. These are 3 possible options to provide the softest landing possible for an insolvent company. The challenge here for the CFO is to explore all of the options available to the company knowing that each option likely presents unpleasant downsides for the business owner and you must identify the option that presents the least unpleasant downsides. Keep in mind that it is also likely that the worst thing you can do is nothing. Therefore it is important that the Chief Financial Officer stays focused on continuously influencing the implementation of the softest landing possible.