Multiples in Business Valuation, Part One

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This post originally appeared on our website two years ago; we are re-publishing it here in response to the increasing demand for information about business valuations.


We’ve all heard of multiples or rules of thumb that help benchmark a company’s value—four times earnings, six times free cash flow, etc. But what do these multiples mean and how do they relate to valuing businesses?

Formal business valuations are conducted for a variety of tax and legal reasons and the IRS and courts have provided guidance and rulings for reference. These types of valuations are required in many situations but are generally not necessary for estimating the price a company is likely to fetch on the open market. Different methodologies lead to different results because valuation is both art and science. These methods rely on judgment and experience and can yield a wide range of conclusions based on the perceived risks and potential opportunities in each case. In other words, value is subjective.

Extensive books, courses and careers have been dedicated to business valuation, but my intent in this post is to provide a high-level overview of the factors that go into valuing privately held businesses for the purpose of facilitating a smooth transition of ownership down the road, regardless of the company’s current stage or direction. Often, valuations of this kind rely on multiples of historical earnings.

Multiples: Shortcuts to Valuation

We rely on multiples in valuations for many reasons, including:

  1. They’re fairly easy to calculate and understand
  2. It’s easy to make comparisons between related companies
  3. Data may not be readily available for a more detailed valuation
  4. A formal valuation simply may not be necessary or worth the cost and effort since formal valuations can be complex and may not produce a more accurate answer anyway, depending on the situation
  5. They can produce very reliable results if properly applied

Multiples are shortcuts. They take into account patterns you see across an industry and give you a way to arrive at what is likely an accurate range of values without having to go through extra steps. While shortcuts are not necessarily bad, it does help to understand their strengths and limitations. Back in the day when I was a college summer intern at an Army Corps of Engineers construction project in New Mexico, the project manager once told me to walk around the site with a tape measure and just measure things at random. The idea was the construction workers would see me and figure I knew what I was doing. I’m not sure I elevated the status of summer interns with this tactic, but it sure made me look relevant. In some ways, using multiples as rules of thumb in valuation is a little like the tape measure—a great tool, but far more effective when you understand what the measurements actually mean.

Three Common Methods

There are three methods frequently used in valuing private companies. The asset approach is, believe it or not, based on asset value, which is simply the market value of all assets minus the market value of all liabilities. Generally, this applies to companies with little to no profits or a low return on assets. The second method, the income approach, is based on how much income the company generates. This means the value is derived from the risk-weighted return on investment that the company provides, just like most other financial investments. The third method, the market approach, relies on comparing a business to the known value of other, similar companies which have recently changed ownership.

Regardless of the method used, business fundamentals are always going to be central.

The income and market approaches are widely used methods for valuing profitable companies. Their strength is that they both incorporate fairly robust quantitative analysis and time tested methodologies to calculate value. The drawback is they both rely on assumptions, judgment and less than perfect information. Accuracy is more important than precision when it comes to business value, so the right multiple correctly applied can give as good or better an indication of value than a detailed discounted cashflow model with unrealistic projections.

Regardless of the method used, business fundamentals are always going to be central. Some of the most common value drivers include outlook for growth, margin strength, revenue diversification, management strength and depth, quality of financial statements and customer retention to name just a few. Focus on what you can influence and realize that it takes time to build value. There are some things that are out of your control, such as the health of the overall economy, but you can increase value either by increasing revenue and profits or by decreasing perceived risk.

Income, Market and Multiples

In a prior life, I was involved with M&A work in the oil industry for ConocoPhillips, and I saw many substantial deals at least get narrowed down to the final few buyers simply based on eight times net cashflow. This seemed to be an industry standard unless there were unusual circumstances involved. Don’t get me wrong, management required a thorough discounted cashflow analysis before final approval (no need to sell your oil stocks!), but there was some validity to using rules of thumb. I mentioned above that there are three widely used methods for valuing privately held companies—the asset, income and market approaches. Let’s look at the income approach in more detail.

Income Approach Theory and Future Income

The theory behind the income approach is that an investment is worth the value of the expected future income discounted back to the present at a rate appropriate to the riskiness of the investment. Discounting is the process of determining the present value of a future stream of income. For privately held businesses these discount rates are frequently in the 20-30% range to account for the inherent uncertainty associated with future income streams of private companies.

The challenge with using future income to measure value is coming up with a reliable forecast. Nobody knows what income a business will bring in the future. Since we don’t have a crystal ball to tell us, we rely on either historical financial performance or realistic, supported projections (or a bit of both) to estimate the future income of a business. The reason for using past performance to predict future performance is that it’s based in fact. I can look at a business’ past performance and see without a doubt, in black and white, the income it brought in over time. If I see a positive trend of more income over time, I have reason to believe the business may continue in that direction. Valuations of this kind commonly look at the business’ performance over the last 12 months or so, but it’s also a good idea to look at trends over a longer term, ideally a full business cycle, to see how the company performs in both favorable and unfavorable conditions.

Multiples are great shortcuts to value, as long as you understand what they represent.

For most established companies, past performance is the best indicator of future performance unless there are specific, tangible reasons to believe otherwise (new markets, products, patents, contracts, etc.). Business owners often tell me that the value of their business should be based on potential and, even though it might be a 20-year-old company with flat growth, they believe all the new owner needs to do is increase marketing or hire a couple of sales reps and profits will skyrocket. Without a proven track record, I have no way to measure the company’s real potential and cannot base value on a hunch with no data to support it. There’s also the case where a company has grown profits 20 percent per year for the past few years and the owner believes the value should be based on the assumption that the business will continue growing at the same rate. To put that in perspective, 20 percent annual growth implies the company will be six times its current size in 10 years. Though technically not impossible, this is unrealistic. Sustainable, supported, realistic forecasts are essential for deriving a sensible value.

In the case of early-stage companies and those going through a turnaround, projections will be more important than past performance, but you can also expect a higher discount rate because of the greater risk involved with forecasts that are not in line with historical performance. So the more you can prove the market potential, even if it’s just a few years of growth, the more valuable the company is going to be. For you Shark Tank fans, this should sound familiar.

Income Streams

The other part of the equation is determining what income stream to measure. EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) is commonly used because it allows for comparison between similar companies regardless of capital structure or tax strategies employed. However, multiples can be applied to a variety of benefit streams including revenue, gross margin, operating income or net cashflow, depending on the industry and situation.

So how do discount rates and projected income relate to the multiples? The simple answer is that the inverse of the discount rate minus the growth rate is the multiple. For example, a 25 percent discount rate applied to a company with 5 percent long-term, sustainable EBITDA growth equates to a value of five times EBITDA. For the mathematically oriented, that’s 1/(25%-5%). Yes, discount rate minus growth rate is a capitalization rate commonly used for real estate valuation. The only complexity in applying this to business valuation is that income from most companies rarely grows in a linear, predictable fashion, but the concept is the same (that’s also why Excel has a net present value, or NPV, function).

Multiples are great shortcuts to value, as long as you understand what they represent. Be realistic about your assumptions and don’t be afraid to validate them with feedback from others. 

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Published: 02/20/2017

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