After culling through a decades-worth of data on IT services companies, Colin Campbell, Associate Director at Livingstone Partners, sees the potential for a market downturn on the horizon.
He shares what trends he sees that point to this potential slowdown, as well as how Buyers and Sellers approach M&A deals to account for it.
Colin says that Strategic Buyers are being quite selective in companies they target and tend to go after the company aggressively once they “fall in love,” wanting to move quickly and are willing to pay a premium.
This is in contrast to Financial Buyers (like private equity PE firms) who may have a wider appetite for acquisition targets, but factor into their analysis the possibility that values may level-off or decline due to an economic slowdown or other factors – they are mindful of the potential downside when pricing a target.
In our conversation, we take a deep dive into the above concepts, as well as…
Patrick Stroth: Hello there! I’m Patrick Stroth.
Welcome to M&A Masters, where I speak with the leading experts in mergers and acquisitions. And, we’re all about one thing here: that’s a clean exit for owners, founders and their investors.
Today, I’m joined by Colin Campbell, Associate Director at Livingstone Partners. Livingstone Partners is an independent M&A advisory firm with a proven track record of delivering exceptional outcomes for private and public businesses and financial sponsors. Colin recently published a piece titled “Does An Old Bull Need To Learn New Tricks?” which outlines possible changes in the M&A sector for tech. Which is counterintuitive to the current thinking of late of the unending robust market for M&A in general, and tech in particular. And if slow down is in the cards, well… what middle-market companies do about it?
Colin, thanks for joining me, and welcome to the program!
Colin Campbell: Thank you, Patrick. I appreciate it.
Patrick Stroth: Before we get into this report that focuses largely on the IT services companies… tell me about you, give our audience a context for you. How did you get to this point in your career?
Colin Campbell: Sure. So, I’m a multi-time entrepreneur. I’ve started a couple of businesses over the years, I’ve been an operator, I was in private wealth management for many years, focused on estate planning, asset management. And, I think at some point, I had experience from a private wealth management standpoint, guiding my clients through mergers and acquisitions, and decided that that was really an interesting part of the business. And, I think an aspect that really sort of captured my attention.
And so, at some point, I pivoted towards an M&A role coming out of USC, so I did USC undergrad at Marshall School of Business, and then graduate school, also at USC Marshall School of Business. And now, in my spare time, when I’m not advising middle-market businesses on sell-side transactions, I’m also an adjunct professor at the Marshall School of Business.
Patrick: Well, you’ve kept yourself pretty busy there! Now, with this report you recently published, “Does An Old Bull Need To Learn New Tricks?” (which we’ll link to at our show notes here at RubiconINS.com)… what led you to focus on the report? Where did this come from, and give us an overall genesis of what led up to this report?
Colin: Yeah, so, we spend a lot of our time talking to business owners that are contemplating a transaction in the next 36 months. And, at the same time, by virtue of the processes that we run, and then staying current on the market, we’re talking to a lot of buyers. And, what we find is that there are some interesting trends going on right now, not only from evaluation perspective but also from the overall economic timing, the catalyst as to what’s driving some of these transactions, and felt like in many instances, there’s a bit of a disconnect between sellers and buyers and the thought processes. So, we thought it made sense to do a little deeper dive, look at it from a historical context. And so, we pulled all the transaction data for the last 10 years in the IT services space and tried to start drilling down into what sort of conclusions can we start to extrapolate from the data?
And I think what we found is that, you know, there’s a longer-term trend— not only in deal size (and by that I should say multiple), and also deal count— where there are the beginning impressions that while we’ve been in a very, very long bull market, that there are indications that things are starting to slow down and potentially turn. And from our perspective, our clients are generally operators that are looking for a sell-side transaction. You know, there are important considerations to take account for when you’re thinking about what could happen to the economy, and specifically, what could happen to your particular sector in the next 12 to 24 months.
So, the idea behind the article was: let’s start to suss some of that out, let’s start to talk about what some of those trends are. And, obviously, the actual implications are going to be very specific company to company, operator to operator. But, it’s important to start thinking now for many of these business owners, how does that actually impact their specific business, given their specific situation, and their businesses nuances?
Patrick: Well, where you’re targeting this with technology when people talk about technology is as diverse as somebody talking about retail. You can have everything from widgets to items over at Tiffany’s, in the scope of the wide variety of things. And what I liked about what you add here is you are trying to broaden your research for all things, to all people in tech. You focused on a real finite specific group with the service providers. Tell us about that… is it just because those were the most numerous classes out there? Or is there a preference there? You know, most describe the categories of tech that you looked at in the service provider side, and then why those projects?
Colin: Yeah. And, Patrick, you make a great point, right? I mean, as you look across all of the various industries, even some of the most traditional ones, you’re seeing more and more technology being infused in these businesses. And, that’s ultimately impacting those valuations and those transactions. I think the reason why I tried to focus is that you can’t look at all of it in one fell swoop. It has to be distilled down more than that. And so, where I spend most of my time, is within the broader landscape of business services. We’ve drilled down into IT services, and that’s really what this is focused on.
Beyond that, I spend even more time really thinking about IT consulting and other services businesses, which is one of the three legs to the stool, if you will, in this IT services landscape. That tends to be where we spend a lot of time talking to business owners that are operating on one of the cloud platforms that are: providing consulting services, that are leveraging technology to impact other businesses, that are managed services providers, that are actively shifting their business towards a slightly different mix (from maybe an older, more traditional consulting business). And so, that’s seemed particularly relevant to my experience, and where we were spending a lot of our time these days.
So when we take this broader IT services space, and we drill down into data processing and outsource services being one tranche, internet services and infrastructure being the second tranche, and then IT consulting and services being the third… What we find is that there’s each one has their own DNA, their own trends. And, it’s important to think about, even though they do overlap, overlap in some instances, where specifically a business would lie, and then that’s going to significantly drive, how they ultimately become viewed and valued in the market.
Patrick: Why don’t you give us a quick synopsis of each. What is data processing? And then, what the predictions are based on the report from what you observed. Segregate that from internet services, and then segregate that from IT consulting.
Colin: Sure. So, data processing and outsourcing services businesses are what we might think of as your traditional data, big data business, right? They’re dealing in a lot of numbers, are dealing and a lot of data points. They’re trying to draw out really unique insights from vast quantities of data. And I think what we see here, in some of the analysis is that the number of transactions in this space is somewhat limited. And I think there’s a number of reasons for that. I think you have to look at deal volume, in concert with deal value. And what you find is that, for many of the historical years, the deal value has been very volatile. So, multiples in this particular space have been very high and very low. And, I think that’s a function of the limited number of transactions that you see in a space. And so, it’s a common interaction right between supply and demand that when there’s an imbalance in the market, it’s going to drive values either very high or very low.
Recently, we’re seeing a downtick in multiples in the data processing space. And I think there’s an argument to be made that as data is becoming ever more prevalent. And, I think there’s plenty of sources out there that say, we’re generating more data today on a daily basis than we were generating monthly, or annually, not that long ago. And, the rate of data creation is becoming such that to just be able to analyze the data is not becoming as unique, and it’s becoming almost maybe more— dare I say— commoditized to take data points, compress them together and try and pull out some insights. It’s becoming much, much more difficult to find something that is truly unique and insightful, versus something that’s become almost a little bit more regular way. So, I think that’s driving down some of the values in that space. But there are so few transactions in that sector, that I think there is room for someone to come out if they truly have something unique, whether it be unique insights or a very differentiated data set that is truly proprietary to their business, that I think that drives meaningful value in that particular sector.
Patrick: I hate to interrupt… On one thing, though, with the data processing, and just a quick question for some of us less tech-savvy folks. With the data processing, you’re processing… you’re handling raw data and organizing or analyzing that, does that then lead toward artificial intelligence? Or is AI a factor… a part of data processing?
Colin: It’s a factor of it, I think it depends on how you. And that’s where part of the complexity with trying to distil down a large data set that it tends to get a little bit murky around some of the edges. And so, there are companies that are, are effectively both a consulting and advisory practice, but leverage AI and have data processing capabilities. So, if we think about it more in its pure form— I think the data processing itself tends to be more data collection, data aggregation, and data analysis, and less the true cutting edge AI. Now, the more technology-infused and the more cutting edge of the more advanced you are, certainly, that pushes you towards a higher value because now you’re talking about something that is truly unique. It’s truly differentiated, and typically has some kind of moat around it. In terms of it’s difficult to replicate, it’s one of a kind, right, it’s something that is not readily available across the market.
Internet services and infrastructure. This is really going to be when you think of e-Commerce when you think of online, and what I would consider information services businesses. So, this is going to be oftentimes a B2C model, and it’s really online-based, I think these businesses, again, from a volume standpoint, there are fewer trades that go on year in and year out. And, the range of size of the business is very, very broad. And so, that also creates a fair amount of volatility in terms of the valuation of those businesses.
So right now historically, call it the last three years, these businesses have been trading high single digits, and year to date, we’ve seen actually a limited number of transactions to validate any sort of thesis around where they’re currently trading. They really tend to be predicated upon, what is the type of traffic the businesses generating? What is the type of service that they’re providing? What is the information in the case of online information commerce that they’re providing? And here, again, it blurs the line a little bit, where are they getting the data from? How are they aggregating it? how unique is it? Are there more proprietary insights that they’re able to pull out and then deliver to the consumer from their data set? So it’s, it’s a tends to be a bit more volatile space, just because there are fewer trades.
Patrick: And then we have IT consulting?
Colin: Correct. So IT Consulting… this is going to be the bulk of the market. And I think one reason being is that it tends to be more of a traditional consulting model. You have a high headcount, oftentimes there’s a little less technology development, there’s a little less proprietary technology. In this category, you might see companies that are considered the value-added resellers. These are called bars, or IT consulting businesses, that are truly doing what’s considered the lift and shift. So: helping businesses that are in more traditional industries integrate into the cloud. These are also managed service providers, which tend to be outsourced IT services providers. So if a company, maybe an industrial business, that is very tried and true, very traditional and its operations, but is now moving its back-office and ERP systems into the cloud and is looking to create a mobile application to empower its workforce out in the field, this would probably be an IT services or IT consulting business that is helping them to do the integration, and then build out that application and empower that workforce.
Patrick: And even though, unlike the other two categories, you have a lot more people involved. In terms when you said the headcount which was striking to me. You are saving… an IT consulting firm is saving a business by doing the work of hundreds of people with only two or three, but you still have two or three, that’s two or three more people than a data processing company may have to engage. Is IT consulting as a business… is the value and also the cost-driven by the depth and scope of the headcount? Is it a lot more tangible with people, then technology?
Colin: It is, right, technology tends to lend itself to being highly scalable. You tend to see that in growth rates, you tend to see that in margins. And so, in the IT consulting business, there’s maybe a bit more stability… certainly in the valuations of the companies there tends to be more stable. Partly, because there are more deals to be done. There are, you know, there’s the argument to be made that there is a lower barrier to entry into the IT consulting space because practically anybody can hang up their shingle and say that they’re an IT consultant. What I would argue is that there’s a greater barrier to excellence, where there are a limited number of folks that have truly been able to differentiate themselves, and build that requisite skill set that sets them apart from everyone else when it comes to cloud integration, app development, managed services, and really providing something that is value add to the end consumer. So in this case, it’s a B2B model, where data processing or technology as a whole is going to be highly, highly leverageable in terms that it’s very scalable, you get a lot of operating leverage. The more you can build-in from a sales standpoint, typically the much more profitable, the business becomes. In IT consulting, because there is typically a larger headcount, that it’s oftentimes about billable hours. It’s oftentimes a story of a project versus recurring revenue. And, that has a huge impact on value as businesses are looking to go to market.
Patrick: This is a little bit off-topic from your report, so I do apologize for this. But, in your analysis, I’m just curious… who was doing the acquiring of each of these categories? If you if you’re a data processing company, was it being bought by a larger data processing company? Or from others, some strategic buyer that says we need that capability, so we’re going to bring you in, we’re going to take you away from the market, and we’re going to bring you in the house? What percentage of the deals roughly involved that scenario where a strategic would go and take one of these three categories and bring it in the house thus removing them from the rest of the market?
Colin: It’s really been a mixed bag. And, I think as you go year by year, it changes. Whether it’s more of a financial buyer, like a private equity group, or whether it’s going to be a strategic buyer, like other operating businesses looking to bolt-on new capabilities. And I think what we’re seeing in some spaces, is you’ve got very large, very large operators that are creating platforms, right. Microsoft is one that comes to mind. And they’re creating an Azure platform. And, what they’re doing in many instances, is they’re out there buying businesses that have created unique technology or have captured large swathes of viewers, of users. And, they’re able to quickly onboard, either the capabilities, the technology, or the traffic, into their platform. And, that carries significant value for them. They’re not necessarily in the market of saying “we want to be a consultancy.” They have plenty of businesses out there that are able to do that on their behalf. And that’s where I think you see folks in the IT consulting space, where there are a large number of businesses that are operating with very good capabilities in the space: whether it be AWS, whether it be Microsoft Azure, whether it be one of the other cloud platforms. They’re able to cater to clients and operate on those different platforms. Whereas, you know, in data processing, in internet services… it’s less about whether or not you’re able to provide support services to a larger platform, it’s really more about your capabilities.
And I think when you see the economy has been very strong for a number of years, you’ve got strategic buyers that have built up a lot of capital. And much of that capital exists not only just on the balance sheet in terms of cash, but in many instances can be equity. And that’s where as a seller, you need to be cognizant of what the consideration during the course of a transaction is going to be and how you’re going to be compensated. Because, in many instances, we’re seeing strategic buyers, and this is across all three buckets. They can be very acquisitive, and very aggressive. But, oftentimes, they’re using their own equity. Which may, or may not, be considered overvalued at the time. They may look at that equity and say “that’s actually less expensive to me today, then maybe cash would be”
Patrick: Very interesting. So now with this report, what were the major takeaways you’d mentioned early on about a disconnect? What’s the biggest takeaway from this report?
Colin: Yeah, so from the buyer’s perspective, we’re seeing there are strategic buyers that are very, very specific right now in where they’re looking to allocate funds and spend money. And so they’re typically coming out with very targeted investment theses. That is, they’re looking for a particular type of asset or many instances, a particular asset, one type of business, one business in particular, that will augment their existing operations. When they get excited about a business, they’re willing to move rather quickly, and they’re willing to pay up for it. Remember, strategic companies are typically going to realize some kind of synergy, some kind of benefit from making an acquisition that a private equity company may not necessarily if they don’t already own a business in the space.
So strategic companies are able to be very aggressive, and typically pay a premium for a business that they love. But they’re going to be much, much more selective. Private equity companies right now are… they’re cautious. I think they’re looking at where we stand today in the economic cycle, and I think most if not all of them, when we start talking about projections and estimates, they’re looking at it from— I would even argue, a fairly realistic perspective— that is, there’s going to be a correction at some point down the road. Nothing goes up forever, right. Real estate didn’t, the stock market does not. So, they’re starting to bake in downside cases into a lot of their projections. What that’s doing is that’s changing their model that’s changing their financial return profile, to say that they maybe aren’t willing to get as aggressive. And so you’re seeing that private equity companies are struggling a little bit to compete in those cases where there’s a strategic company that’s getting very, very excited about a particular asset.
Now, there are still plenty of private equity companies out there with capital that has raised funds in the last couple years, that are looking to deploy that cash. And so, they’re being more thematic about their investment style. And I think that’s where — again, in particular, I focus on the IT consulting space— private equity companies are spending a lot of time thinking about particular platforms, whether that be Microsoft, would that be Amazon. They’re spending a lot of time thinking about what is the difference between project-based businesses and recurring revenue types of businesses? Like a managed services provider, where there’s a contractual agreement, that they’re going to get a certain amount of revenue every month from their end client, right. That carries a lot more value to the operating entity, and therefore, to the private equity company, when they can project out that revenue. They know it’s coming every month, it’s much more secure. And it gives them a lot more visibility into their long term revenue, that has a significant impact on their valuations today. And that’s where we’re seeing transactions start to occur. I think more often, and I think with higher values, is when you can substantiate there’s a high degree of recurring revenue.
Patrick: Well, I think another consideration out there is it really depends on the management or the owner/founder of the businesses that are considering themselves for an exit, to sell their company, would it be a strategic, or private equity. One of those things I recently learned about was that if you want to have an exit, you’re a founder, you want to ride off into the sunset… sometimes going to a strategic may make more sense, because a lot of times the strategic will bring you in, and they may be making some big significant changes in the short term with management. Whereas, if you come on board with private equity, they want to keep the existing management in place to help them as they add value and other areas. So that’s another consideration out there.
With this, this view of, you know, the possibility of what particularly with the financial buyers looking at building in possible downsides down the road and so forth. What steps should owners and founders take? I mean, this is a perspective that is out there, you can’t guarantee outcomes across the board, but you need to plan for contingencies. What’s your guide to them on what they should start thinking about?
Colin: So I think the first step that we always take, anytime we’re talking to a new business owner, is really to understand what is it they want to accomplish? What is their desired outcome? And you talked about a business owner whether or not you should sell to a strategic and sponsor based on his outcome… That’s exactly right. And so, is his goal to stay on and run the business for another five years? And does he want to transact in the next six months, or 36 months? And I think that’s an important consideration. When you think about what are the next steps.
I think, first and foremost, I would— and maybe I’m biased— but, I would argue that maybe the right place to start is you start with someone like me, or Livingstone, or whomever that can offer you advice as to what’s currently driving the market, what’s creating value? And what are those things that you need to be thinking about?
Because we’ve seen businesses to try to run quickly for a transaction thinking that the timing is right, something’s happened in their lives, and they want to go now. But the problem is, is that if their house is not in order, running that fast they end up stubbing their toe, they trip, and it creates bigger issues for them during the course of the transaction. Versus taking a step back, taking three months, six months, and making sure they’ve got their house in order.
Now, Patrick, you and I both know that a time that time kills all deals, right? So it’s a trade-off between? Do you want to wait six months? 12 months? And do the work necessary to make sure that your finances are clean, you understand what all the data is? And that’s probably one of the biggest issues is that a lot of companies that we see, certainly that are privately owned, haven’t really thought about… What are buyers going to look for when they come in and due diligence? And do I have all of the data compiled? Reconciled? Do I have all of my KPIs in place? And, having a conversation like that with someone like Livingstone upfront, I think can go a long way to making sure that you have a smoother process, which shortens the overall timeline to actually getting a deal done, and ultimately improves the probability that not only you get a deal, but that you get the value you’re looking for.
Patrick: I think one of the things is is that a mindset that sellers really should have is you should begin with the end in mind, what is the outcome you want? How are you going to get there? And, I think probably what really is a big killer, or time killer for deals in my experience has been, when you’re a seller, you’re disorganized, you don’t have the right answers, you’re not prepared for a serious buyer to come in. Even an unsolicited buyer comes in. If you are not serious and aren’t equipped to respond to them proactively, things can drag on and what the the biggest thing that happens with the time is those multiples, that valuation, just starts shrinking. And the longer it takes because you’re not prepared— and you and you may have the right answers — but that’s not formatted in a way that the buyer is prepared to receive them. It just kills everything. And I think that’s the great value you add, it’s almost like staging a house for an open house. You’re going to you’re going to incur some expenses to paint and furnish the house and get it all souped up and be cluttered and everything. And for every dollar that you pay an expert in doing that you probably reap $25 to $30 in return.
Colin: I think that’s very fair. I think that’s very fair. And if you use that same analogy, you probably aren’t going to, accept the first offer that comes in off the street, unsolicited. You’re going to want to run an auction. And I think that’s again, a value add that folks like Livingstone, folks like my team and I can provide, which is we make sure that that not only is your house in order, but that it’s being presented correctly, in order to maximize value and help guide you through that process in that transaction.
Patrick: One other thing I was thinking about, and this is because we’re based here in California, and I’m a Silicon Valley, and you’re down in Southern California. But the M&A community, particularly in tech, is not that huge. And so I think another value you probably add is not only do you know the market out there, but you know buyers, and which buyers are serious and which buyers are kind of grinders and wheel spinners. And that can be particularly helpful.
Colin: Correct. So we maintain… Livingstone has been around for more than 20 years. And all of us have been at prior firms prior to Livingstone. And so, we’ve got a very good sense as to who’s serious versus who’s just tire kickers. We know how people behave in the course of a process. And, I think that goes a long way to lending value, when you’re in the throes of a deal and you’re trying to compare different types of bids. You know which one has more teeth to it, has more meat to it. And you have a sense as to how people are going to behave during the course of the process. I think that’s that’s your point, right? That’s the value of having a more seasoned team behind you guiding you through the process.
Patrick: Well, what’s what’s the ideal profile for an ideal client for you, and for Livingstone in general, but for you and your practice in California? I know you’re not limited just to stay in the Golden State, but give us a quick profile.
Colin: Yeah, so Livingstone has offices across the US, Chicago and LA. And then we have offices throughout Europe. And so, a fair amount of our deals are in fact cross-border. I spend most most of my time working on sell side transactions. So, typically business owners that are looking to exit their business or bring in capital, whether it be private equity, or whether it be debt financing. And so, generally they’re they’re located in North America, I tend to look at businesses that have EBITDA between call it $5 and $25 million. That typically translates to enterprise value. We have a strong restructuring practice out of our Chicago office for companies that maybe need a little bit more help, have a little bit more of a story to them. Those businesses are probably in the $20 to $25 million enterprise range. And then, once we get healthier sell-side, you know, we’re typically looking at businesses that are $50 million upwards to $500 million in enterprise value.
From a sector standpoint, I’ll add, I think where I spend most of my time, is, as I said, the IT consulting and services business. And so, that tends to be anything in the IOT space, managed services providers or MSP space, anything that is cloud-related, those tend to be where I spent a lot of time thinking about, talking to buyers, talking to sellers, and tend to have a pretty good grasp of what’s going on in the day-to-day. We’ve got a number of transactions that we’ve completed here recently that have been in that space, that have gone a long way to helping inform, I think what it says in the article, but just again, our sort of industrial knowledge of of the space.
Patrick: I also think just your initial background, being in wealth management and estate planning, you definitely convey a perspective of looking for the welfare of the owner/founder or investor in this transaction and helping them transition either to short term or long term. So, I think you have an experience of beginning with the end in mind, which is very helpful. Colin, how can our listeners find you?
Colin: Yeah, Patrick, so you can email me at Campbell, spelled like the soup, @LivingstonePartners.com, or you can reach me in my office 424-282-3709.
Patrick: Thanks very much. This has been a great insightful look into the possible outcome with a slowing tech space, but just how diverse it is. And, there are ups and downs throughout. And the best way to do this is navigate with a professional who cares about your outcome. Colin, thank you very much for joining us today and we’ll talk again
Colin: Thank you, Patrick.