Creating deals to a partner is probably the most common ownership transfer among small businesses. The reason is, your partners have a clear picture as to the value of the business, its potential, and what they need to do in order to replace you in the operations.
Selling to a partner is often one of the easier transfers to handle legally – not that partners don’t have their battles and disagreements – but most buying partners want to make the transition smooth and get the selling partner out quickly and painlessly. Many times, I feel that partners are amenable and anxious to define the transaction and process so that they themselves can utilise the same method with a good conscience in the future.
Determining the value
Most Buy-Sell Agreements require the partners to agree to the value of the company on an annual basis and record it in the annual partnership meeting. This may seem arbitrary, but if everybody agrees (typically requiring a unanimous vote) and everyone knows the value applies to everyone, then who cares what anyone from the outside thinks? If the partners can’t agree, then a third-party appraiser is brought in to do a formal valuation if a buyout is triggered during the upcoming year.
Oftentimes, the terms are based on a note, with interest, paid out over five to 10 years. This can obviously create the retirement income a partner is looking for, and over the period of payments, it will spread out the tax bill as well. Some Buy-Sell Agreements require the remaining partners to obtain a loan for a good portion of the purchase price and then finish off the rest with a Note. This allows the departing partner to invest the initial money received wisely to create additional cash flow and prepare for when the payments under the Note end.
First right of refusal
Typically, there’s a first right of refusal that must be given to the remaining partner(s) when a partner wants to leave or sell. This means that before a partner can run out into the open market and look for another buyer, they first have to offer their ownership interest to the other partners. This obviously can create some hurdles for the partner wanting to sell because they first have to find a third party willing to buy into a partnership where they may not be welcomed with open arms, probably be in a minority position, and then have to wait around for the other partners to exercise their first right of refusal. But, again, it’s a protection mechanism that “cuts both ways” and protects all the partners.
The document that typically lays the groundwork for a partnership sale like this is called the “Buy-Sell Agreement.” These types of agreements are drafted daily by law firms around the country and are actually implemented for more reasons than a partner wanting to sell.
To protect both parties, there can be a provision requiring the departing partner to sign a non-compete, and also the remaining partner or partners to “pledge” the partnership interest they purchased as security or collateral for the Note they’re paying off. Thus, if the buying partner(s) defaults, the selling partner can come back into the company as an equity partner to try to recover the remaining sales price or value sold in the original agreement.