The 7 Key Legal Issues in Buying a Business
The 7 Key Legal Issues in Buying a Business
1. Not Rushing In
You might be incredibly excited about buying a business, and we have come across people who have decided they want to work from home, have a look on Facebook marketplace and agree to spend money they don’t have, all in one day. No consultation with a lawyer or accountant, no real understanding of what is involved in the business. It did not last and it cost them money.
We’ve also come across people who buy a business with unrealistic expectations of the work involved and an expectation that if the bank is prepared to lend them the money, they would be able to make a success of it.
A business purchase is a big commitment. It is not just the cost involved, but running the business afterwards. The next three case studies to show why it is important not to rush into a purchase.
Case Study 1
A young lady came to us with an offer from her employer to purchase the hairdressing business she was working in ‘cheap’, and to take over the lease for the business. She was keen to sign the agreement, as the seller (her boss) wanted to get out of the business before the end of financial year and it was already June.
A quick review of the deal suggested that our client would be taking on a business that was only still operating because of her work, a lease that had three years remaining and was not cheap, and the need for some refurbishment of the salon. The landlord was offering a $5,000 incentive for fitout, but the likely cost was probably going to be higher.
Fortunately, we were able to get our client to slow down and get accounting advice on the business, and to identify to our client that the seller would benefit to the tune of $30,000 per annum by being out of the lease. We encouraged our client to get an estimate of fitout renovations, which came in at a little under $70,000.
Our client decided there was no benefit in the deal to her and other opportunities were out there.
Case Study 2
A client came to us after having already taken over a beauty spa business. She thought she had a good deal because the replacement cost of the relatively new equipment in the business was significantly higher than the requested purchase price, and the vendor was providing finance.
By already being in the business and having paid a deposit of $5,000 to the seller, our client was committed, and there was nothing in writing. The client came to us desperate to get a sale agreement documented because the seller had said they would do it and hadn’t. Our client was already paying the rent, COVID restrictions came into effect and the seller was suddenly very cooperative in getting the paperwork complete. The landlord was fortunately agreeable to transferring the lease, but our client did not want us to advise on the lease, which was very basic.
Two years down the track it became apparent that the appropriate council certifications had not been obtained for the plumbing work on the premises and the premises were non-compliant. The lease and assignment of lease were silent on responsibilities and our client ended up footing the bill.
Difficulties with the lease could have been resolved before the purchase was completed if the client had not already been in the premises and operating the business before getting advice.
Case Study 3
Our client was looking to buy his first business at around $200,000 and had found a business through a broker that he was keen to buy. He arranged the finance, did his own due diligence and asked us to become involved at contract stage. The broker had prepared the contract on behalf of the seller.
When we received the business purchase contract, it was unclear from the contract what exactly our client was buying. On talking to the broker, they had moved from selling residential property into business broking and were inexperienced in the area. They were also quite frustrated that our client hadn’t simply signed the agreement and sent it back.
Without the business sale contract clearly setting out what was being sold, we couldn’t assure our client about what they would receive. In addition, the landlord wanted the buyer to enter into a new lease at a rent $10,000 per annum more than the seller had disclosed to our client.
Fortunately, our client did not rush to sign and when answers to our questions were not forthcoming, and his circumstances changed, he decided not to go ahead. In that instance he had invested in getting legal and accounting advice and told us he had a very valuable learning experience.
2. Knowing What you Are Buying
So, what are you buying? If the contract isn’t clear, then you might be handing over money and not getting what you expected. You need to know what is important to the day-to-day operations of the business and how much of that is being transferred to you. You don’t want to purchase a cafe and upon settlement, find out that the seller cleaned out all the cupboards and fridges the day before and you have to restock before you can trade.
Case Study 4
Our client was looking to buy his first business at around $200,000 and had found what he thought was a printing business and that everything was done onsite. He had no experience in printing and was planning to hire someone to run the business. He arranged the finance, and asked us to become involved at contract stage.
When we received the business purchase contract, it was unclear from the contract what exactly our client was buying. There was no mention of printing equipment, paper, card, inks or other stock. We also suggested our client carefully go through the accounts with their accountant to ensure there were sufficient profits in the business to be able to hire someone to run it. The seller was an owner/operator.
Without the business sale contract clearly setting out what was being sold, we couldn’t assure our client about what they would receive, what equipment was in the business, or even if the seller owned the equipment being used and had the right and ability to sell it.
Without ensuring the contract was clear, it is possible that our client could have only received business branding, a client list and the liability for a lease – expenses without immediate income. He would then have also had to immediately spend additional money purchasing the necessary equipment to operate the business.
Fortunately, our client did not rush to sign and when answers to our questions were not clear, and he was offered a role interstate, he decided not to go ahead. That client is looking to purchase a business for income without him having to be involved in the day to day. He hasn’t done that before and said that it had been a very worthwhile investment in getting legal and accounting advice before signing anything. He now feels better prepared to assess potential deals in the future.
3. Profit is in the Purchase
When you are buying a business, it is very important to get appropriate accounting and financial advice. It is possible to buy a business that needs to be turned around, but only if you can do so at the right price.
The profit is in the purchase.
What opportunities do you have to increase revenue immediately or very soon after you buy the business? It is not uncommon that people who are ready to sell are at that point because they have lost real interest in the business and there is lots of room for improvement. If you can see the opportunities, and know how to leverage them, then you might be looking at a good deal.
A lawyer who had bought a law practice on the Gold Coast once applied to work with Onyx Legal. They claimed they had been misled about the value of the business, paid too much and there was no opportunity to make money because the Gold Coast was a low socioeconomic area! Naturally, they didn’t get the job. You attitude to the business you are buying can influence your ability to make a success of it.
When you go into business, success or failure is up to you. Know what the business is worth once the owner walks away (are customers attached to the owner and likely to follow them?) and understand what you are willing to pay to secure that opportunity.
It is not unusual for cafes and restaurants to be sold for nominal amounts (like $1) because the owner is losing money and is better off getting out. Someone who understand the area, likely clientele, available workforce and marketing can potentially come in and make a success of it. There are stories of a Gold Coast restaurateur selling and buying back a restaurant a couple of times because he knew how to make it a success, but the purchasers didn’t.
One of the early Australian online tipping platforms was bought from the founders by a larger company, and then bought back by the founders 18 months later at a much lower cost because that company didn’t know how to make a success of it.
4. Assets vs Entities
When you buy a business, you are either buying shares in a company, in which case you are buying the history, or you are buying assets – which is everything necessary to operate a business. Assets can be tangible (like a desk) or intangible (like a website).
When you buy shares, everything in the company comes with it, so you must understand what loans or other liabilities are sitting in the company, and how they will be dealt with at settlement. Things like tax debts, overdue superannuation, bad credit ratings, court proceedings, embarrassing media stories and so on are all associated with the entity, and that is what you are buying.
When you are buying assets, you need to understand what is transferrable and what is not. Not all supply contracts are transferable without the prior approval of the customer. So if the profits in the business are in one or two large contracts and it is not clear if they are transferable, you may be losing money as soon as the purchase is completed.
These sorts of things need to be checked.
5. Transferring Intellectual Property
Intellectual property – copyright, trade marks, patents etc, need to be transferred in writing, by the owners. It is important to check who owns what when buying a business. In particular, copyright belongs to the creator unless transferred in writing. Software, graphic design, website copy etc all belong to the creator. If the creator is an employee it is ok, the copyright vests in the company, but if they started as a contractor before becoming an employee, there can be uncertainty about what they company owns and is able to sell.
Case Study 5
Our client was buying a health business and searches showed that the domain name and the website (separate things) used to advertise the business were not actually owned by the seller. A lot of patients found the business through the website. It was essential to have the sale of business contract adjusted to ensure that transfer of the domain name and website occurred as part of the sale.
Case Study 6
A client was interested in buying a business which used a particular bespoke software for all of its main operations. The due diligence process disclosed that the software developer had been contracting to the business for years and there was nothing in writing about the ownership of that software, or its ongoing use by the company. The seller was unable to produce anything in writing to show that it owned the software, even though it believed it did.
The buyer of the business walked away.
6. Competition by the Seller
Online businesses are a big area where competition is a concern after settlement. Most business sale contracts contain some form of restraint on the seller about what they can do in an area that will compete with the business you are buying after the date of the sale.
A restraint provision in an employment agreement is more likely to be enforceable when it is structured to protect the interests of the buyer, and not likely to be enforceable if it puts the seller in a position where they cannot earn a living.
Tougher restraint provisions are likely to be enforceable for commercial agreements than they are in employment situations, because the courts will also expect the parties to have made a commercial decision about what is acceptable to them, or not. This is an issue for sellers who do not carefully consider what they plan to do after completion, and how they may be limited by a restraint.
Different things that restraint provisions can cover are:
- Area: Does the business operate locally, nationally, in a region like Oceania, or worldwide? Does the seller plan to expand the area of service, or combine it into an existing business that covers a larger area? Is it fair?
- Industry: A bug-bear we have is when a buyer attempts to include ‘a similar business’ without defining what that is, or to include the businesses operated by a group of companies related to the buyer, whether or not those businesses are in the same industry or something completely different. Restraints should focus on the business being sold, not something broader.
- People: It makes sense to restrain a seller from working with existing or potential customers already known in the business being sold, however, we have assisted sellers in being permitted to retain a client list for the purpose of communicating a new business, where that business does not compete with or adversely affect the buyer.
- Key contacts: It can be also worthwhile include a restraint against poaching staff, suppliers or distributors for a period of time after completion.
- Time: Periods of restraint can vary significantly, anywhere from months to years. Times and areas of restraint vary depending on the type of business and the reach of that business. It is also common to have cascading provisions, which leave it to a court to decide what is fair if a restraint is breached. We encourage our clients to consider the period of time it would take a knowledgeable competitor to set up a similar business, and to be reasonable in setting the time for restraint. Where a large infrastructure investment is likely to be threated by competition from the seller, then a longer restraint period is likely to be considered fair and reasonable.
7. The Limits of Each Adviser
It’s tempting to think that your advisers will have all the answers when you are buying a business and be able to tell you what to do if you end up in a situation where you feel a little lost. This can happen for people who have never bought a business before.
As legal advisers, we can review the contracts and check that the contracts properly describe what you think you are buying and what your obligations, and the obligations of the seller will be, after purchase. We can highlight potential rights and flag decisions you must make – but we cannot make those decisions for you.
The truth is, it is your responsibility.
Your accountant, lender or financial adviser are all in the same boat. They can highlight information for you, but they cannot make the decision whether or not to buy, and they cannot determine how much importance you place on any piece of information.
Case Study 7
Many years ago when working in a national firm, a client who had borrowed significantly (millions) to fund a purchase was part way through the due diligence process and wondering whether or not the purchase was going to be worthwhile. It got to a point where the client was saying “we’ve spent too much (around $300k) now not to go ahead.”
There was an element of wilful blindness on the part of the purchaser in that transaction. They had put their reputation, and their house, on the line to fund a purchase that was looking more and more questionable the more they learnt about the business. Going through with the purchase was more about their ego and being ‘clever’ at getting the deal done.
About 6 months after settlement, the business failed and was placed into liquidation and the director was forced into bankruptcy.
It is your money. It could be your reputation, your family and your future that you are staking on this purchase. As much as professional advisers can provide you with advice, advisers cannot tell you what to do and all the important decisions are up to you. This makes it important to be up front with your advisers, whether legal, financial, accounting or otherwise, and ensure they understand your priorities and concerns.
A binding contract requires offer, acceptance and consideration. Consideration can be the doing of some thing or the payment of money.
At every point before consideration has passed, you are likely to have the opportunity to exit from a transaction, no matter how much has been spent getting to that point. Sometimes, a small loss can be better than taking a risk that doesn’t feel right.
When you are buying a business, you will also have a period of time to complete due diligence and should use that time to ensure that your assumptions about the business are correct, and if not, whether you still want to go ahead, negotiate further, or walk away.
As we said at the start – don’t rush in.
How can Onyx Legal help you?
If you are interested in buying a business, whether this is your first time or your tenth, and you know you need help in the process, make an appointment now to talk it through with one of our team.