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The 7 Key Legal Issues in Buying a Business

The 7 Key Legal Issues in Buying a Business

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.

    Under the Finfluence: What Do Australian Regulators Think?

    Under the Finfluence: What Do Australian Regulators Think?

    Under the Finfluence: What Do Australian Regulators Think?

    Compliance and enforcement priorities for two of Australian regulators, ASIC and ACCC, are now firmly focused on the Digital Economy.

    Compliance and enforcement priorities for two of Australian regulators, ASIC and ACCC, are now firmly focused on the Digital Economy. Some might say “it’s about time!”

    The regulators will coordinate with each other on many matters including combined financial and non-financial issues, so there is potential to be explaining your actions on two fronts.

    What is ASIC doing with Finfluencers?

    ASIC started ‘cautioning’ finfluencers in April 2022. Prominent social media influencers attended a briefing about the need for a financial services licence from ASIC in early April 2022. It was invitation only and about 30 turned up, with some commenting vocally on social media that the briefing heralded the end of their business. 

    So, what is a Finfluencer, and why is ASIC suddenly so interested?

    $99 million dollars lost by Australians in 2021 on scams involving crypto assets (ASIC Commissioner Cathie Armour, March 2022) is why ASIC is interested. That’s just crypto and doesn’t account for other significant losses on financial platforms.

    From ASIC’s perspective, a Finfluencer is “a social media influencer who discusses financial products and services online”.

    If you wanted to have a technical legal argument, we could look at the meanings of ‘social media’, ‘influencer’, ‘discusses’, ‘financial products and service’. Unfortunately, that is a tortured road and only really necessary if you land in a position where you must defend yourself.

    Prevention is better than cure!

    What it really comes down to is whether, in the online environment (websites and email lists included) you promote a financial product or financial service.

    In Australia, if you are providing financial product advice or arranging for your followers to deal in a financial product, you must hold an Australian Financial Services Licence (AFSL). There is a huge compliance regime around it and its overly complicated. It can also take quite some time to get a licence; its not at all like getting a diver’s licence.  

    THE LAW

    Financial product advice is a recommendation or statement of opinion which is intended to influence, or which could reasonably be regarded as being intended to influence, a person making a decision in relation to financial products.

    ASIC Info Sheet 269, March 2022

    Earning an income from discussing financial stuff online “indicates an intention to influence the audience”, according to ASIC.  

    So, a Finfluencer is someone making money from discussing financial stuff online. If what you say is purely factual – “property investment and on market trading are the most common forms of investment in Australia”, then you are ok.

    If you say something like “you get way better returns on crypto than shares” alongside promotion of a crypto trading platform, then you are likely to get into trouble. Especially if you are earning revenue from the promotion of the crypto trading platform.

    According to ASIC, dealing in a financial product can be as simple as posting a unique affiliate link for a trading platform.

    Understanding What Finfluencers Can and Can’t Do Online

    Penalties from ASIC for providing financial advice online without an AFS licence can reach 5 years in jail for an individual and more than $1 million in fines.

    If you’re worried about what you are publishing, including historical posts, and whether that might put you in the line to be part of the ASIC Finfluencer crackdown, make an appointment  with us to help identify your real risks and whether continuing to operate your business is realistic, or not.

    There may be strategies you can implement (and rules to follow) so that you sit outside those needing an AFSL, including becoming a representative for an AFSL holder.

    What’s the Risk of Prosecution by ASIC for a Finfluencer?

    Part of the recent awareness campaign is to ensure the ASIC will hear about problems now that more people are aware of their concerns. You might not get a complaint from one of your followers, but in our experience, regulatory complaints are often generated by your competitors rather that your customers.

    “ASIC takes enforcement action where it is in the public interest”

    Right now, ASIC is likely to be focused on finding someone to prosecute and make an example of to warn Finfluencers of the consequences of non-compliance. It also helps them encourage industry compliance.

    ASIC takes enforcement action where it is in public interest. If you’re not already known by ASIC, don’t have much of a following or haven’t been complained about, ASIC probably doesn’t know you exist.

    Unless:

    • you have a huge following, or
    • enough people complain about losing money as a result of interacting with you, or
    • you are already on ASIC’s radar (due to past behaviour), or
    • they’ve come up with an algorithm to find you on social media without human eyes having to complete all the searches,

    you’re unlikely to get any attention from the regulator in the immediate future. ASIC only has so much funding.

    And then there is ACCC and consumer protection laws…

    Digital Marketing is one of ACCC’s 2022/23 Priorities 

    The digital economy is now front and centre with ACCC adopting a focus on:

    • Consumer and fair-trading issues relating to manipulative or deceptive advertising and marketing practices in the digital economy.
    • Competition and consumer issues relating to digital platforms.
    • Promoting competition and investigating allegations of anti-competitive conduct in the financial services sector, with a focus on payment services.

    So Finfluencers are potentially in the firing line with both ACCC and ASIC. The regulators will coordinate with each other on many matters including combined financial and non-financial issues.

     

    What’s the Problem with Marketing and Advertising Online?

    ACCC is concerned with techniques that are manipulative and generate sales as a result of FOMO (fear of missing out). Techniques of concern include:

    • false scarcity reminders such as low-stock warnings
    • false sales countdown timers
    • targeted advertising using a consumers’ own data to exploit their individual characteristics
    • pre-selected add-ons (no, I don’t want McAfee with that!), and
    • design interfaces that discourage unsubscribing.

    A scarcity reminder is false when you have the stock or capacity to provide services but have chosen to limit the number for sale at a given time for the main reason of creating urgency in purchasers.

    It’s that level of pressure experienced by the purchaser that is considered manipulative, and the higher the priced item, the greater the problem in ACCC’s eyes. Intent can be implied rather than stated. So even if you say it wasn’t your intent to be misleading, where the end result is higher sales due to a perception of the buyer that if they don’t buy then, intent may be implied.

    The pre-COVID seminar industry provided an excellent example of the type of sales pressure that is a concern for ACCC – that emotional pressure to rush to the back of the room to complete a purchase before you miss out. Where marketing includes emotional triggers (doesn’t it all, at least marketing that works?) and those triggers are considered unfairly manipulative, you may have cause for concern.

    ACCC has previously warned that high pressure sales tactics may be considered unconscionable conduct [https://www.accc.gov.au/business/anti-competitive-behaviour/unconscionable-conduct] and if sales commissions are structured around that type of selling, it will only emphasise the risk that the sales tactic will be unconscionable.   

    Other practices of concern include manipulation of online reviews and search results – using false testimonials is a specific breach of consumer law – and comparison websites and social media influencers who don’t disclose commercial relationships and paid promotions. As long as it is clear that promotions are paid promotions, an accusation of manipulation could be avoided.

    The failure to disclose payment for comment is a red flag because it is thought that the comments are more likely to be misleading to potential customers than they would be if there was a wholly independent review without benefit to the writer or publisher. It is also suggested that if you do have a ‘adv.’ or ‘sponsored’ tag or notice somewhere obvious on the review that customers can better determine how much weight they will give to the writer’s opinion. 

    What’s the Risk of Prosecution by ACCC?

    ACCC selects companies working in their current priority areas when deciding whether to pursue a matter. Again, ACCC doesn’t have the funding to follow up or prosecute every compliance complaint. They focus on those complaints that they believe will give them a win in court, or a negotiated resolution that can be published, and choose claims where the defendant can serve as an example for the rest of the industry.

    Despite having an online portal for collection of complaints, where a complaint is made about a small business, particularly one that does not operate outside state boundaries, it isn’t likely to get picked up by ACCC and the complainant may need to start their own legal action to get a remedy.

    ACCC has a range of enforcement remedies to address contraventions including litigation and court enforceable undertakings, which are designed to be proportionate to the conduct and the resulting or potential harm.

    Their stated first priority is to “achieve the best possible outcome for the community and to manage risk proportionately”.

    The main actions they use are:

    • encouraging compliance through educating and informing consumers and traders
    • enforcement using administrative processes or more formal processes such as court action
    • undertaking market studies
    • coordination with other government agencies.

    Regulators are slowly catching up to the way the digital economy works and taking an interest in consumer protection in that space.

    Now might be a could time to update your marketing strategies.

      How can Onyx Legal help you?

      If you have any concerns about a proposed campaign, or existing campaigns, and would like a review, make an appointment to discuss that with one of our team.

      Selling Your Business? 6 Common Mistakes to Avoid

      Selling Your Business? 6 Common Mistakes to Avoid

      Selling Your Business? 6 Common Mistakes to Avoid

      Before you make the decision to sell your business, you need to know how to avoid making the most common mistakes. 

      Before you make the decision to sell your business, you need to know how to avoid making the most common mistakes. A little thoughtful preparation can save you time and money and help you avoid making decisions you might regret later.

      For some people, going through the process of really thinking about what they are selling has led them to reconsider and make other adjustments in their business instead.

      1. Not knowing what you want to sell

      It sounds like common sense, doesn’t it? “I know what I want, I want to sell my business!”

      But what does that look like?

      We have worked with a few clients lately at different ends of the spectrum of preparation for sale. Some people know exactly what they are selling, have identified the assets to be sold and those not transferring with the sale, and know how much they want for it. They know whether the premises are part of it and what it looks like to transfer the premises.

      Surprisingly, other people come to us to prepare contracts for sale, and we spend weeks trying to get clarity on what is included, what is not included, and what is actually necessary to ensure that the sale is made as a going concern and will therefore not attract GST.

      And yes, if you didn’t get around to documenting a business sale when it occurred and would like it documented after the fact, that is still possible. Although it has its own peculiarities. 

      The Australian Taxation Office (ATO) guidelines for sale of a going concern are straightforward:

      • everything necessary to continue to operate the business, including staff, equipment and premises
      • continue to operate the business up until the sale date
      • buyer must be registered for GST
      • there is a written agreement showing that ‘going concern’ has been agreed between the parties, dated before the sale is finalised
      • both parties are to be a single purchasing entity and a single selling entity to claim the GST exemption – there can be multiple enterprises but these have to operate as separate sales (ie. land and business)

      To be a sale of a going concern you need to transfer everything that is necessary to the ongoing operations of the business. This still occurs in context. You might use certain software in your business (like Xero or MYOB) and consider that essential, but the buyer might have different software and no intent of changing. What is essential for the business is the customer and sales data, not necessarily the software.

      Prudent buyers will complete searches and due diligence before offering to purchase your business. Ideally, you will have anticipated and prepared all the information the buyer might want to see before promoting your business for sale; this makes the due diligence process much smoother and quicker.

      Apart from knowing what it is you want to sell and what you want for it, it is also important to consider whether it is important to you, or the continuation of the business, to sell the company or the assets.

      Obviously, if you are operating through a trust, it is an asset sale, but if you are operating through a company, there may be an option to sell the shares in that company. Lots of advisers will caution against purchasing shares because more due diligence is involved, and you may not be able to discover any skeletons in the company closet until after the transfer is complete. Yes, we can write in indemnities etc., but it is considered a higher risk position that purchasing assets. 

      However, there are regulated businesses where it may be much easier to transfer the company than attempt to transfer assets. For example, selling a business with government contracts, selling a business which has licenses or permissions that require an involved process, such as an RTO (Registered Training Organisation) if you are looking for potential buyers who do not already have that compliance set up.

      2. Not getting advice early, whether legal, financial or from a business broker

      Working with a business broker can help you identify what you are selling and the value of what you have to sell, before you go to market. Some business brokers are great, will work closely with you to achieve what you want and really look after your interests. Some aren’t.

      We’ve worked with business brokers in the past who are so focused on getting their commission that they write the sales contract in favour of the buyer, and insist on controlling the contract contrary to any legal advice to the parties. This is where it helps if you understand what you are selling and what you want to achieve. You’re not likely to be persuaded to just take any sale.

      Sellers don’t always consider planning for life after the sale of business (apart from much needed holidays) and may struggle to ensure they have adequately provided for their next venture, or even retirement. You want to be better off financially at the completion of the sale, instead of regretting your decision.

      Achieving the best possible price means that careful planning needs to be in place; a quick sale due to financial pressure or personal reasons is can potentially impact your ability to achieve the best price for your business.

      You can put processes in place to limit your risk and protect your interests. You can put boundaries around what you are prepared to commit as part of the sale in terms of your assistance to the buyer after settlement.

      If you get appropriate advice before you sign anything, you have the opportunity to walk away from a transaction that is only going to cause you grief in the future.

      I would add addressing PPSR’s, as they tend to get overlooked and can cause a big problem with completion. The main issue I have found is that most sellers do not have a comprehensive exit plan that details every step, especially the preparation stages that will make the process more seamless. 

      Another process which is becoming more popular is to engage a registered business valuer, or other expert to complete a pre-sale audit report that that will highlight the true strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats confronting the business. 

      Hugo Martin, Business Broker and Registered Business Valuer 

      Getting appropriate tax advice

      It is essential to consult with a tax professional to make sure you understand that tax implications of your sale and the amount of tax liability you will have to pay. GST, CGT and income tax may all need consideration depending on what you are selling, when and in what structure.

      We are not tax lawyers, and you will need to consult your tax adviser for advice appropriate to your circumstances.

      Ideally you will have your financial reporting for the past 2-3 years available for inspection by the buyer (after they have signed an NDA) and a business structure that is attractive to a potential purchaser. As part of the business purchase, the buyer will want to review the financial records of the business, because this supports the price you are asking the buyer to pay.

      Another consideration will be the way the selling price is determined and if the future performance of the business will generate a percentage to be paid to you as the seller.

      Stamp duty

      Depending on which state or territory you are located, and where the buyer is, there may be transfer duty or stamp duty on the sale of the business.

      Duty is usually calculated on the arm’s length value of the business sale. So, if you transfer the business to a friend or relative at a discount, you may need to submit an independent valuation with the application for assessment.

      Depending on the value, nature and place of business, an item like goodwill can still attract transfer duty. The sale of goodwill alone does not always attract stamp duty, but that type of sale is also not likely to be a sale of a going concern. Lots of different things need to be taken into consideration.

      Case Study

      An example of where goodwill was found not to be included in a sale was a case involving the sale of two McDonald’s restaurants in NSW. The Chief Commissioner for Taxation assessed stamp duty on the sale price and included an element for goodwill. The restaurant owner argued that the goodwill was not sold and instead remained the property of McDonald’s due to their licence agreement. The Court held that any goodwill the restaurant owner enjoyed would be terminated at the end of the licence agreement. In those circumstances it was determined that no goodwill was transferred, and no duty was payable by the restaurant owner in respect of goodwill.

      3. Not understanding the ownership of the assets in the business sale

      A little careful pre-planning for sale will ensure that the correct assets are in the correct business entity name and will attach to the sale.

      We’ve had interesting situations in the past where clients have, at the last minute and only after we’ve reviewed a contract from the potential buyer (it’s not always the seller who prepares the contract, although that is a good idea) that it was discovered some of the assets sat in a forgotten entity that was about to be deregistered by ASIC. The company was quickly reinstated and added to the sale contract as one of the sellers.

      In that instance it was a trade mark registration, but it could just as easily have been a motor vehicle, manufacturing machinery or office equipment.

      To help you think about your business, the assets of the business are defined in the Real Estate Institute of Queensland (REIQ) Business Sale Contract, under Clause 3.1 to include the following:

      • Goodwill
      • Fixtures
      • Fittings
      • Furniture
      • Chattels
      • Plant and equipment
      • Industrial and intellectual property
      • Work-in-progress
      • Stock in trade
      • Permits
      • Licenses
      • Any other assets listed by the parties

      There are usually warranties in the contract for sale of business that you as a seller give, promising that the assets are ‘unencumbered’ or not subject to the interests of another party, like a financier.

      It will be a necessary part of the sale to provide clear title for the assets, including paying out any lenders who hold the existing loans and securities registered under the Personal Property Securities Register (PPSR). If this does not happen before or at settlement, then if the buyer defaults on the payments, the financier can repossess the asset.

      4. Not understanding what is going to happen with your employees

      Do you tell them, or don’t you? And when?

      If you are about to list your business with a broker, then it’s a good idea to have a discussion with your staff beforehand. You don’t want to embarrass your employees by having them find out from someone else that their job might be at risk.

      Some buyers will be interested in all your staff. Some buyers may be interested in some of your staff and some buyers just want the assets and don’t want any people. The size of your business, and the size of the purchaser, are likely to make a difference.

      If you are listing with a broker, you can let the broker know what your expectations are around your staff – that they buyer will take them, or the majority of them.

      It is the option of the purchaser to make your employees an offer, or not. You can’t force a new owner to take all your employees. You also can’t force your employees to work for a new owner. Some careful negotiation may be needed.

      As a seller, you will be under an obligation to give all the employee details for transferring employees, their entitlements, any accrued leave and the pay rates and any Awards they might be employed under.

      If the purchaser does not take your employees, then you will need to pay out their entitlements, which may include accrued bonuses, annual leave, long service leave, notice or redundancy. If you are thinking ahead and have a year or so before you expect to put your business up for sale, you might consider reviewing what entitlements have been accrued and suggesting some people use their leave.

      Once offers and agreements with the employees have been made by the buyer, there is likely to be an adjustment to the purchase price for some entitlements, such as personal leave, annual leave, long service leave and accrued bonuses.  

      If you need advice on understanding what is going to happen and what your responsibilities will be, and even answering your employee’s questions, then let us know and we are happy to help.

      5. Not thinking about what you will do with the premises if not part of the sale

      Not every business requires an office and with the changes in working habits brought about by COVID, a buyer may not be interested in taking over any premises you have for your business. So where does that leave you?

      If the buyer does want your premises:

      • If you lease the premises, then you will need the landlord’s consent to a novation or assignment of the lease. A novation gets you out of any liability associated with the lease and an assignment means you are still on the hook (financially liable) until the lease ends, which may include option periods.
      • If you own the premises, you may be able to negotiate a sale in conjunction with the sale of business.
      • If you own the premises, you may be able to negotiate a lease with the new business owner, and yes, the lease still needs to be documented separately from the sale of business.

      Most landlords are prepared to agree to an assignment but not a novation. Why not have two people responsible for covering the lease when you have no obligation to let the first tenant out?

      If the buyer doesn’t want your premises:

      • Think about how much time you have left on the lease.
      • Think about alternate uses for the premises.
      • Consider whether you still have a use for the premises, or if you need to break the lease.
      • Instead of breaking the lease, you may be able to find someone else to take over the lease – again by novation or assignment, or you may be able to find someone to sublet some of the space from you to reduce your costs.

      It is not uncommon for a business to ‘hold over’ after the end of a lease on a month-by-month tenancy pending a sale of business to limit the risk of having to maintain a lease without a business to fund it. We’re happy to talk through your options with you.

      6. Forgetting to transfer licenses, permists and social media accounts

      Some businesses need specific licences and permits to trade.

      Think about:

      • food business licences
      • liquor licences
      • building trade licences
      • transport licences
      • commercial parking permits
      • and so on

      The buyer’s expectation will be that the business sale contract includes at least reference to necessary llicences and permits, and possibly your cooperation in transfer, if that is available. Some permits require a new application from the buyer and that takes time. The buyer might ask you to stay in the business as the licence holder pending their application. If so, you will need to think about your risks if their application is unsuccessful. It is possible that the sale will fall over if the purchaser cannot get the necessary permits or licenses.

      Online assets

      Business brokers don’t always consider your online assets when helping you prepare for sale. In our online world where people increasingly search online to find what they are looking for, online assets can have a significant impact on the continued operation of the business.

      Whatever you use to promote your business online is your intellectual property and needs to be part of the sale.

      Your domain name, business website (a domain name and website are different things) and social media accounts will also need to be transferred across to the new owner. Different platforms have different requirements and its important you understand what you have to do when settlement comes around.

      How can Onyx Legal help you?

      If you are thinking of selling, have a chat with us before the deal is done. If you’ve found a buyer and want to move forward, we can prepare your contract for sale and if you’ve somehow sold without any written agreement and would just like to clarify any remaining liability before anyone forgets what the agreement was.

      Your Guide to Terms & Conditions

      Your Guide to Terms & Conditions

      Your Guide to Terms & Conditions

      The last few years have seen lots of businesses pivot to make greater use of online tools and increase the opportunity for online sales.

      As a business owner you should be considering the exposure of your online business and in particular, when you last updated your terms and conditions, your privacy policy and your disclaimer – or even if you have them to protect your business.

      The post COVID-19 era has resulted in more important updates, changes and governmental compliance responsibilities than prior to the pandemic, and increased the complexity of navigating the online business world.

      Your terms and conditions set out essential protections for your business including identifying which laws govern your website and business, reducing your chance of a dispute arising, giving you the freedom to remove unwanted people, and placing responsibilities on the user that are important to the way you do business.

      Having terms and conditions can significantly reduce any future problems from arising, if you have taken the time to obtain appropriate legal coverage.

      Services Online

      If you sell a service and have any type of intellectual property, such as an education course or unique planning tool, you will want to ensure one of your terms and conditions include protection. As other businesses move online, they may copy some of your own website and design, so a copyright clause can at least alert visitors to your website that you intend to protect your intellectual property and caution them against copying it.

      As a practical tipdo not copy someone else’s website content. It is copyright infringement. If you are checking out what your competitors are doing and want to create something similar, at least choose a competitor on the other side of the world who might have a totally different client base. Don’t copy your local competitor just down the road and expect them not to get upset!

      Be innovative. Even if you sell hard products, you can use your online environment to create membership communities, offer education, host competitions etc.

      Goods Online

      If you manage a type of retail or goods-based business, necessary terms and conditions would include your refund and return policy. Ideally this would set out in very clear terms what the customer should expect in the event that they sought a refund or wanted to return their items.

      Your customer must be aware of your terms and conditions before purchase for them to be binding. It saves a lot of hassles and time down the track if your terms of trade are clear and easy to access. It is worthwhile noting here that some terms and conditions cannot override Australian consumer guarantees. Any attempt to limit the Australian Consumer Laws (ACL), is invalid. Consumer guarantees now apply to products and services with a value up to $100,000, regardless of who the purchaser is. 

      We can help you navigate your obligations under Australian Consumer Law.

      Interesting Recent Cases

      Consider the 2019 case of Australian Competition Consumer Commission (ACCC) v Jetstar.

      Jetstar tried to present their air fares in a way that excluded any right to a refund for the cheaper air fares. The ACCC commenced proceedings against Jetstar for false and misleading representations, as well as breaching the automatic consumer guarantees that cannot be excluded, restricted or modified, no matter how cheap the air fare was for the consumer.

      The Federal Court ordered Jetstar to pay a financial penalty of $1.95 million for the breaches as well as an undertaking to commit to amend its policies and practices to ensure they are consistent with the ACL. This undertaking was court-enforceable if they did not comply.

      Another recent case that illustrates the importance of having express terms and conditions is the case of Hardingham v RP Data. Hardingham was a real estate photographer who had an exclusive licence with his business ‘Real Estate Marketing Australia Pty Ltd’ (REMA) for the copyright of his works. He had an ongoing informal oral agreement between him and the various real estate agencies for the use of his photographs and floor plan images for the agencies marketing campaigns. He did not have any express terms and conditions in place between him and the various agencies.

      These agencies would then upload his work to Realestate.com.au for the marketing campaigns. In order to proceed with the upload of the photographs, the agency (often a subscriber) would need to agree to the terms and conditions on the website as set out by Realesate.com.au. The terms and conditions on the Realestate.com.au website contained a sub-license to “other persons” in a detailed form.

      Realestate.com.au then sub-licensed to RP Data who then published the photographs on its websites and superimposed a logo on the images. RP Data is a subscriber-only database of real estate sales and rental history. After an appeal to the Full Court of the Federal Court of Australia, the court held by 2:1 majority, that the sub-licence to RP Data who then used and manipulated the photographs and images was an infringement of copyright.

      The court held that the original owner of the copyright did not agree to the sub-licence when it verbally agreed to the various real estate agencies uploading the images to Realestate.com.au.

      We have assisted professional real estate photographers to prepare appropriate terms and conditions for the use of their images to ensure they are paid for use.

      This case is a good example where the copyright owner might have avoided going through the expensive and lengthy court process, and the subsequent need to appeal, to receive a judgement in his favour, if he had express terms and conditions that explicitly set out the use of the photographs and images.

      Since he had only oral agreements between him and the real estate agencies, the court had to determine if the implied terms were so obvious and were necessary to give business efficacy to the contract. Thankfully the Full Court found that there was such an implied term in this instance.

      COVID-19 Impact on Terms and Conditions

      Consider another recent case that relied on terms and conditions under a contract that was affected by COVID-19 shutdowns is the case of Dyco Hotels Pty Ltd v Laundry Hotels (Quarry) Pty Ltd. This case concerned the sale of the Quarryman Hotel in Pyrmont, New South Wales (NSW). The contract was signed on 31 January 2020, with the date of settlement set for 27 March 2020.

      The contract price was for $11,250,000 and included the associated hotel licence, the gaming machine entitlements and the hotel business itself. The deposit paid by the buyers was $562,500.

      In the sale contract, there was an Additional Clause 50.1 which imposed various obligations upon the vendor, including the obligation to continue to operate the business “in the usual and ordinary course as regards to its nature, scope and manner”.

      On the 23 March 2020, 4 days before settlement, public health orders issued shutting down the majority of hospitality services. This made it unlawful for the hotel to continue to operate, except for takeaway food and drinks, in accordance with the public health directions.

      The buyers argued that the business sale was frustrated by the public health orders since the hotel was no longer able to operate in the “usual and ordinary course as regards to its nature, scope and manner”. They asked for return of the $562,500 deposit and claimed the value of the assets decreased by $1 million due to the public health orders.

      The vendor disagreed.

      The vendor’s position was that the hotel continued to trade as a going concern within the confines of the health orders and in accordance with the legal restrictions that had been imposed upon it. If the vendor had operated contrary to the public health orders, it would have placed the future operation of the business in jeopardy, including the hotel licence to operate. This would have damaged the goodwill of the hotel. The vendor also argued that they were entitled to terminate the contract, retain the deposit and seek damages for the loss of the bargain.

      The NSW Supreme Court found in the vendor’s favour and held that the contract was not frustrated by COVID-19 public health orders. The vendor was entitled to keep the $562,500 deposit and recover damages as well for the loss of bargain. The court assessed the damages to be $900,000 and deducted the deposit of $562,500 from that amount.

      Although the terms and conditions in this case were not online but contained in sale documents, it does demonstrate that carefully considered terms and conditions can make a big difference to the outcome of a dispute. 

      The purchasers might have been better protected if there were any contractual warranties given by the vendor about the future financial performance of the hotel. Since there were no warranties given, the purchasers accepted the risks.  The purchasers were experienced in the Sydney hotel operations business and understood the various potential risks of legislative changes, despite not being familiar with the impact of a pandemic.

      This is a good illustration of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on terms and conditions and contemplation of the risks associated with business operations. Following the lessons in this case, a vendor would be wise to include business conduct obligations under the contract that can be altered or changed to comply with public health emergencies. A buyer would be wise to include options to terminate the contract in the event where the value of the business has dramatically dropped due to unexpected circumstances.

      Another COVID-19 impact on the operation of businesses can be seen in the recent case of Flight Centre Travel Group Limited Trading as Aunt Betty v Goel. Terms and conditions were online and agreed to by click wrap agreement – where the buyer has to check a box stating they agree to terms and conditions before being able to complete the purchase.

      In the first hearing, Goel had been awarded a refund on the basis that the purchased flights hadn’t been received.

      On the 5 November 2019, the customer (Goel) had made a booking online, for the return flights from Sydney to Delhi scheduled for flights during April 2020. The $2,336.30 flights were with Malaysia Airlines which cancelled the flights during March 2020, when COVID-19 public health orders restricted international travel.

      The terms and conditions stated that Flight Centre was only agent and not responsible for delivery. If that were the case, Malaysian Airlines would have been liable to provide the refund, not Flight Centre.

      The case we are referring to was an appeal by Flight Centre where it argued that the business Aunt Betty operated as an agent, and not the supplier of the service and therefore was not liable for actions by the airline in cancelling the flight. It would have set a damaging precedent for Flight Centre to be liable to refund all booking costs where it had not received the bulk of those funds, which had been passed on to the suppliers (like Malaysian Airlines) pending delivery.

      The tribunal, on appeal, held that Goel would have been aware at the time of booking that he had booked the flights with an agent and not the actual airline carrier itself. It is interesting to note that the court decided that the booking could not have been made without the positive acknowledgement of the terms and conditions on the website. The court also decided that there was no breach of the consumer laws by the agent, and it was not liable to provide the refund.

      Conclusion

      In order to operate your business successfully, you need to be mindful of the ever-changing landscape that both COVID-19 public health emergencies create, and the increasing demands shaped by conducting more business in the online space.

      The pass of change suggests you have your terms and conditions of trade reviewed and updated more frequently, with consideration of all aspects of a transaction.

      If you are contemplating signing any contracts for business sales or purchases, it would also be advisable to ensure you are covered in the event that COVID-19 emergency public health order impacts adversely on the contract price and business valuation or operational requirements.

      The new year is also a good time to evaluate your privacy policies and disclaimers, as well.

      How can Onyx Legal help you?

      We love reading and writing terms and conditions. Someone has to do it. It’s fun for us. If your terms and conditions are like a different language for you and you’d rather not think about them, let us help. Book a time to chat with one of our team about how we can help update your online terms sooner rather than later.

      Your Guide to Terms & Conditions

      Australia Consumer Law: How Does it Affect Your Business?

      Australia Consumer Law: How Does it Affect Your Business?

      australian consumer law: how does it affect your business?

      From 1 July 2021 the monetary limit that applies to consumer goods or services under the Australian Consumer Law increased from $40,000 to $100,000. So, what does that mean for you?

      Let’s start by looking at who is a consumer.

      Who is a consumer under the Australian Consumer Law (ACL)?

      Since 1 July 2021, a consumer can be any person or entity that purchases goods or services from you, where those goods or services –

      • are purchased for $100,000 or less;
      • or are ordinarily acquired for personal, domestic or household use,
      • or are a vehicle or trailer used for transporting goods on public roads (more than personal use).

      For anything purchased up to 30 June 2021, the value was $40,000. This is the first uplift in that value since 1986 and aims to protect a broader group of consumers. Whether your customer is a person, or a company or any other type of entity is irrelevant is the goods or services purchased were under $100,000. So, if you deal B2B, your business still has to meet consumer law obligations.

      Similar rules apply to the provision of financial services under the Australian Securities Investment Commission (ASIC) legislation, and the monetary limit of financial services has also been lifted.

      What protections apply to consumers?

      As soon as a purchaser is classified a consumer, the ACL consumer guarantees apply. Consumer guarantees are automatic and apply in addition to any warranties you might offer.

      A warranty and a guarantee are similar things. They are both promises that you make about your business goods or services. It might be helpful to consider them from an ‘active’ and ‘passive’ perspective. Consumer guarantees are automatic. A business doesn’t have to actively do anything, they just exist. A warranty is a voluntary promise, something you offer in addition to consumer guarantees. So, a ’30 day money back guarantee’ is actually an express warranty. Go figure.

      There are nine consumer guarantees for goods, and three for services.

       

      ProductsServices
      • Will receive clear title
      • Will have undisturbed possession
      • No undisclosed security over the goods
      • Acceptable quality
      • Fit for purpose
      • Match description
      • Match sample or demo
      • Repairs and spare parts are available
      • Express warranties will be met
      • Acceptable care and skill
      • Fit for purpose
      • Delivered within a reasonable time

      Clear title and undisturbed possession just mean that when you purchase it, the buyer knows that there is not another owner or some other costs in the background. An example might be a business or relationship break up where one person sells something second hand and it actually belonged to the other partner. The person who really owned it can argue that the person who sold it did not have the right to do so and claim it back. Equally, a customer might want to pick something up from customs only to discover there are fees owed before they can take away the goods.

      Undisclosed security is where money is owed. For example, if you want to buy a piece of machinery and there is finance owed on it and a PPSR registration against it, so the lender has priority over your claim and can sell the machinery to recover the debt, even though you bought it in good faith.

      Many of the consumer guarantees are straight forward, but acceptable quality will depend on the value and quality of the goods. If you pay $100 for something that is advertised as an outdoor marquee, you might expect it to last at least a day, but you wouldn’t expect it to last for years and you wouldn’t expect it to last through high winds. On the other hand, you would expect a $1200 marquee to be more robust.    

      For something to be fit for purpose, the consumer has to let you know what purpose is important to them. So, if a customer says it is important to them that the office chair they are buying can recline, but not fall over with someone who weighs 110kg in the seat, then the office chair needs to be able to meet that specification to be fit for purpose.

      The availability of spare parts is important because it can affect what people are prepared to pay for an item. A consumer might be prepared to buy something that will last for a limited period without repair if it is cheap (consider home printers), but not pay for a large office copier without the ability to rely on regular service and repairs.     

      What happens if you do not meet a Consumer Guarantee?

      If you don’t meet a consumer guarantee, the purchaser has rights to remedies which can include repair, replacement, refund and may also include damages and consequential losses.

      Depending on how the failure to meet consumer guarantees came about, you may also be liable for penalties for breaching a prohibition on making false or misleading representations, another provision of the Australian Consumer Law.

      The type of remedy will depend on the problem with the product or service. If it is capable of being fixed, it is probably a minor problem and will need to be repaired or replaced. Depending on the value of the product, you also have the option of providing a refund, or the customer may have the option of requesting a refund.  

      Consider large retail chains which will refund or replace most items without question simply because it is more efficient than arguing with customers or sending items off for assessment or repair. It also ensures a loyal customer base. Not every business has the same scale to do that.

      If it is a major problem and cannot be fixed, then it is the customers choice about replacement or refund and the supplier must provide that replacement or refund and may also have to pay damages for any foreseeable loss resulting from the failure. In considering whether or not something is a major failure, you need to consider whether a reasonable consumer fully acquainted with the nature and extent of the failure would still have purchased the item for the amount that it was sold.

      Consider how you might feel in the same position. 

      For example

      ACCC v Jayco Corporation Pty Ltd [2020]

      As most people would know, Jayco is a brand of caravans and recreational vehicles (RVs). Jayco is a manufacturer that sells through dealerships.

      The ACCC took action against Jayco to determine whether 4 RVs were of acceptable quality (a consumer guarantee), fit for purpose (a consumer guarantee) and whether the manufacturer was compliant with its express warranties. There was also a claim of misleading and deceptive conduct.

      The first RV was a camper trailer. The issues it had were mainly a collection of relatively small poor finishes, but there was also a problem with the alignment of the chassis and a strut that failed in lifting the tent, causing further damage. The Court said –

      At that price point ($27,000+), a reasonable consumer was entitled to expect a commensurate level of quality, including fit and finish. That expectation is consistent with the brochure that Jayco Corp published, and which Consumer read, which was calculated to convey the impression that a Jayco camper trailer was a durable, quality product. The combination of defects with the RV had the cumulative effect that the RV as a whole was not acceptable in appearance and finish, and its presentation was not consistent with the impression conveyed by the Jayco brochure…. In consequence, Consumer was entitled in April 2014 to reject the RV on the ground that the failure to comply with the guarantee of acceptable quality was a major failure…. As a result of the failure of the strut for the tent section on the second occasion, the RV was substantially unfit for purpose.”

      The second RV was pop-top caravan that leaked, which was something the Consumer specifically asked about before purchase. Over a 15-month period it was in for repair on approximately 10 occasions. The Court considered the inability to provide shelter from the weather (the leaking soaked mattresses) “went to the heart of one of its purposes” and that “a reasonable consumer, fully acquainted with the defects and what was involved in attempting to repair them, would not have acquired the RV, and therefore there was a major failure” which entitled the Consumer to a replacement or refund.

      There was also discussion around the fact that Jayco promoted their products as suitable for a relaxing family holiday, and a leaking roof and chassis would make it unfit for that purpose.

      In all cases, Jayco had not provided a replacement or refund of the purchase price of the RVs and in one case was found to have led the consumer to believe that the only remedy available was repair. The court found those representations to be misleading or deceptive (s.18 of the ACL) and false and misleading (s.29 of the ACL). As a result, Jayco was required to pay a penalty of $75,000. It then had to deal with the owners of the RVs.

      How to manage your risk of a consumer plan

      We can help you to review your terms and conditions of supply of goods or services, whether you make them available online through your website or otherwise.

      There are provisions that can be written into terms and conditions to provide you with a level of certainty around what you must do to meet consumer guarantees. For example, with consulting services it might be easiest for you to simply provide the services again rather than offering a refund. This will depend on how amicable the relationship remains with your customer, but may be more attractive that having to refund the consulting fee.

      The ACL does require specific wording in terms and conditions depending on the goods, services or warranties you offer.

      Once we have your terms worked out, then we can look at your processes with you and how information is shared within your business so that you and your employees understand how best to respond to and deal with requests for replacement or refund.

      How can Onyx Legal help you?

      Your terms and conditions of supply are important documents for managing your risk. Understanding your risks and having a clear understanding of how to respond to and deal with consumer complaints also makes a big difference. Book at time to discuss your situation with one of our team.