The legal front remains forbidding for private company minority investors who seek to secure a buyout of their ownership stake based on claims for oppression against the company’s majority owners.  It has been six years since the Texas Supreme Court eliminated a court-ordered buyout as an available remedy for minority shareholders claiming oppression, and no other legal avenue exists that provides minority owners with a buyout of their interest based on claims for mistreatment by business owners who manage the company.  See Ritchie v. Rupe.[1]  The best advice for minority investors therefore is simply this—before investing in a private business, minority owners need to insist on securing a buy-sell agreement.

We have written extensively about the terms of buy-sell agreements in previous posts (Read Here).  A buy-sell contract provides investors with the right to obtain a buyout of their minority ownership interest in the company at a future time.

No BuyOut For Breach of Fiduciary Duty

When minority owners have claims for misconduct by majority owners, these claims most commonly include: (1) breach of contract, (2) fraud, and (3) breach of fiduciary duty.  None of these claims permit the trial court, however, to award the minority owner with the remedy of a buyout of his/her or its minority interest.  Instead, the remedy for these claims is typically the recovery of actual damages.  In the case of fraud, if the minority owner can prove that he/she was fraudulently induced to make the investment in the company, the court could rescind the transaction and require the majority owner to return the investor’s purchase price.  Instances of outright fraudulent inducement are relatively rare, however, and this will not be a claim or remedy available to most investors.  The fiduciary duty claim against the majority owner in control of the company does give rise to a potential shareholder derivative action, however, which is discussed below.
Continue Reading The Plight of Oppressed Private Company Minority Investors:  No Legal Escape Available Without a Buy-Sell Agreement in Place

According to the financial press, private equity investors are holding huge sums waiting for the right private company in which to invest.  In late March, CNBC reported that private equity firms have a staggering $1.5 trillion in cash on hand (more than double the amount from five years ago) and that they are actively seeking deals in the travel, entertainment and energy industries.   In April, Vanity Fair stated that in each of the past four years, private equity managers have raised more then $500 billion for investment, and noted that from 2013 to 2018, more private equity deals took place than in any five year time frame in American history.

Private equity firms are not the only ones who are making investments in private companies.  Angel investors and others are stepping up to fund privately held businesses, and there are many documented success stories of individual investors who have struck platinum with their private company investments.   It is is also true, however, that a sizable number of fast growing private companies hit the rocks and burned through all or most of the funds that were invested in them.

The purpose of this blog post is not to help pick private company winners—that is a topic for others with the ability to discern which companies have the best ideas, management teams and the staying power to succeed on a long-term basis.  But picking a successful private company is only part of the story.   A private company’s success will not automatically make an investment in the business a success if the company’s governance documents do not provide the investor with a measure of protection on several important fronts.  This blog post therefore focuses on the critical terms that an investor will want to secure in the company’s governance documents before actually making a substantial investment in the company.
Continue Reading Looking Past the Face of the Shiny Penny: Check the Fine Print of All Private Company Investments

There are many reasons for business owners to consider adding new partners, including to secure additional capital, to add needed expertise to help grow the company, to bring family members or close friends to join in building the business and to put a succession plan in place. Adding new partners can therefore provide a boost to the company’s revenues, lighten the load carried by the founder, and put the business on course for long-term success.  But this decision is not without risk because the new business partners may create conflicts, disrupt the business and insist on making changes that put the company’s existence in peril.

If after carefully weighing the pros and cons, business owners decide to move forward in adding new partners, this post reviews important steps they can take to protect themselves and the business from the decisions and actions of these new stakeholders in the company.

Equity Ownership Can Be Conditional or Subject to Cancellation

One protective step business owners can take when adding a new partner is to make the addition of a new partner’s ownership conditional or subject to cancellation. This approach permits the owner to wait to grant the ownership interest in the company to the new partner until he or she has met specified business goals by a certain date or to cancel the grant of equity to the new partner if the specific goals have not been achieved by the agreed date.
Continue Reading Keeping Eyes Wide Open When New Members Join the Pack: A Cautious Approach to the Addition of New Business Partners

L to R: Tom Bronson, Ladd Hirsch

Recently I had the pleasure of sitting down for a virtual interview with my friend, Tom Bronson, as part of his Mastery Partners webcast series.   Tom has a wealth of experience helping business owners prepare to sell their companies, and we visited about how

“Adversity does not build character, it reveals it.”

James Lane Allen, Novelist, 1849-1925

The sudden onset of the Coronavirus has required private company business partners to confront unprecedented challenges.  In some cases, the partners’ actions in dealing with the Pandemic have led to conflicts revealing incompatible views between them in how to operate the business in a time of crisis.  As a result, the partners may want to engage in a Business Divorce after the virus subsides, but separating one or more business partners from the company is not likely to be simple or smooth if they have not already put a buy-sell agreement in place.  Fortunately, the absence of a current buy-sell agreement is not an insurmountable hurdle if the partners will take the time to negotiate and adopt a mutually beneficial partner exit plan.  Reaching agreement on a buy-sell agreement is a critical step for business partners to avoid a prolonged and expensive conflict that will be both disruptive to the company and also potentially destructive to their personal relationship.

This post discusses the key factors that both majority owners and minority investors will want to consider in negotiating a mutually acceptable buy-sell agreement that allows for partners to depart the business on amicable terms in the future.

The Trigger Point

The first question business partners will need to address is when the buy-sell agreement can be triggered.  To be fair to both sides, the parties will both want the right to trigger a buyout or redemption.  From the majority owner’s perspective, he or she may not want to be required to remain in business with the minority investor.  The majority owner will therefore want to secure a “redemption right” to repurchase the investor’s ownership interest at some point.  By the same token, the minority investor will not want to be stuck holding an illiquid, unmarketable interest in the company with no exit right.  The minority investor will therefore want to ensure to obtain a “put right” that enables the investor to secure a buyout from the majority owner and the right to monetize the investor’s ownership interest in the company.
Continue Reading Time for A Buy/Sell Agreement? Private Company Owners May Need to Put a Partner Exit Plan in Place

As we noted in a previous post (Read Here), the disruption and dysfunction caused by a bad business partner who holds a substantial minority stake in the company can lead to the ultimate failure of the business.[1]  This is especially true when the company founder has no buy-sell agreement in place that will allow him/her to redeem the minority investor’s interest in the company. When the majority owner has no contract right to force the minority investor to exit the business, the owner’s options are essentially limited to: (i) going out of business and dissolving the company, (ii) selling the business to a third party (iii) or selling the majority owner’s interest to another party who will step into the owner’s shoes and take on the task of dealing with the minority investor.

None of these “end the business” options are likely to satisfy a company founder who worked very hard to bring the company to life. This post therefore considers options for the majority owner of the company to consider when no buy-sell agreement exists with the minority investor who has become a major stumbling block in the path to the company’s continued success.

Setting the Stage for the Exit of the Bad Business Partner

The bad business partner may believe that he/she has the upper hand in negotiations with the majority owner. Specifically, at the same time the minority investor is wreaking havoc at the company, the investor is refusing to be bought out or is demanding a grossly inflated price for the purchase of his/her minority stake in the business. In this situation, the majority owner may appear to be “stuck” with no recourse to force the exit of this bad partner and fix the problems the investor is causing at the company.
Continue Reading Partnership Blues: Can a Bad Business Partner be Removed by the Company’s Majority Owner When No Buy-Sell Agreement Exists?

The statistics are grim on relationships remaining intact between business partners.  This month’s edition of Inc. magazine cites Noam Wasserman, entrepreneurship professor at USC’s Marshall School of Business, reporting that 10% of co-founders end their business relationship in less than one year and 45% break-up within four years.  While these statistics are focused on two-person owned companies, break-ups are at least as common among businesses with multiple owners.  Faced with these distressing figures, this post focuses on concrete actions that business partners can take at the outset when their company is formed or when an investment is made, which our experience teaches will improve their prospects for maintaining long-term business relationships.

Operational issues and the vision for the company can definitely lead to disputes, but in many (if not most) cases, the crux of the conflict between business partners comes down to a disagreement over money—how the financial pie will be split.   Our suggestions therefore key on how the company’s finances are handled.  The starting place is to put an exit plan in place at the outset of the relationship —a Buy-Sell agreement that governs any future Business Divorce.  This “corporate pre-nup” will help avoid litigation and a huge distraction for the company when a partner departs.  We have written extensively on this topic in previous posts (see links below), and adopting a partner exit plan is essential.

But the Buy-Sell Agreement only comes into play when business partners are separating.  There are three specific steps that partners can take when their relationship begins, which will help limit their conflicts and, perhaps, avoid the need for a Business Divorce in the future. These steps are: (1) adopt a dividend/distribution plan, (2) implement an executive compensation plan or formula and require annual valuations of the company prepared by an independent business valuation firm.  Each of these actions is discussed below.
Continue Reading Can We Keep the Band Together: Seeking Long-Term Harmony Among Business Partners

Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the ability to cope with conflict by peaceful means.

— President Ronald Reagan, Commencement Address at Eureka College in Illinois, May 9, 1982.

The business relationship between private company majority owners and minority investors does not have to be a zero sum game—there are positives available for both sides in their business dealings.  But, a win-win approach for majority owners and minority investors needs to begin at the outset when they negotiate and adopt a buy-sell agreement at the time the investment is made in the company, which provides terms that will govern the eventual exit of the minority investor from the business.

A buy-sell agreement will not eliminate all conflicts between company owners and investors, but signing off on a “corporate pre-nup,” which carefully balances the rights of both parties should help lessen the potentially contentious nature of the investor’s ultimate departure from the company.  This blog post therefore reviews some of the critical terms that majority owners and minority investors will want to include in their buy-sell agreement to provide for a more peaceful future Business Divorce between them.  Those terms are listed and discussed below:
Continue Reading Threading the Needle:  A Win-Win Buy-Sell Agreement for Private Company Majority Owners and Minority Investors

Life is all a about second chances.   In the business world, minority investors may feel that they are trapped if they failed to obtain a buy-sell agreement before investing and have no contractual right to exit the company.  This situation is common in family businesses when the minority owners did not request their grandparents, parents or other family members to provide a buy-out right at the time the company was formed.  Fortunately, all hope is not lost for minority investors who did not obtain a buy-sell agreement before they obtained their stake in the company.  This post explores ways minority investors may secure a buy-sell agreement with majority owners even after the investors acquired their minority ownership interest in the business.
Continue Reading Despite Dante’s Warning (Abandon Hope), There is Hope for Minority Investors Who Failed to Obtain a Buy-Sell Agreement Before Acquiring Their Interest

The season finale of the hit reality TV show The Bachelor attracted more than 8 million viewers. My wife and teenage daughters help make up this devoted fan base, and watch every episode. Yet, when I question them about whether the subject of a pre-nup agreement has ever come up on the show, I get eye rolls, and comments like, “Dad, don’t be such a downer.”  Assuming that the Bachelor and his new fiancé do make it to the altar, however, the show also does not mention that marriages in the US still have just a 50% chance of lasting despite the continuing decline in the national divorce rate.
Continue Reading Buy-Sell Agreements: Don’t Leave Home (Or Invest) in a Private Company Without One