The Wharton private equity and finance professor discusses the science and subtle art of how PE values a company before acquisition.

Analyzing a company’s value for a leveraged buyout is a complex process with many moving parts. In a lecture drawing from Wharton private equity and finance professor and director of the Wharton Alternative Investments Initiative Bilge Yilmaz’s Finance of Buyouts and Acquisitions class, private equity firms use a model that looks at lots of data. “But you have to use some intuition, too,” he says.

A company’s value is determined using a valuation multiple such as EBIDTA. But how will the company stack up against others in its industry? Apples-to-apples comparisons can be tricky. “The challenge is how to choose your multiples,” says Yilmaz. EBIDTA is a common multiple, but it’s not always the right one. Say you want to buy a restaurant chain that owns its real estate. Comparable rent-paying chains will have a different EBIDTA, but their values might not be different. In this case, you’ll want to look at the competitors’ EBIDTAR. (The “R” stands for “rent.”)

In another example, Yilmaz describes how analysts use judgment as well as historical data. Say you plan to buy an autoparts supplier. The average firm value is around eight times EBIDTA. However, one that recently traded at seven times EBIDTA is now at 14 times its EBIDTA ; another has been trading at 10 times its EBIDTA consistently. “I need data for the last few years so I can map the multiples of these companies over time,” says Yilmaz. “Maybe the one that was trading at seven times had a lawsuit pending. Once it went away, the multiple went back up.” Or, conversely, a company that loses a patent could see its multiple drop and not rebound. While you can’t connect the event to the stock price with absolute certainty, you can use your instinct to make informed decisions.

The multiple you choose may also depend on your exit strategy. In a third example, imagine you’re buying a hospital chain for $33 billion and taking it private. “You’ll want to sell it at a significantly higher value,” says Yilmaz. “But who will buy it?” Typically, a strategic sale—e.g., to another hospital chain—is the most profitable exit strategy, because synergies may result in a higher price. But given the chain’s size, it’s highly unlikely another hospital chain could afford it, so a more reasonable approach may be to use a lower multiple and assume you will exit with an IPO.

The bottom line, according to Yilmaz: “There is no perfect measure. Pick so you can compare apples to apples, and stick with it.”

First published in the Fall/Winter 2017 issue of Wharton Magazine.

Posted: June 1, 2018

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