Most community banks have a timeframe for liquidity in mind. Strategic plans for these institutions are often developed with this timeframe as a key consideration, driven by the timing of when the leader of the bank is ready to retire.
We meet with a lot of bank CEOs, and we regularly hear some version of the following: “I’m in my early 60s and will retire by 70, so I’m looking to buy not sell.” When we ask these CEOs to describe their ideal acquisition target, the answer often involves size, market served, operating characteristics and, most importantly, talent. After all, banking is a relationship business and great bankers are needed to build those relationships with customers. Buyers will undoubtedly pay a higher premium for a bank with great talent that still has “fire in the belly.” It is hard to recall a time when a buyer was looking for a tired management team ready to retire. So, it seems ironic that a buyer cites talent as the key component to a desirable acquisition candidate, but that same buyer is planning to wait until retirement to sell. Put differently, they’re planning to sell at the point their bank will become less desirable.
We have highlighted four key items for boards and management teams to consider when evaluating the timing of a liquidity event as part of the strategic planning process: the timing of management succession, likely buyers or merger partners, shareholders and the overall economy and market for community banks.
Timing of management succession is critical to maximize price for shareholders. As referenced above, if the leadership of an organization would like to retire within the next five years, and there isn’t a logical successor as part of senior management, the board should begin evaluating its options. Waiting until the CEO wants to retire may not be the best way to maximize shareholder value.
Likely Buyers/Merger Partners
The banking industry is consolidating, which means fewer sellers and buyers will exist in the future. While there may be a dozen or more banks that would be interested in a good community bank, once price is considered, there may only be one or two banks that are both willing and able to pay the seller’s desired price. These buyers are often looking at multiple targets. Will a buyer be ready to act at the exact time your management is ready to sell? In fact, there are a number of logical reasons that your best buyer may disappear in the future. For example, they could be tied up with other deals or they may have outgrown the target so it no longer “moves the needle” in terms of economic benefit.
Shareholders of most banks require liquidity at some point. While the timing of liquidity can range from years to decades, it is worthwhile for a bank to understand its shareholders’ liquidity expectations. And liquidity can be provided in many ways, including from other investors, buybacks, listing on a public exchange, or a sale of the whole organization. As time stretches on, pressure for a liquidity event begins to mount on management and, in some cases, a passive investor will become an activist.
Overall Economy and Markets
With the Great Recession fresh in mind, virtually every bank investor is aware the market for bank stocks can go up or down. Before the Great Recession, managers who were typically in their mid-50s to early 60s raised capital with a strategic plan to provide liquidity through a sale in approximately 10 years, which would correspond with management’s planned retirement age. We visited with a number of bankers in their early 60s from 2005 to 2007 and indicated that the markets and bank valuations were robust and it was an opportune time to pursue a sale. Many of these bankers decided to wait, as they were not quite ready to retire. We all know what happened in the years to follow, and many found themselves working several years beyond their desired retirement age once the market fell out from under them.
Over the past two years, we had very similar conversations with a lot of bankers and once again we see some who are holding out. While bankers and their boards generally can control the timing of when they would like to pursue a deal, the timing of their best buyer(s), the overall market and shareholder concerns are beyond their control. Thorough strategic planning takes all of these issues into account and will produce the best results for all stakeholders.