IPO’s: To go public or not to go public, that is the question

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By James S. Cassel

Special to the Miami Herald

October 19, 2014

James Cassel

James Cassel

Everyone knows initial public offerings can flood company coffers with cash, make people wealthy, and based on my experience in investment banking, I often get asked the following question by middle-market and growth-company business owners: “Should I take my company public?”

Fact is, in recent years being public has become much tougher as a result of increased regulations requiring tremendous disclosure and compliance with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act as well as other rules and regulations. For public companies, keeping up with compliance requirements alone can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. Moreover, the required disclosure could give information to your competitors that you might not want them to have. So, as you would do with any major business decision, you should carefully weigh the pros and cons to make sure this is the right step for you as well as your company.

Here is some general advice I have found to help business owners as they begin to navigate these important questions.

Although the decision-making process that precipitates a business going public is thorough and multifaceted, it can generally be boiled down to one or more of these four considerations: to raise cash for general or specific business purposes to spur growth; to have a public currency for acquisitions; to provide liquidity for current shareholders; and to use the public currency and options to recruit, incentivize and retain employees.

There also are other intangible but equally valuable benefits, such as credibility.

A successful public offering is considered a major milestone and achievement for a company. It can create a sense of corporate stability and strength. An IPO, particularly if it gets positive media coverage, also can create good “conversational capital” for companies in terms of putting them in the limelight and making them more top-of-mind among key audiences. Depending on the type of company you own, this could be very good for your business.

A Deloitte survey conducted by OnResearch, a market research firm, polled 509 executives from March through April 2014 at U.S. mid-sized companies about their expectations and plans for becoming more competitive in today’s economic environment. Of these, 8 percent said they were likely to go public in the next 12 months (twice the number recorded in the fall) and cited the following reasons for doing so: broader exposure for their brands and products (36 percent); the cost-effectiveness of equity capital (35 percent); the desire to provide liquidity for owners (34 percent); and the need for capital to fuel growth (33 percent).

According to the survey, the most common reason private companies would want to stay privately owned is the need to control or have greater flexibility in spending, which was cited by almost three-quarters of the respondents. Other reasons for wanting to stay privately owned include: the size of the organization (too small to consider an IPO); the desire to keep financial information private; and concerns about compliance with the strict regulatory requirements of being public.

How do companies go public? Though there are other avenues, companies go public primarily through an IPO or by merging with an existing company in a reverse merger. In some cases, this can be accomplished through a shell company that may or may not have cash, although that may not be the preferred way to go depending on the circumstances. Every situation is different, so it’s up to the parties to confirm whether they are getting the value they are looking for and whether there is a liquid market for stock of the company.

Bear in mind, there are all sizes of underwriters, and not every business goes public through firms like Goldman Sachs or Citigroup. Many notable middle-market investment banking firms have similar expertise for smaller offerings, such as Ladenburg Thalmann, with headquarters in Miami, Noble Investments in Boca Raton, and Maxim or Aegis Capital Corp. in New York City, to name a few.

Each might look at different size offerings and each may have a different industry focus.

While the costs of going public are as voluminous and complex as the reasons, a few stand out as unavoidable and considerable expenses. Chief among those are legal expenses, accounting fees and investment banking fees as well as the internal costs of manpower. Many of these costs are ongoing. So in addition to the upfront costs of going public, there are costs of staying public that businesses incur when they make this transition. The rigors of the IPO regulatory process require tremendous disclosure and require much time and attention. The costs of staying in compliance can easily run from several hundred thousand to more than a million dollars per year in additional expenses.

With this in mind, it’s crucial that companies approach going public with a clear picture and realistic expectations. In an ideal world, companies should spend time working with a financial advisor with experience in public offerings to evaluate the offering options that might be available as well as the most appropriate parties to consider working with. There is no linear path to a public offering, but intelligent planning and forethought can make navigating the process more manageable for companies of any size and help ensure they minimize the obstacles and maximize the benefits.

James Cassel is co-founder and chairman of Cassel Salpeter & Co., LLC, an investment-banking firm with headquarters in Miami that works with middle-market companies. He can be reached at jcassel@casselsalpeter.com and www.casselsalpeter.com