Valuing a Closely Held Business

For many small business owners, valuing a closely held business is an important part of estate and financial planning. Because valuation is a multi-faceted endeavor, a comprehensive approach is needed. Equity interests in a closely held business are not frequently sold or otherwise transferred, which can make it difficult to ascertain a valuation. Therefore, valuing a business (a sole proprietorship, a partnership, or a corporation), involves an analysis of specific conditions that can affect closely held businesses.

Getting Down to Business

Whenever there is a need to perform a business valuation for estate purposes, there are potentially seven areas that must be researched in order to arrive at a fair value for the total business. Each area may address issues that are somewhat abstract and/or difficult to quantify. Here is a general overview:

1. The nature, scope, and history of the business operation must be reviewed. The product or service rendered must be evaluated by past performance, as well as the risks inherent in all phases of operations. While disregarding past events that are unlikely to recur, capital structure, sales records, growth, and diversity of operations can speak volumes about the past and even future performance of the business.

2. By analyzing both related business sectors and current economic conditions, an appraisal can be made regarding the future potential for business profits. Generally, the greater the expectation of profits, the greater the value of the business. The appraiser should evaluate the industry, as well as the position of the particular business within the industry. The economic climate may impact the ability of all businesses to generate profits. Often, insight can be gained from looking at several competitors’ past performance and future growth potential.

3. Book value, defined as assets minus liabilities, is readily obtained from the balance sheet. However, in most cases, balance sheet adjustments according to book value will need to be made for an accurate reflection of economic versus tax depreciation.

4. Profit and loss statements must be scrutinized to determine the company’s earnings history. While the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) may require the past five years of profit and loss statements, for example, the agency generally will not respect five-year earnings averages, due to the belief that averages do not indicate realistic valuations. It is common for appraisers to “capitalize” earnings as a means of reducing future income to a single number, otherwise referred to as present value. Capitalizing earnings is a method used to determine how much an individual will pay for a business given the level of risk involved. Typically, the greater the risk, the less the buyer will pay, and vice versa. 

5. Where appropriate, the dividend-paying capacity of the company will be determined from financial statements. However, dividends may not be a reliable criterion of market value for a closely held company since the controlling stockholders may have used discretion in opting to pay deductible salaries and bonuses, rather than nondeductible dividends.

6. The most difficult area for valuation purposes is goodwill, or the ability of a business to earn a return over and above what it could on its fixed assets alone. Consumer satisfaction, trust, and trademarks may be important factors in gross revenues. In addition, intangible goodwill value can be based upon location, reputation, or clientele. While it may be difficult to determine a precise valuation, an independent appraiser may be able to discern the overall significance of the company’s goodwill.

7. If shares were purchased in the last three years, for example, the price paid for an interest in the business may be a significant factor in valuation for a closely held business. In this case, the IRS may scrutinize when the sale was made, whether the interest sold was controlling or a minority block, and whether or not the sale was forced by other conditions in the business or circumstances associated with the buyer or seller.

Wherever possible, each area must be reduced to specific numerical values. The IRS cautions against averages to prevent the appraiser from simply averaging factors, such as book value, goodwill, and capitalized earnings, and then coming up with a figure. Courts generally agree with the IRS in not giving credence to averages and formulas. As a result, valuation has become more complicated.

While determining the valuation of a closely held business may seem overwhelming at first, it may prove useful in estate and financial planning, as well as business succession planning. Because the valuation process is intricate and involves many variables, be sure to consult with qualified professionals.


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