03 October 2013

Can JVs work for small business?

Generally speaking, joint ventures have a finite shelf life. There are numerous examples of JV's winding down, such as Verizon's recent acquisition of Vodafone's wireless stake. Bringing two parties together with different capabilities seems to make sense on paper, but more often than not, most large ones end in failure, dispute, or a partner buyout. With a similar thesis in mind, are small businesses bound to a similar fate when attempting joint ventures? Or are entrepreneurial companies more adept in successfully navigating partnerships better than big conglomerates?

First off, small businesses have much more to lose than larger concerns. When big companies do it, they generally have limited options for that particular business. For example, an oil & gas company cannot enter a middle east country without some sort of government or local JV. In other instances, JV businesses are non-core or underperforming which makes the risk less. For smaller companies, the stakes are much greater. They don't have idle cash or business lines to throw into the mix. It's usually the entire business that would be impacted by the potential partnership. So the bar is much higher to engage in one.

A traditional JV, which may involve a merger with a similarly situated company, is hard to pull off. The required exchange of information to consummate a deal is often difficult as head to head competitors will be relunctant to disclose business secrets. And even if a deal can be completed, the operational risks are great. Cultural division, power struggle, or misalignment of goals are often hard to overcome. While there are things you can do on the front end to stave off potential conflict, the odds of a successful merger are long.

Partnering with a large industry player might be a way to mitigate some of this risk. Large companies can often provide the most sought after benefits for a small business (such as capital and distribution) with potentially less conflict of interest. They often have different goals than a small business, so the risk for overlap is less. Large suppliers, for example, are often good choices for product companies.

The downside, however, is that the terms of a proposed JV might be very expensive. If they feel they have bargaining power, they may try to extract more equity or better terms than you are willing to offer. Further, large companies tend to overestimate the amount of support they can provide as part of the JV; these companies have numerous priorities that fluctuate and can't make critical decisions as quickly as the business may require. On the other hand, if you offer something they really want (such as a new product line or channel), they will be much more willing to give you a greater piece of the pie.

Financial sponsors are another potential avenue. From a JV perspective, examples are very rare. Financial investors generally want control (or a path to control) or have too large investment hurdle rates for it to make sense to engage in a partnership. There are less synergies compared with industry players and can generally help only on the growth capital or leveraging their vast network. While possible, a financial based JV would need to have a limited scope and finite timeframe.

The irony is that despite the long odds for a successful joint venture, many businesses small and large continue to attempt them. The upside could potentially be great, especially for entrepreneurial concerns that are at an inflection point in their business. I think that more established companies may be a better fit as a JV partner, but taking control around the governance and commercial terms is paramount in the discussions. In addition to JVs, other options such as joint cooperatives may yield some results without giving up any control. In the end, it's important to keep an open mind about them but certainly tread carfefully.

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