Practice Management

The Process of Selling a Hospitalist Group from Start to Finish


 

Whether your hospitalist group has five or 500 practitioners, you and your partners might be thinking about whether you want—or need—to enter into a merger or acquisition in the near future. For some hospitalist groups, mergers and acquisitions could be part of a growth strategy designed to increase geographic footprint, market penetration, or bargaining power. These types of transactions will allow larger groups to increase their competitiveness by being able to leverage investments in such items as information technology upgrades across a larger base of business.

For others, a desire to retire or an inability to either afford or justify certain capital investments needed to remain competitive might be leading some players to consider selling their hospitalist groups. Moreover, changes in the healthcare industry, coupled with the anticipation of tax increases, could factor into decisions to sell practices in the relatively near term.

While each transaction is unique, most tend to follow a similar process, incorporating a number of relatively standard phases that must be undertaken in order to complete a transaction. The transaction process typically takes between three and nine months, although preparations are often best begun in advance of the actual deal process.

Preliminary Matters

For hospitalist group owners and executives considering selling their practice, a number of preliminary matters should be addressed in preparation for a sale. First, potential sellers should carefully consider whether they really wish to enter into the sale process. The sale process is lengthy, time-consuming, and costly, and it is often stressful and demanding on the practice’s management. Thus, potential sellers should not undertake the process unless they are serious about selling and have a realistic expectation of what they will receive as the purchase price.

As part of the preparation, sellers should begin by assembling an experienced transaction team. Typically, the team includes key members of the practice’s management, as well as experienced healthcare mergers and acquisitions attorneys and accountants. These experienced professionals can be of great assistance in making sure that a transaction is executed on a timely basis and under terms appropriate for the specific transaction.

Another prudent step is undertaking a tax analysis to determine the implications of the sale on both the selling practice and its individual owners. This analysis should be performed as far in advance of a proposed transaction as possible, in order to allow time for adjustments to be made (if necessary) to limit the tax implications in advance of the sale. Sellers also will want to use this preparatory phase to make sure that the practice’s books and records are in good order in preparation for the buyer’s due diligence review, as well as to address any issues in order to make the practice more attractive to potential buyers. Some sellers might want to have an investment banker or other qualified professional provide a valuation appraisal of the practice to provide a realistic purchase price.

Finding a Buyer

As a seller begins the process to find a buyer, the seller must first consider the approach that it wants to take. Some larger groups are sold through auction-like processes in which a number of bidders are contacted and invited to participate. The advantage of this type of process is that it typically drives prices higher by introducing competition into the bidding process. On the other hand, this type of process has certain disadvantages, such as a longer time frame and increased risk of a breach of confidentiality.

For some sellers, a more targeted approach, with limited participants, might be more desirable. If a fair purchase price can be obtained without involving multiple potential buyers, the process can be completed faster and with less risk to the ongoing business operations.

The process of finding a buyer typically requires the seller to provide potential buyers with confidential information regarding the business so the interested parties can evaluate whether the selling group is even of interest and the amount that they will be willing to pay. However, the selling practice should only provide this confidential information after potential buyers have signed nondisclosure agreements.

Ultimately, the process will lead to the submission of specific proposals from interested parties. Typically, this results in the seller and the selected buyer entering into a letter of intent, a statement of key terms for the proposed transaction. Letters of intent are largely not binding and are subject to the satisfaction of conditions, such as the negotiation of definitive written agreements. Typically, in this phase of the process, the basic structure of the transaction, the purchase price, and the manner of payment are determined.

Due Diligence

In almost all sale transactions, the buyer will conduct a review and investigation of the seller’s business. The purpose of this review is to confirm the information previously provided by the seller and to allow the buyer to gain a thorough understanding of the business to determine whether it is truly willing to buy the business on the terms identified in the letter of intent. The buyer will want to confirm that it is not going to inherit any unexpected liabilities or problems, such as healthcare regulatory issues or lawsuits. To comply with the information requests from the buyer as it conducts its due diligence review, the seller will be required to assemble many documents and voluminous amounts of financial and other information. The burden of providing this information to the buyer will be substantial and could distract management from their day-to-day duties of running the practice.

Upon completion of the due diligence process, the buyer will either confirm that it is willing to move forward with the transaction “as is,” or, if the due diligence review reveals troubling information, the buyer can either demand changes to the transaction (such as a reduction of the purchase price) or be unwilling to proceed with the transaction altogether.

Negotiating Definitive Agreements

The parties will need to negotiate and agree on certain definitive written agreements, which will govern the transaction. First and foremost, this will include a purchase agreement, such as a stock purchase agreement or an asset purchase agreement. In addition, there may also be various ancillary agreements, such as noncompetition agreements between the buyer and the owners of the selling practice and new employment agreements for the sellers.

Typically, the negotiation of definitive agreements proceeds in parallel with the buyer’s due diligence review.

Closing

At the closing, both sides will sign numerous documents, including those necessary to transfer ownership of the purchased group to the buyer, as well as all ancillary agreements and other documents needed for the transaction. Once signatures have been obtained and exchanged between the parties, the transfer of title will occur and the buyer will tender the purchase price.

Post-Closing

Although the vast majority of the work associated with the transaction will terminate upon the completion of the closing, certain aspects of the sale will require some attention after the closing. For example, there may be purchase price adjustments based upon the final balance sheet or net working capital position of the seller’s business as of the closing date. Typically, these adjustments are addressed in the months following the closing. Also, if any indemnification claims are brought, the parties will need to address those claims and reach a resolution.

Merger and acquisition transactions are complex, time-consuming matters that require a great deal of effort on the part of all parties involved. An orderly process is essential for both buyers and sellers. Sellers will want to take steps to make sure that the transaction is completed in a timely manner while minimizing risk to the ongoing business operations. At the same time, buyers will want to make sure that the value that they are receiving from the seller’s business is commensurate with the purchase price and that the buyer’s goals for entering into the sale will truly be met post-closing.


Steven M. Harris, Esq., is a nationally recognized healthcare attorney and a member of the law firm McDonald Hopkins LLC in Chicago. Write to him at sharris@mcdonaldhopkins.com.