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HR Due Diligence can avert M&A failures
The due diligence stage should include equal consideration to both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ aspects of the organizations, explains R. Sankar, Executive Director, PricewaterhouseCoopers, India
Despite overwhelming evidence that inadequate attention to people and culture is the main reason for failures in M&A, HR continues to get short shrift. HR is less sexy, does not get the adrenaline pumping, its issues and concerns are less easy to quantify and its chiefs are far away from the high table.
Subdued during the last two years or so, owing to the global recession, M&A activity is picking up as economies rebound. Having reached the limits of organic growth, many companies see M&A as the principal means to meet or surpass stock market expectations. Ensuring that people issues are dealt with properly, not only increases the chances of a successful deal, but can also minimise the performance dip that invariably follows the completion of the tra nsaction.
So, what are the HR issues that must occupy the minds of the buyer in the pre-deal stage? The issues may be categorised into two: the hard and the soft.
The hard issues are concerned with costs, productivity, structure, headcount, pay and benefits, regulation, processes and systems. The soft issues comprise of culture, leadership, morale and motivation and ease of integration. In addition, if the deal’s success depends on rationalising headcount, then due diligence to satisfy oneself of the numbers as well as the ease and speed with which the redundancies can be given effect to, is important.
As both sets of issues (hard and soft) are important and often stand between success and failure, they cannot be left to the post-deal stage, and must be considered during the pre-deal due diligence.
The purpose of the due diligence is to identify:
(1) Factors whose impact is likely to be so adverse that they can put a question mark over the deal (for example, material non-compliances).
(2) Factors that could have a material impact on the deal value (for example, under-funded pension liabilities, and redundancy costs woven into contractual arrangements with employees).
(3) Risks that the buyer must be aware of and can mitigate (for example, the risk of losing key talent) so that the transaction achieves the intended results.
A due diligence also provides the assurance that things are as stated by the seller and that there are no surprises. Further, if the deal is predicated on manpower rationalisation, the due diligence provides the buyer the opportunity to ensure that the synergies are realistically valued and are attainable within the desired timeframe.
Time is of essence during a due diligence. Much data has to be analysed in a compressed timeframe and appropriate conclusions drawn. Not all the data sought will be available or available in the form required. Critical judgement has to be therefore applied to arrive at conclusions regarding risks and valuations.
The hard aspects of a due diligence are usually examined in a virtual data room in which data is shared with identified members of the due diligence team. The data room is kept open for a specified period and provision is made for queries and clarifications that may arise on the examination of the data furnished. Given the compressed time available for such an exercise, the success of a due diligence will depend greatly on the use of pre-existing templates for data collection and reporting and tools for data analyses. It is also important to define the data requirements clearly. For example, if data relating to attrition is sought, attrition should be defined clearly so that the data furnished meets the requirements. Too often, much time is lost and rework done because data requirements are not clearly defined.
In planning the due diligence, it would be useful to ask what outcomes are sought, what information and analyses is required to achieve the desired outcome, define the data sets and collect information accordingly. Too often, standard templates are used with hardly a thought to why the information is needed and to what use it will be put to. This results in time spent collecting and analysing irrelevant data, while important aspects that may have a material bearing on the transaction may tend not to be considered at all or given scant attention. Working back makes reporting easy, as the findings of the due diligence can be linked clearly to the key decision points in the transaction.
While the hard aspects can be understood through the collection and analyses of data, the soft aspects present a challenge. How does one assess the “culture” of the target company? How would one identify its critical personnel whose retention may be critical to realising deal value? A due diligence of the normal kind is inadequate for these purposes. Instead, these aspects must be dealt with at the leadership level. But, given how busy the leadership of the two entities would be during this period, this is a difficult task. An effective way of doing this would be through the use of experienced external advisors for a day or two. A facilitated session guided by the external advisor can help the two sets of leaders understand each other’s organizational culture. Advisors bring diagnostic tools to help understand key strands of the organizational cultures, decision-making style (autocratic vs. consensual), the extent of performance differentiation, organizational values and their manifestation, the degree of process orientation, etc.
It must be borne in mind throughout, that the objective of the exercise is not to critique the culture or ways of working of the target but to help the buyer in his decision whether to buy the target and if so, then on what conditions.
In order to identify key talent that is critical for the buyer to retain after the transaction is done, the target may be asked to supply the buyer a list of his key personnel and critical positions. These employees are then interviewed by a team consisting of the buyer and his advisors. Through the review of their performance data and through other behavioural and leadership tests, the buyer can make a comparison of the target’s key personnel with his own (should the two entities operate in the same industry) and satisfy himself as to the correctness of the target’s assessments.
Although this article has focused on pre-deal aspects and the due diligence, in practice it is difficult to visualise pre and post-deal issues in water-tight compartments. Thought is often given to pre-deal to post-transaction issues including integration strategy. For example, how will the provident fund of the target be dealt with if the buyer does not have a trust of his own but uses the EPFO? How do we transition the insured benefits (for example, healthcare) of the target company seamlessly? What must our integration strategy be? How should redundancies be handled? Attention must be focused on “what will change” and “what will not change” on day 1. A detailed internal and external communication plan must be prepared and kept ready. It would be useful after the due diligence has been completed and before the transaction date is set in order to work through these and similar issues.
In closing, it must be remembered that the work of HR will feed into other work streams and vice versa; so it is important that there is effective co-ordination of the work being done by them in order to avoid overlaps. For example, both HR and finance would be interested in people cost data and pension liabilities. A Programme Management Office can help avoid overlaps and ensure effective co-ordination.
Given the importance of HR in M&A, the time has come for HR professionals to equip themselves with the knowledge, tools and skills required to lead HR due diligence as well as ensure effective post-deal management to realise deal value.
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