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The Most Important Number Your Accountant Never Told You About

At one time or another, every small business owner wants to know what their business is worth…even if they aren’t the least bit interested in selling.  Many will ask their accountant for advice.  The trouble is that while accountants are usually good at accounting, they are usually not so good at valuing small businesses…especially when the business owner is also a client.  In the accounting world, people are typically trying to minimize taxable income in order to pay less tax, while in the small business appraisal world, taxes are not a consideration in estimating value.

Naturally, business owners try to avoid paying more taxes than they have to.  This is called tax avoidance, which is legal, and not to be confused with tax evasion, which is illegal.  For the small business owner, this can mean having a company car, health insurance, and other perks, paid in pre-tax dollars by the business, rather than after-tax dollars by the owner.  Of course, some owners are more creative or aggressive in how they minimize their taxable income.  In addition, owners’ salaries can vary wildly, even among similarly sized businesses within the same industry.  Consequently, the “bottom line” (pre-tax profit or earnings before tax) from an accounting standpoint, can be very misleading.

 

EXHIBIT A

Red Widget Co. Blue Widget Co.
Revenue             1,000,000             1,000,000
Cost of Goods  380,000  410,000
Gross Profit 620,000 590,000
Operating Expenses 560,000 480,000
Earnings Before Tax (EBT) 60,000 110,000

 

Looking at Exhibit A, one might be tempted to conclude that  Blue Widget Co. is the more profitable, and therefore, the more valuable company.  Fortunately, most business owners and their accountants would correctly want to “add back” the owner’s salary, as this is typically at the discretion of the owner(s) themselves.

 

EXHIBIT B

Red Widget Co. Blue Widget Co.
Revenue             1,000,000             1,000,000
Cost of Goods _380,000  410,000
Gross Profit 620,000 590,000
Operating Expenses  560,000  480,000
Earnings Before Tax (EBT) 60,000 110,000
Salary Add-Back
Owner Salary  120,000  70,000
EBT + Owner Salary 180,000 180,000

 

Exhibit B demonstrates that, after adding back each owners’ salaries, the picture of profitability changes substantially.  Instead of Blue Widget Co. being $50,000 more profitable than Red Widget Co., they are equally profitable at $180,000 each of EBT plus owner salary.

This is not the end, however.  As most business owners understand, there are other business expenses that benefit the owner(s), but are not necessary to operate the business.  These are often referred to as perquisites (owner perks).  Since owners’ perks vary from company to company, it is important that these perks are added back in order to compare companies on an “apples to apples” basis.

 

EXHIBIT C

Red Widget Co. Blue Widget Co.
Revenue             1,000,000             1,000,000
Cost of Goods  380,000  410,000
Gross Profit 620,000 590,000
Operating Expenses  560,000  480,000
Earnings Before Tax (EBT) 60,000 110,000
Salary Add-Back
Owner Salary  120,000  70,000
EBT + Owner Salary 180,000 180,000
Other Add-Backs
Health Insurance 20,000  –
Auto Lease, Fuel & Insurance  15,000              –
Discretionary Earnings                215,000                180,000

 

Exhibit C shows the full calculation of Discretionary Earnings to the owners of each company.  When measured by Discretionary Earnings (DE), Red Widget Co. is more profitable than Blue Widget Co.  Without understanding the Discretionary Earnings of a business, there is no way to properly estimate its value.  This is why Discretionary Earnings is the most important number every business owner should understand.