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Executive Compensation: Making or Breaking an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP)

Executive compensation is often a contentious issue in business valuations, as business valuations are often valued by reference to the income they produce. If the business being valued pays its employees an above-market rate, its income will be depressed. Accordingly, if no compensation adjustments are made, the value of the business will also be diminished.

When valuing controlling ownership interests, valuation analysts often restate above- or below-market executive compensation to a market level to reflect what a hypothetical buyer would pay the executives. In the valuation of companies with ESOPs, the issue of executive compensation gets more complicated. The following hypothetical example illustrates why.

Glamorous Grocery is a company that is 100% owned by an ESOP. A valuation analyst is retained to estimate the fair market value of each ESOP share. Glamorous Grocery generates very little income, in part because several executives are overcompensated. The valuation analyst normalizes executive compensation to a market level, thereby increasing Glamorous Grocery income, the fair market value of Glamorous Grocery, and the ESOP share value.

Glamorous Grocery’s trustee then uses this valuation to establish the market price of ESOP shares for the following year. When employees retire, Glamorous Grocery buys employees out at the established share price. The problem? As mentioned before, Glamorous Grocery generates very little income and as a result has difficulty obtaining the liquidity to buy out employees.

This simple example illustrates the concerns about normalizing executive compensation in ESOP valuations. If you reduce executive compensation for valuation purposes, the share price increases, putting a heavier burden on the company when you redeem shares. The company, which already has reduced income from paying above-market executive compensation, may struggle to redeem shares at the established price.

A second issue is whether control-level adjustments are appropriate in ESOP valuations. A company might be 100% ESOP-owned, but an owner of an ESOP share may not actually be able to reduce executive compensation.

Interested in learning more? Please leave a comment below, or contact me. For additional discussion of the shareholder/executive compensation federal tax statutes and historical judicial precedents and sources of executive compensation data, please click here.

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