Minnesota dealmaking cooled in the 1st quarter after hot 2012 4th quarter

Tax law changes and fiscal cliff worries pulled deals into late 2012. But bankers expect activity to pick up later this year.

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The dealmakers had extra time on their hands this winter.

Announced U.S. mergers and acquisitions slipped 20 percent in January, February and March to 2,623 from 3,282 in the fourth quarter of 2012, which was the best quarter for deals since the 2008-09 recession.

“Higher taxes and uncertainty pulled things forward into the fourth quarter of 2012,” said Tim DeVries, managing general partner at Norwest Equity Partners, the region’s largest private equity investor. “The first quarter was very slow. There was less inventory.”

The number of deals involving Minnesota-based investment bankers slid from 107 in the fourth quarter to 44 in the first quarter of this year. The drive to finish deals late last year was hastened by the December fiscal-cliff debate and the rise of long-term capital gains rates for affluent investors.

Taxes on dividends and long-term capital gains remained the same for most taxpayers, but for high-income earners and couples, the tax on gains from investments held for more than a year rose from 15 percent to 20 percent in 2013.

The slowdown in the M&A mar­ket crimped the income statements of some dealmakers. For example, Minneapolis-based Piper Jaffray reported earlier this month increased profitability thanks to cost-cutting measures it took last year and a surging stock market that was good for its fee-based asset management business. But revenue was restrained by the slower deal pipeline.

But there were a number interesting first-quarter transactions, including:

• Plymouth-based Mardil Medical raised $6.124 million in equity, in a pretty soft venture capital market, about $5 million of which came from a Malaysian venture fund chartered by the Malaysian government. Minneapolis-based LifeScience Alley, the regional trade group, made the connection for Mardil through its international network.

Mardil CEO Jim Buck, a veteran of St. Jude Medical Inc., said many U.S. venture capitalists remain concerned about the slow pace of federal regulatory approvals and are less able to raise fresh funds after the recession and concerns over reduced health care spending.

• New Jersey-based Curtiss-Wright, the engineering firm, acquired 183-employee Exlar Corp. of Chanhassen for $85 million in cash. Exlar is a designer and manufacturer of highly engineered electric actuators, or electric-powered motors, used in motion-control mechanisms for industrial and military products.

Curtiss-Wright expects Exlar to contribute revenue of about $50 million this year. Exlar’s electric actuators reduce energy use because they only consume power when motion is required. Exlar is now part of Curtiss-Wright’s North Carolina-based controls business segment.

The slow first quarter is expected to give way to a stronger second quarter and second half of this year for deals.

Earlier this month, Cymbet Corp., an Elk River company that makes tiny, long-life batteries for sensors, medical devices and other microelectronic systems, announced a $20 million cash infusion that it will use to pay down debt, accelerate U.S. production and expand globally.

And last week, Minneapolis investment banker Greene Holcomb Fisher announced that it had sold Illinois-based Market Day Corp., a fundraising company that markets restaurant-quality food and other products, to Gordon Food Service. Market Day was majority owned by Minneapolis-based Shoreview Industries, a private equity group.

Despite the first quarter’s slow pace, valuations have held up. There’s a lot of cash out there looking for good businesses.

Hunt Greene, co-founder and managing director of Greene Holcomb Fisher, said recently that valuations of good private companies are “as high as we have ever seen them’’ with acquirers paying up to eight times annual cash flow.

“It’s a great sellers’ market right now,” said Eric Nicholson, an investment banker at Greene Holcomb.

Cary Musech, a founder of Tonka Bay Partners, echoed that sentiment: “We expect a strong second half of the year if economy continues to muddle along and no shocks to the system. It’s still a good time to sell because strategic buyers and private equity firms are hungry for growth and deals.”

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