Curt Armstrong is an entrepreneurial sort of guy who sold his share of a bar and restaurant business near Green Bay to his partner more than 30 years ago.
He moved to the Twin Cities to scratch a travel itch.
“I met a lady who was a travel agent and I said, ‘I want to do that,’ ” recalled Armstrong, 60. “I started out as an entry-level agent at the old Viking Travel in the 1980s.”
Successful as an agent, Armstrong decided to start his own travel agency franchise. He was backed by a Northwest Airlines pilot who was the financial partner.
They grew the business to $9 million in revenue before Armstrong sold it more than 15 years ago, several years after buying out his partner. In the meantime, Armstrong had started the Travel Academy, a training business he founded because he had trouble recruiting qualified employees.
And he just sold the Eagan-based, 20-employee company to a private party for an unspecified seven-figure amount. Suffice to say his instincts and hard work made him a single-digit millionaire.
Armstrong sold into one of the strongest mergers-and-acquisition markets in history in Minnesota and around the country, according to figures from Dealogic, which tracks the buy-and-sell business.
“In 2016, we trained 500-plus students who were training to be flight attendants, travel agents, workers for cruise lines,” Armstrong said. “Why sell? I turned 60 last year. I’ve done this. Time to move on and spend more time with family.
“Plus IT, technology, it’s getting so complicated. It was getting hard to keep up.”
There were 181 Minnesota companies involved in the purchase or sale of a business last year in deals that grossed $50.3 billion. The number of transactions was down slightly from 2015, but continued a five-year-trend of higher value as the economy improved and prices rose. And the $50 billion in value was an all-time high, ranging from Armstrong’s small transaction to the $29 billion purchase of St. Jude Medical by Abbott Laboratories.
Among the Minnesota deals of note were:
• Valspar’s announced sale to Sherwin-Williams for $11.3 billion that also means the loss of another significant headquarters company for the Twin Cities.
• The pending sale of G&K Services, the uniform and laundry company, to huge rival Cintas Corp.
• The $1.1 billion sale of Minneapolis-based Bellisio Foods, owned by a private equity firm, to Charoen Pokphand Foods, publicly held food company based in Thailand.
• The $410 million sale of digital-firm Kroll Ontrack of Eden Prairie to LDiscovery.
• Medtronic’s $350 million acquisition of Smith & Nephew’s gynecology business.
Nationally, the total number of deals and value slid 19 percent to $1.75 trillion and 9,287 deals, following a record 2015 and a five-year run of increasing transaction values. The number of megadeals done last year fell, thanks to several multibillion dollar transactions that were called off during the year for financial or anti-competitive reasons. The total value of U.S. mergers dropped from $10.5 trillion to $9.3 trillion.
Small business was slower to bounce back from the Great Recession than big business for lack of customers and credit in the aftermath of the recession and skittish bankers who were wary of anything but the safest loans until 2011. That sector is now driving the economy and the merger-and-acquisition business.
Small business sales and mergers hit a record last year thanks to 7,842 closed transactions, according to BizBuySell, the online marketplace that also tracks the industry. And it appears big businesses were only taking an merger-and-acquisition breather.
Accounting firm Deloitte’s recent survey of 1,000 corporate executives and private equity investors found that they expect merger-and-acquisition activity to increase in 2017. The economy has heated up to a 3 percent growth rate in the second half of 2016. But there’s still little inflation and plenty of capital to finance deals. It’s still less expensive for some companies to acquire growth than invest in it organically.
“Valuations are up,” said R. Hunt Greene, managing director in the Minneapolis office of BMO Capital Markets, the investment banker. “The number of buyers actively in the market has risen. There seems to be an increasing confidence on the part of corporate buyers to deploy some of the $1.5 trillion dollars that they’ve been accumulating. This corporate buying activity is in addition to strong private equity activity with their cash equity and debt availability, also over $1 trillion.
“On the seller side … demographics … people are getting older. There is an increasing number of prospective business sellers who also are attracted to the good [prices]. We are seeing this activity across all-size deals, both nationally and in Minnesota.”
Greene, a 40-year investment banker, said the national downtick in aggregate deal valuation last year, due largely to several big national mergers that got called off, such as the proposed merger of William Brothers and Energy Transfer Partners, is more of an aberration than a trend.
A buoyant mergers-and-acquisition market is a good indicator of business optimism. Sellers sell because of good prices and buyers buy because they believe their company and the economy will grow and they will profit.
“Small business owners are feeling confident after multiple years of uncertainty and sluggish recovery,” said Andy Kocemba, president of 30-broker Calhoun Companies and who sold Armstrong’s business. “Many owners also are finally feeling comfortable enough to invest in much-needed equipment, improvements and staff.”
Nearly 80 percent of business brokers expect the number of transactions to increase this year, according to BizBuySell’s annual December survey.