Ask for an indemnity.

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Commercial contracts are packed with risks. In fact the contract itself is one big risk. However, ironically, contracts are the safest way to conduct business; we need them! So, since we cannot avoid contracting with each other we have to ensure that we protect our interests in every contract that we sign. A key way to do this, is to ask for an indemnity clause.  An indemnity clause is a contractual transfer of risk between two contractual parties to prevent loss (you are not liable if X happens) or to ensure compensation for a loss (the other party reimburses you for any loss suffered if Y happens) which may occur as a result of a specified event (X or Y event). Let’s take a look at some examples of indemnity clauses:

  1. Basic Indemnities – Party A indemnifies Party B for all liabilities or losses incurred in connection with specified events or circumstances. For example, if you are contracting with a construction company to build your new store, you will want a basic indemnity saying that the construction company will compensate you for all losses if one of its subcontractors fails to do the job to the specification set out in the contract. If a subcontractor tiles the roof poorly, the construction company is liable for all losses ensuing from that subcontractor’s poor job. Pretty good right? However, basic indemnities can be troublesome as they do not set out any specific limitations on the indemnity. They are silent as to whether they indemnify losses arising out of YOUR own acts and/or omissions that cause the subcontractor to tile the roof poorly. What if you give the sub-contractor the wrong instructions or you don’t give the subcontractor access to the site on time?  This basic indemnity operates so that the construction company indemnifies you for the poor job of the subcontractor, even if the poor job was your fault. You may be thinking well, that’s great, but it’s only great if you are the party receiving such an indemnity. That’s why basic indemnities should be avoided where possible.
  2. Proportionate or Limited Indemnities – These indemnities rectify the potential unfairness of a basic indemnity (explained above) as they limit the indemnity. Sticking with the example above, say you obtain an indemnity from the construction company to the effect that the construction company is liable for all losses ensuing from a subcontractor’s poor job – a limited indemnity will go on to state “except those losses incurred as a result of [your] own acts and/or omissions”. If the subcontractor’s poor job is your fault you don’t get compensated. Seems fair.
  3. Third Party Indemnities – If third parties are involved in the operation of the contract, as in the example above, you may not want anything to do with them since you are contracting with them. Following on from the above example, what happens if a subcontractor isn’t paid for their work? You wouldn’t want to be liable for that. You can protect against this by asking the construction company to indemnify you for all liabilities relating to its subcontractors so that the subcontractors are always the construction company’s issue and not yours.

These are very high level examples which would make most lawyers (if they’re good) chuckle. Indemnities can be very complex and they should at the very least always be more than a basic indemnity. Here are some of the things your lawyer should consider when drafting an indemnity clause for you:

  1. Scope – The scope of the indemnity must be clear so that the intended protection is given.
  2. Context – An indemnity clause should always be drafted in consideration of the wider commercial context of the agreement. Is it applicable?
  3. Extent – Who does the indemnity cover and are there any limitations to the indemnity? If the indemnity is given by the other side but not its contractors or representatives, then the extent to which this offers protection will be limited.
  4. Insurance: There is no point in having an indemnity if the indemnifier cannot pay out in an event of breach. An obligation to insure to a level consistent with the indemnity obligation will provide comfort that the indemnifier has the means to back up the indemnity given.
  5. Caps: Indemnities can be capped but any such cap should be subject to careful consideration. Where an indemnity has a financial cap, the indemnified party may, depending on any other limitation clauses, still have an uncapped claim in contract law for any breach of contract.

As with many of my posts, this is a very simplified overview. You really need a lawyer to draft indemnity clauses because they are essentially financial obligations with very serious consequences. The aim of this post is to make you aware of them so that you can ask your lawyer about them. You may want receive indemnities as added protection or you may want to offer indemnities to show the other side that you mean business (they can be great for negotiation)!  So go ahead and ask your lawyer about them. Pick up one of your contracts and check to see if you have a few in there already.

I must also emphasise that an indemnity is a distinct right from the right to claim damages for breach of contract. If the construction company breaches a clause in the contract you still have your common law right to sue for damages. Any limitations under an indemnity will be for that indemnity only. This is important because limited indemnities often exclude any loss ensuing from your own negligence whereas a claim for breach of contract can be brought even where you too have been negligent. Ask your lawyer, they’ll break it down for you!

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HOW to…sell your business.

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This is a follow up to my post “The bigger picture – selling your business”. In that post I gave you tips on how to polish your business into an attractive product to be purchased by a rich buyer. In this post I’m going to briefly explain HOW you can sell your business. There are two main ways. Either an asset sale or a share sale. There are pros and cons to each but ultimately your lawyer should be able to advise you on the best method, having considered the nature of your business.

In a share sale, the buyer will purchase everything to do with a company including all assets and liabilities, known and unknown. In an asset sale, the buyer will purchase the assets which make up the business of a company. In the former, pretty much everything stays the same save that the company has a new owner, in the latter, the company will still exist but it will usually be an empty shell harbouring only those assets and liabilities that the buyer did not want to buy.

Below, are some key considerations that will be influential in determining HOW you should sell your business.

  1. Liability

In a share sale, due to the fact that the buyer purchases the shareholding in the target company, it inherits all of the assets and liabilities in the target company. This means that the seller gets to walk away from any problems with the company and the buyer as the new owner, takes them on. If a buyer wants to purchase the shares in a company but it is riddled with liabilities such as ongoing litigation, tax investigations etc, it will negotiate a discount in the price of the shares that it is purchasing to reflect the risk of these liabilities or it will negotiate indemnities from the seller. A seller indemnity is basically a promise from the seller to the buyer that if things go wrong with said liability, the seller will pay to the buyer a sum of money as compensation.

In an asset sale, the buyer can effectively cherry pick which assets it will purchase and which liabilities it will assume. For example, the buyer can refuse to assume tax liabilities but it may take on certain ongoing disputes which are inherent in taking on, for example, service contracts.

  1. Employees

Usually, in an asset sale, employees do not need to be taken on by the buyer, though commonly the seller will require the buyer to offer new contracts to all or most employees on terms that are substantially similar or identical to their existing contracts (including a recognition of prior service) so that the seller avoids wrongful dismissal claims from the employees.

In a share sale, the target company’s employees remain employed by the company because nothing really changes. It’s just a sale and purchase of shares!

  1. Reduced Complexity

As you’ve probably cottoned on, share sales are much simpler than asset sales. The only documentation you need is in respect of the shares that are being purchasing. In an asset sale, each asset will effectively require its own contract. For example, there will be separate transfer documentation for equipment, vehicles, intellectual property, licenses, permits and real property.

An asset sale may also trigger the need to obtain third party consents to the transfer of the assets due to change of control provisions in contracts. For example a permit contract may say that the seller “must obtain written consent before it can transfer/assign the right to the permit”. In selling the permit as part of the assets, the seller must ask permission before it can go ahead. For obvious reasons, third party consents can be a pain to obtain; it just takes one unreasonable so and so to hold things up! It is always best to, if you can, give third parties a heads up and assure them of any changes in advance. This will make negotiation a lot easier.

So, the important thing to understand about a share sale vs an asset sale is that one method involves taking EVERYTHING whilst the other allows you to CHERRY PICK what you want. The form of sale that is best for your company really depends on the nature of your business and what it is that you want to sell. There is a heading that I have not covered but which is the most important consideration of all and that is TAX. TAX can determine how much you receive on a sale of your business and it differs in a share sale or an asset sale. This is where experts must be enlisted. I once worked on a deal where, three days before completion the whole structure changed because of TAX. I couldn’t believe it…so many sleepless nights!

As with all my posts, I cannot emphasise enough how important it is to get your lawyers involved but even more so when you are selling your business – after all you want to get the best price right?

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