New M&A lingo: 'nontraditionals' and 'family offices'

Tim Lamb of Tim Lamb Group, whose stand was crawling with acquisitive dealers, says he's beginning to see signs of it.

George Chaconas of Performance Brokerage has noticed it "just in the last six months."

These deal makers are starting to hear from "nontraditional" dealership buyers.

Of course, the market doesn't need buyers; it needs sellers. But owners of those privately held mid- to large-sized groups that have become so astonishingly valuable in the past couple of years have a dilemma.

If you own a baby behemoth, what's your exit strategy? In one transaction, I mean. Who can afford to buy you out?

The publics?

"They're buying onesies," says Alan Haig of Presidio Group, the mergers-and-acquisitions firm.

And unlike the old days, the general manager doesn't stand a chance. A group with 20 stores may be worth $200 million, and Haig says: "$200 million is too big to sell to the managers."

The assumption is that automakers will block nontraditionals - buyers who are not already dealers. But who else has the wherewithal?

The talk this weekend focused on "family offices," the investment arms of super-rich families. Not the private equity legions we know the carmakers hate, but wealthy clans with long-term horizons, a desire to stick with existing store management and, most of all, the resources to provide a single-transaction exit strategy. (Example: The Pohlads in Minnesota.)

"That kind of investment is a good match for the car industry," says Haig. "These families have begun to hire Wall Street professionals to guide their strategies."

Presidio, which represents sellers, is starting to hear from "family offices," and "they are trying to understand the business," said Haig, "And they are very interested."

You can reach Richard Johnson at

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