What’s In a Name? Lessons Learned From a Merger
By Patrick Crocker, Managing Director, MHT Partners
Investment bankers are typically thought of as numbers people; we’re not branding experts, we’re not ‘touchy feely’. However, merging of our firm (MidSpan Partners) with MHT Partners three years ago gave us a new appreciation of the value of a name. Perhaps our story — and the lessons we learned, first changing our name to MHT MidSpan and now reverting back to MHT Partners — will be instructive to other founders who are in or contemplating a merger process. If you’ve ever asked yourself the question ‘what’s in a name?’, read on.
Back in 2013, as we were getting to know MHT’s founders Mike McGill and Shawn Terry, we immediately felt our two firms were a natural fit. Founded 2001, MHT had established a great reputation in the market for representing great middle market companies in merger processes. While Craig Lawson and I founded our firm in 2010, we were representing similar types of businesses. We had overlapping and complementary relationships, industry expertise, and product capabilities. MHT was based in Dallas with a growing office in Boston, and we were located in San Francisco, so the combination would give us a truly national footprint overnight. As we began the more detailed negotiations, we faced the same questions we’d be helping our clients navigate for years: What was the relative value of the two firms? What deal structure would work best? And what would we call the firm?
As a founder and professional ‘numbers guy,’ of course I was laser focused on the quantitative, economic points. But once we actually began the negotiating process, I realized what mattered even more to me was a sense of cultural fit. Would we be true partners? What would it be like to work alongside the MHT team? Did we share a vision for what we were trying to become? Interestingly, some of those questions were answered for me not during the pricing and structure negotiations, but when discussing the name of the combined firm.
At inception, we put a lot of thought into the name MidSpan, and we had developed a strong emotional attachment to our name. We liked that the name incorporated both “mid” for middle market and “span” to suggest a bridge between firms. As M&A investment bankers, we view our job to bridge gaps between buyers and sellers, and we had incorporate a bridge motif into our logo. In short, we had put a lot of thought into the name.
When we nervously broached the topic of the name, both Mike and Shawn immediately suggested we simply combine the two names call ourselves MHT MidSpan. They clearly respected the emotional attachment we had to our name, and they also acknowledged the brand value we had built on the West Coast. More importantly, their willingness to compromise showed us that we were truly forming a partnership, and it reassured us that we would, indeed, be partners. That simple gesture actually helped to get the deal done as established a feeling of trust right from the beginning.
Keeping our name mattered to us for other reasons. We wanted our contacts to recognize us as an important part of the new firm. And on a bare emotional level, I have to say we feared that obliterating the word MidSpan might give the wrong impression, suggesting that we were either sellouts or failures. Indeed, had Mike and Shawn said “it has to be MHT Partners” it would have given us pause, as it would have suggested we were being swallowed up, rather than combining forces.
The lesson here is that savvy executives should take emotions into account when discussing a deal. It sends a powerful message that you understand and care about your new partner. A little ‘touchy feely’ can even help get the deal over the finish line.
Boost Your Bottom Line
Our approach may have made good numbers sense too. Companies that fuse identities can exceed the returns of companies that assimilate other firms or choose an entirely new name.
“Because a merger’s success relies in part on preserving positive feelings among customers and employees, it’s smart to pursue a branding strategy that explicitly seeks to transfer equity from both merging companies to the new one. This is true even though fusing two companies’ identities may be cumbersome and expensive,” Jonathan Knowles, Isaac Dinner and Natalie Mizikto wrote in Harvard Business Report.
The study of 216 large companies formed by mergers between 1997 to 2006 separated firms into three categories — those that took an approach of “assimilation,” keeping the name and logo of one of the original companies, “business as usual” where each firm kept its name and logo, and “fusion,” where the two names were combined. Companies taking an assimilation strategy fell short of market returns by 15%, business-as-usual companies fell short by 25%. However, companies using a fusion strategy beat market returns by 3%. Not that we contemplated consulting a Harvard journal during our negotiations, but it is always nice when the data confirms your gut feel!
Revisit Your Decision
Importantly, just because you changed the name during the merger does not mean you cannot change it again later. Indeed, companies should change names whenever it reflects the goals of the organization.
Branding expert Sara Tang of The Brand Union writes on WPP’s Reading Room branding blog, “Taking a longer term view to branding during the M&A event is crucial, but so is evaluating the brand strategy at regular phases post-merger as market sentiment and organizational goals change.”
At MHT, three years after changing our name, we have decided to revert to one of our original names, MHT Partners, for two reasons: simplicity, and to signify that the merger of our businesses and cultures is complete. The name of our merged firm was inelegant, clunky to write in an email, and almost impossible to convey over voicemail. More importantly, some people felt that our name suggested that MHT and MidSpan were operating as separate entities and cultures under a shared corporate banner. Simply said, changing our name signifies we are one firm, coast to coast.
Finally, while we all benefitted from using the combined name, we feel the time has come to present a unified face to the market. Reverting to MHT’s original name makes sense as we have built up over 15 years of brand equity, and the emotional imperative to include the MidSpan name has passed. Three years after our merger, our customers and the broader market know us and view us as a successful partnership, so any anxieties we felt about the name are gone. Note that we debated dropping the ‘Partners’ and simply using ‘MHT’ as our name in an effort to have something new, but we all felt strongly that the ‘Partners’ is what made it all hang together. We are partners, so having our name communicate that right up front was important to all of us.
In investment banking, as with most firms, people are the most important asset, so bridging the emotional and business issues in picking the right name is important. Being part of a company chosen as a “Best Place to Work” numerous years in a row by Dallas Business Journal and Texas Monthly and the #1 firm in 2014 by Dallas Business Journal was an honor that we hope will continue to be reflected by the feelings of our staff working under our new name. We’ll know we have succeeded in getting our branding right if we continue to attract great people and great clients to our firm. In our case, getting the name right proved to be a key part of building the bridge that spanned our two firms, and ultimately allowed us to truly come together as one.
Patrick Crocker is a managing director and co-founder of MHT Partners.