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“Confidentiality Agreement – A pact that forbids buyers, sellers, and their agents in a given business deal from disclosing information about the transaction to others.”
The M&A Dictionary
It is common practice for the seller, or his or her intermediary, to require a prospective buyer to sign a confidentiality agreement, sometimes referred to as a non-disclosure agreement. This is almost always done prior to the seller providing any important or proprietary information to a prospective buyer. The purpose is to protect the seller and his or her business from the buyer disclosing or using any of the information provided by the seller and restricted by the confidentiality agreement.
These agreements, most likely, were originally used so that a prospective buyer wouldn’t tell the world that the business was for sale. Their purpose now covers a multitude of items to protect the seller. A seller’s primary concerns are to insure that a potential buyer doesn’t capitalize on trade secrets, proprietary data, or any other information that could essentially harm the selling company. A concern of the prospective buyer may be that similar information or data is already known or is being developed by his or her company. This can mean that both parties have to enter into some discussion of what the confidentiality agreement will cover, unless it is general in nature and non-threatening to the prospective buyer.
A general confidentiality agreement will normally cover the following items:
- The purpose of the agreement – it is assumed that in this case it is to provide information to a prospective acquirer.
- What is confidential and what is not. Obviously, any information that is common knowledge or is in the public realm is not confidential.
- What information is going to be disclosed? And what information is going to be excluded under the disclosure requirements?
- How will confidential information be handled? For example, will it be marked “confidential,” etc?
- What will be the term of the agreement? Obviously, the seller would like it to be “for life” while the buyer will want a set number of years – for example, two or three years.
- The return of the information will be specified. For example, if the sale were terminated, then all documentation would be returned.
- Remedy for breach, or determination of what will be the seller’s remedies if the prospective acquirer discloses, or threatens to disclose any information covered by the confidentiality agreement.
- Obviously, the agreement would contain the legal jargon necessary to make it legally enforceable.
One important item that should be included in the confidentiality agreement is a proviso that the prospective acquirer will not hire any key people from the selling firm. This prohibition works both ways: the prospective acquirer agrees not to solicit key people from the seller and will not hire any even if the key people do the approaching. This provision can have a termination date; for example, two years post-closing.
The sale of a company involves the disclosure of important and confidential company information. The selling company is entitled to protection from a potential acquirer using such information to its own advantage.
The confidentiality agreement may need to be more specific and detailed prior to commencing due diligence than a generic one that is used initially to provide general information to a prospective buyer.
Tips on Maintaining Confidentiality
- Use a code word or name for the proposed merger or acquisition.
- Don’t refer to any principal’s names in outside discussions.
- Conversations concerning the merger or acquisition should be held in private.
- Paperwork should be facedown unless being used.
- All documents should be kept under lock and key.
- Important data maintained on the computer should be protected by a password.
- Faxing documents should be done guardedly.