A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the M&A Process
This was originally posted on The Real Deal
Typically, mergers and acquisitions are shrouded in secrecy, with only the key players knowing what really went on during the negotiations. However, in an effort to remain transparent about how we’re growing as a company, we’ve decided to let everyone take a peek behind our closed doors.
In 2021, ATTOM Data Solutions acquired GeoData Plus, a data service provider for real estate practitioners. We recently sat down with Stuart Bern, ATTOM’s Executive Vice President of Corporate Development and Erik Wind, the former President of GeoData Plus and ATTOM’s new Vice President of GeoData Plus Product to talk about what it was like to join forces.
They offered up some refreshingly candid commentary on what it feels like to be on either side of an M&A. Read on for a closer look at what they had to say:
Q: Erik, can you start us off with some background on GeoData Plus and how you’ve grown in the last few decades?
Erik: GeoData Plus is a property data platform that services real estate practitioners like agents, investors, appraisers, and mortgage lenders. We launched in 2002 as a desktop application that offered sales and tax assessor data to seven counties in the New York City area. When we first started, we would even send CDs for customers to install.
Obviously, that doesn’t happen anymore. These days, we are mobile and web-based. In addition to our original sales and assessor data, we’ve expanded to provide a national database that also includes mortgage data and foreclosure records, as well as prospecting and valuation tools.
Typically, our customers use GeoData Plus for a combination of research, valuation, and prospecting.
Q: How did the M&A process start? Erik, were you looking for opportunities?
Erik: We weren’t actively looking for opportunities at the time. But, like anyone who’s owned a property technology company, we had given it some thought. Over the years, we did have a few conversations.
Fortunately, when ATTOM approached us, we weren’t in a position where we needed to raise money. We had been in the space for a while and we were self-funded, which gave us the opportunity to ensure that, if we were going to do an M&A deal, it would be with the right firm.
Since the beginning, there was this feeling like we could form a good partnership. Where ATTOM has always been focused on the acquisition of data, we’ve always been focused on the technology that we can create with the data at our disposal. While they are two very different processes, they’re ultimately two very similar goals.
Plus, we already had a working relationship. We’ve actually been doing business together since 2017. They were our data provider when we expanded nationwide, so we already were familiar with many of the team members at ATTOM.
Q: Stuart, what initially drew you to GeoData Plus?
Stuart: Our core business model has always been focused on providing premium property data to the real estate market and ancillary use cases. One piece of technology that has always been of interest to us is a web-viewer product like the one built by GeoData Plus. By partnering, we really felt that we could reach a broader audience and provide a unique offering and service to our customers.
In addition, we always look for companies that are led by smart and talented leaders with an entrepreneurial mindset, as well as tech and product backgrounds. Erik and Robert fit that mold. They were one of the many reasons why we thought this combination would be such a strong cultural fit for us.
Q: How were the negotiations? Erik, did you have any reservations?
Erik: We started talking in December 2020. After the initial discussions, it took us a few weeks of going back and forth to land on a valuation that worked well for everyone.
I’d be lying if I said the numbers weren’t important. However, beyond that, my main concerns were around whether or not we were going to be a good fit, specifically how well the GeoData Plus team was going to fit under the ATTOM umbrella.
There’s always risks and pitfalls with a transaction like this. As the person in charge, you wonder, “What is the vision of the acquiring company and how is it going to align with ours? How is this transaction going to impact our customers? How are our two teams going to work together?”
Stuart and I had those really candid conversations during the negotiations. What really struck me is how genuinely curious his team was about what we were doing at GeoData Plus. There was a real interest in learning about everything that we do, including how we do it and why we do it that way.
Their curiosity helped to reassure me that ATTOM wasn’t going to negatively impact our customers and that we had a similar vision as far as what we hoped to accomplish. It was important to me to know that we had similar goals.
Q Stuart, is there anything in particular that you and your team did to try to ease those concerns?
Stuart: The overall message that we tried to drive home with Erik and his team is that we want you to continue to be in control of our now-shared product roadmap and to help further define the vision for our combined businesses. We are here to support that roadmap and vision by providing a large platform and team for you to leverage in order to help you reach our shared goals.
We also tried to be as candid as possible during the process. Myself, and the other ATTOM executives, along with the broader team at Lovell Minnick Partners (our PE sponsor), tried to give everyone at GeoData Plus as much insight into how ATTOM works.
Additionally, if there was anything that was asked for during the process, we did our best to provide it or to provide an answer for why we couldn’t. They were interviewing us as much as we were interviewing them. It had to be a good fit on both sides.
Q: Erik, what made the decision for you? Was there a tipping point?
Erik: There wasn’t really one tipping point. It happened over time.
Like any M&A, at the end of the day, it worked out because we were able to come to a valuation and terms that were comfortable for both sides. But, the conversations we had during the negotiations really confirmed that we were making the right move for our company.
It felt like ATTOM was trying to create an environment for entrepreneurs to grow their businesses and we talked about how they would help us do that at great length. On a personal level, that really created comfort and excitement going in the whole process.
Q: What about the transition phase? How was it for you, Erik?
Erik: From my perspective, the transition felt fairly easy because Stuart made sure that GeoData Plus was the focus of the conversation, even after the negotiations.
There was just as much emphasis on how we were going to move forward after the acquisition as there was on everything we needed to accomplish along the way. As a result, we weren’t starting from scratch once the paperwork was signed. We already had a plan in place for how to move forward.
Stuart had an outline of everything he wanted to accomplish during the acquisition and due diligence process. If the outline changed, he would let us know about it. We always knew where he was and what he was doing, which in my limited M&A experience, is rare during an acquisition
I also appreciated how transparent the entire ATTOM team was during the transition. Early on in the due diligence phase, I had the opportunity to start working with the Product & Technology team. I was able to see firsthand how ATTOM functions as a company and to get a sense of what my new role would be like, which helped to put me more at ease.
Q: Stuart, what was most important to you when integrating?
Stuart: Going into the process, we obviously had a plan for post-integration and the growth of the combined business. Part of that plan is to continue on the growth trajectory that Erik and his team started by continuing to sell the product Nationally while also building a new, innovative product for the industry.
With that in mind, project management was key. During the acquisition, we had regular project management meetings with every department. They covered what we hoped to accomplish, as well as who was the owner of each project and who was going to support them. In those meetings, we’d go through our progress as a team, talk about any roadblocks, and about how we could assist one another
Communication was also important, especially internal communication. At the start of the acquisition, we had two separate teams working together so it was crucial to have a good dialogue. In particular, we did our best to communicate any changes as they occurred and to ensure that we were working with one voice since there were a lot of new people in the room.
This integration was particularly personal for me. I started with ATTOM on December 14th and began talking to Erik on the 17th.. GeoData Plus has felt like part of our team since day one. Erik has been very helpful in giving us feedback on what worked and didn’t work. I think his feedback will go a long way towards helping us create a smoother process for future acquisitions.
Q Erik, now that the transition is complete, can you tell me more about your new role as VP of GeoData Plus Product?
Erik: As an entrepreneur, this opportunity is very exciting. When you start a business, it’s because you have an idea of something you want to build. Eventually, if you’re successful, the business of running a business starts to get in the way of doing what you love. In my case, things like human resources, IT management and accounting started taking me away from product development, which is what I’m really passionate about.
Through the transition, I’m able to get back in touch with that initial excitement. ATTOM has these phenomenal resources, so I don’t have to worry about the business administrative side of things. They have a great team to deal with it for me.
The freedom to focus exclusively on development has essentially put rocket fuel on the products that we’re building. We now have the opportunity to bring GeoData Plus into markets that we’ve only just started to explore and to integrate GeoData Plus into ATTOM Cloud, a new data on-demand offering from ATTOM.
Q: What do you both feel that ATTOM is able to offer now that you’ve joined forces?
Stuart: I think that ATTOM has done a really great job becoming a comprehensive data company and synthesizing many different data elements into a platform that expands across multiple use cases.
I think that as we look to moveup the information industry value chain, there are opportunities for us to accelerate growth within data-enabled products like the web-viewer application that GeoData Plus has provided for us, as well as services that focus on building data analytics platforms. Ultimately, we want to find ways for the company to leverage new and existing databases in unprecedented ways.
Erik: ATTOM’s greatest strength has always been the acquisition and distribution of data. One of the things that they were missing was not having a way to easily visualize that data through a web application. It meant that end users like agents and investors didn’t have a way to easily access the data.
Now, with GeoData Plus as part of ATTOM, those end users have that opportunity. They don’t need extensive licensing agreements, they only need a GeoData Plus account. Within minutes, they’re given the ability to easily visualize all the data that ATTOM has to offer.