Journal Article | Harvard Business Review | December 2009

Negotiation? Auction? A Deal Maker's Guide

by Guhan Subramanian

Abstract

What's the best way to buy or sell an asset? Should you hold an auction and accept the most attractive offer? Or should you identify the most likely prospects and negotiate with them privately? Auctions became increasingly popular after the internet opened wide the universe of potential bidders. The wrinkle is, auctions often set up win-lose relationships between buyers and sellers, says Subramanian, a professor at Harvard's schools of business and law. In many situations, negotiations lead to better results. Before you decide on a process, carefully consider the nature of the buyers, the characteristics of the asset in question, and your own priorities. If you can get enough of the right buyers to participate, an auction generally makes sense - unless you expect a wide range of valuations. In that case, an auction could leave a lot of money on the table - as it did in the sale of Cable & Wireless America. CWA's assets were uniquely strategic to the winner, but because it had to beat the second-highest bidder by only a little bit, the company got them at a price far below the value the deal actually generated. Can you write exact specifications for an asset? Then you probably won't go wrong with an auction. But specification can discourage creative collaboration between buyer and seller. If that will add value to your deal, or if a relationship is important, pursue a negotiation. Finally, examine your priorities. When discretion is critical, a negotiation will work better, but when you need a transparent, speedy process, an auction is the more sensible choice.

Keywords: Mergers and Acquisitions; Decision Choices and Conditions; Auctions; Market Transactions; Negotiation; Relationships; Strategy;

Citation:

Subramanian, Guhan. "Negotiation? Auction? A Deal Maker's Guide." Harvard Business Review 87, no. 12 (December 2009).