Limitations of EBITDA as a Meaningful Financial Metric
In the restaurant finance world, the big number is the EBITDA—EBBADABADOO as some call it. EBITDA is earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, and is really a sub-total to the income statement. It is earnings without any charges for cost of funds, taxes or capital spending.
EBITDA’s use began popularized as a credit metric, used in the 1980s M&A and credit analysis world—to test for adequacy of debt coverage. EBITDA is often the common denominator to track and report company buyout values: the acquisition enterprise value to EBITDA ratio is a very commonly reported metric. So much so that that’s where the focus goes. And its use as a simple business valuation tool: the company is worth some multiple of EBITDA; the higher the multiple, the higher the price, and vice versa.
In the franchising space, where franchisors might report a simple EBITDA payback for an investment, or report EBITDA value in their franchise disclosure document item 19 section. The special problem there is this EBITDA is stated in terms of the restaurant level profit only—before overhead. Really, the problem is this: EBITDA doesn’t show the whole picture. It is a sub-total. It doesn’t show full costing.
EBITDA alone as the metric misses at least eight costs and expenses, that are vital to know, calculate and consider in operating and valuing the business as a cash and value producer. Using a business segment such as a store, restaurant or hotel as an example, here are the eight required reductions to EBITDA that must be subtracted, listed in order of magnitude of the cash outlay, to really get to operating economic profit.
- Interest expense: the cost of the debt must be calculated. Interest is amount borrowed times the interest rate times the number of years. One can have rising EBITDA but still go broke.
- Principal repayment: the business cash flow itself should contribute to the ability to pay back the principal debt. That often is in a 5 or 7 year maturity note and is another very large cost that must be considered.
- Future year’s major renovation/remodeling: once the storefront is built, it has to be renewed and refreshed in a regular cycle, often every 5-10 years, via capital expenditures (CAPEX). That often is 10-30% of the total initial investment, or more, over time.
- Taxes, both state and federal. Financial analysis often is done on a pre-tax basis as there are so many complicating factors. But the reality is the marginal tax rate is about 40%.
- New technology and business mandates: aside from the existing storefront that must be maintained, new technology, and new business innovation CAPEX must be funded to remain competitive. Example: new POS systems for restaurants, new technology for hotels.
- Overhead: if the EBITDA value is stated in terms of a business sub-component, like a store, or restaurant or hotel, some level of overhead contribution must be covered by the EBITDA actually generated. Generally, there are no cash registers in the back office, and it is a cost center.
- Maintenance CAPEX: for customer facing businesses (retailers, restaurants, hotels, especially) some renovation of the customer and storefronts must occur every year and does not appear in the EBITDA calculations. New carpets, broken windows, you get the idea. In the restaurant space, a good number might be 2% of sales.
- And finally, new expansion must be covered by the EBITDA generation, to some level. New store development is often a requirement in franchise agreements, and new market development necessary. While new funds can be borrowed or inserted, the existing business must generate some new money for the expansion.
You might say…these other costs and expenses are common sense, they should show up in the detailed cash flow models that should be constructed. Or they can be pro-rata allocated. But how times does this really happen? The EBITDA metric becomes like the book title….or the bumper sticker that gets placed on the car. You really do have to read further or look under the hood. And the saying is true…whatever you think you see in EBITDA…you need more.