Jim Abrams was the driving force behind several businesses that pride themselves on being timely: One-Hour Heating and Air Conditioning, Mister Sparky electrical services and Benjamin Franklin Plumbing.
Yet when he tried to sell Clockwork Home Services, the Sarasota-based parent company for his collection of home repair businesses, it was like time stood still.
Initial talk of a sale began in 2008. Direct Energy Services, part of Britain's Centrica energy company, started discussing a merger in 2009 — the bleakest period of the recession.
Finally, this summer, Direct Energy struck a deal to buy Clockwork for $183 million.
The prolonged sale is part of a broader trend: After a miserable 2009, dealmaking is back in vogue.
Nationally, the logjam broke open with deals like Blackstone Group's bid to take over energy producer Dynegy Inc. and the $3.4 billion acquisition of Interactive Data Corp. by investment funds managed by Silver Lake and Warburg Pincus.
Seven of the year's 10 biggest private equity deals in Florida have occurred since June.
In the Tampa Bay area, several large companies have found new owners the past few months, including the PBSJ Corp., bought by British engineering consultancy WS Atkins Plc. for $292 million in August. Late last month, the Carlyle Group engineered one of the biggest corporate buyouts in bay area history, snapping up Tampa-based Syniverse Technologies for $2.6 billion in cash.
It's not just mega-deals. Private equity dollars and individual investors are chasing smaller companies, as well.
"Never been busier," said Jan Fowler, who has worked as a business broker in the bay area for 27 years. As owner of Odessa-based Acquisitions Unlimited, Fowler plays matchmaker between potential business buyers and sellers. Currently she is representing about a dozen companies on the market.
"Private equity money is flowing in a big way," Fowler said. "I think there's pent-up demand. There's money out there that needs to be spent."
Statewide, merger activity jumped 186 percent between the second and third quarters, according to a report from the Mergermarket Group, which tracks mergers and acquisitions worldwide.
Though it gives a caveat that more banks in Florida are likely to fail, the report still forecasts "a light at the end of the tunnel" for dealmakers.
"Manufacturing is coming back strong, boosting the industrials sector, and as concern about a double-dip recession fades, buyers will show more confidence that now is the right time in the cycle to make acquisitions," the report concluded.
One reason that 2010 activity appears so encouraging is because 2009 was so dreadful by comparison. According to Dealogic, only 514 private equity buyouts valued at less than $50 billion were completed by U.S. buyers in 2009, compared with almost 1,100 deals valued at $404 billion during the 2006 peak.
So far this year, Dealogic data indicate about $75 billion in deals have been struck, a far cry from the heyday but already 52 percent higher than all of 2009.
Fowler said some would-be buyers last year "would get scared and back away. It was a lot of doom and gloom, and rightly so: 2009 was a hard year."
Steven Vazquez, a Tampa-based lawyer with Foley & Lardner involved with mergers and acquisitions, recalled two deals that were initially discussed in 2008 but didn't gel until this year.
When pending deals in late 2008 and early 2009 broke apart, he said, it was usually because a buyer couldn't secure financing or pulled away to conserve cash. Often, buyers and sellers were too far apart on expectations of company value.
Since then, there's been a "resetting" of expectations over values, Vazquez said, with sellers accepting the fact that prices have fallen significantly from 2006-07 levels. He cited one company that recently sold at a 40 percent discount.
Private equity deadlines
Private equity funds have an added incentive to find acquisition targets soon.
Many funds have a limited window up to five or seven years to spend funds before they have to return the original stake to investors. So the clock is ticking to use or lose funding that trickled in during the years leading up to the Great Recession.
The window of opportunity also could be closing soon because of tax worries. In particular, investors have been concerned that the rate on carried interest income may go up with the expiration of the Bush tax cuts.
"People wanted to finish transactions in 2010 because of the uncertainty of the tax rates," Vazquez said.
But Fowler, for one, doesn't think the window is about to close. To the contrary, based on discussions with clients and her current pipeline, she sees no reason the uptick in business won't continue.
"2011 is going to be probably our best year," she predicted. "There's no doubt in my mind."
Jeff Harrington can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jeffmharrington.