Rites of Privacy

With the dust settling on Sarbox compliance in the public sector, eyes turn to private companies.

Much has been made in the past year about the potential tab for complying with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, as well as the burden in terms of man-hours and liability. So it’s logical to assume that any company that didn’t have to comply wouldn’t comply. Think again.

At Cargill Inc., adhering to Sarbox is not required, because the Minneapolis-based company is private. However, as part of a decision to operate within the spirit of the act, Cargill’s board of directors has made a number of changes, including shaving the maximum amount of time a lead audit partner can serve from seven years to five. And in its May 31 quarterly financial report, the company also started disclosing material details of its off-balance-sheet dealings and explaining them in the Management’s Discussion and Analysis section. Says CFO Robert Lumpkins, “Given all that was going on—the scandals, Sarbanes-Oxley—we thought it was time to reexamine our processes.”

Cargill isn’t the only private-company adapter. Almost 40 percent of nonpublic-company CFOs say their companies would benefit from implementing elements of the year-old law, according to a recent survey of 356 CFOs by Robert Half International. That figure rises to 52 percent of CFOs at private companies of 500 employees or more.

Increasingly, however, compliance is not a matter of choice, even for private companies. Already, many are running into Sarbox simply by raising capital. And if several attorneys general have their way, compliance will be extended to private companies on a state-by-state basis. The year following the law’s July 30, 2002, enactment was “public-company time,” says John Vail, an attorney with Quarles & Brady LLP in Chicago, but now the private company’s time has come.

Bonds in the Stocks

Sarbox, for instance, applies to a company offering public debt as well as to one issuing public equity—a fact Interline Brands, a Jacksonville, Florida-based plumbing and hardware distributor, knows firsthand. Still-private Interline will file a third-quarter 10Q early this month. At that point, it will become subject to Section 302 of Sarbox as a result of the company’s offering of $200 million in senior subordinated notes in May 2003. (As a nonaccelerated filer under the act, the company doesn’t have to fully comply until 2005.)

The transition might not be all that hard for Interline. Some of its executives have experience filing financial reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission, since the stock of Wilmar Industries, Interline’s predecessor, was publicly traded before 2000. In that year, Wilmar exited the public arena because, as a small-cap industrial distributor, says Interline CFO William Sanford, “our sector was out of favor at that time.”

Still, Sanford maintains that Sarbox will serve the company well. While the toughest and most-expensive requirement may be the internal-controls assessment embodied in Section 404, Sanford says the process will help many of Interline’s 2,200 employees grasp where they stand in “the custody chain of information.” Moreover, it could also ready the company for a potential initial public offering. “We’re owned by private-equity firms, and their exit strategy might involve a public offering,” says the finance chief.

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