The “crown jewel” lock-up, a staple of high-stakes dealmaking technology in the 1980s M&A boom, has been showing some signs of life in the contemporary deal landscape, albeit often in creative new forms. As traditionally conceived, a crown jewel lock-up is an agreement entered into between the target and buyer that gives the buyer an option to acquire key assets of the target (its “crown jewels”) separate and apart from the merger itself. In the event that the merger fails to close, including as a result of a topping bid, the original buyer retains the option to acquire those assets. By agreeing to sell some of the most valuable pieces of the target business to the initial buyer, the traditional crown jewel lock-up can serve as a significant deterrent to competing bidders and, in some circumstances, a poison pill of sorts.
Given the potentially preclusive nature of traditional crown jewel lock-ups, it is not surprising that they did not fare well when challenged in the Delaware courts in the late 1980s. As the Supreme Court opined in the seminal Revlon case, “[W]hile those lock-ups which draw bidders into a battle benefit shareholders, similar measures which end an active auction and foreclose further bidding operate to the shareholders detriment.” Building on the holding in Revlon, the court in Macmillan said that “Even if the lockup is permissible, when it involves ‘crown jewel’ assets careful board scrutiny attends the decision. When the intended effect is to end an active auction, at the very least the independent members of the board must attempt to negotiate alternative bids before granting such a significant concession.” Although crown jewel lock-ups fell out of favor following these rulings, modern and modified versions of the traditional crown jewel lock-up have been finding their way back into the dealmakers’ toolkit.