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By Brenon Daly

After 20 years in business, Ultimate Software (NASDAQ:ULTI) may be looking for a new owner. The human capital management (HCM) vendor is rumored to have retained Lazard to shop the company, market sources have told us. The bank will run a narrow process, likely approaching about a half-dozen possible buyers rather than running a full auction, the sources added.

The decision by Ultimate to test the market comes as deal flow in the HCM sector has hit a record level. In 2010, we tallied some $2.4bn in spending on deals, slightly eclipsing the previous record of $2.1bn in 2007, according to our M&A KnowledgeBase. Valuations across the space have been soaring, and Ultimate is no exception. This time last year, shares of the Weston, Florida-based company were changing hands at about $30 each. Now, they’re at $50 – an all-time high. That gives Ultimate a market value of $1.25bn, roughly 4.6 times projected 2011 sales of $270m.

Much of the gain can be chalked up to the company’s decision a few years ago to switch from selling software licenses to a subscription model. (It’s a move that has proved incredibly lucrative for other old-line software companies, as well. Shares of Concur Technologies (NASDAQ:CNQR), which underwent a similar shift in sales model a few years ago, have quadrupled over the past five years and are now valued at $2.8bn.) Ultimate stopped selling new software licenses in April 2009 and recurring revenue (made up of both subscription and maintenance revenue) is now more than three-quarters of total sales.

Source: What’s the Ultimate Destination for Ultimate Software?