Dealing with a legacy

Justly or not, acquisitions go a long way toward shaping a CEO’s legacy. (If you don’t believe us, just ask Jerry Levin, who sold Time Inc for what turned out to be a pile of wampum, in the form of overinflated AOL equity.) With Monday’s announcements that two major tech CEOs are on their way out, we pause to look at how deals – or lack of deals – will shape their respective legacies.

Let’s start with Symantec’s John Thompson, who will leave the storage and security giant by the end of its current fiscal year next April. Under his nearly decade-long leadership, Symantec shares rose some 500%, compared to a flat performance over the same period in shares of rival McAfee and a 40% decline in the Nasdaq. However, the one blemish on his record is Symantec’s largest-ever deal, its $13.5bn purchase of Veritas. (Thompson guided Symantec through more than 40 other acquisitions during his tenure.) Symantec shares peaked at about the time the company announced the deal, and have given back most of the gains they had piled up since mid-2003.

And then there’s Yahoo’s once-and-future king, Jerry Yang. We’re guessing history will be less kind to the man who turned down Microsoft’s offer of at least $31 for each share of Yahoo. Shares of the foundering search giant briefly dipped into the single digits earlier this month. However, they jumped almost 10% on Tuesday as Wall Street applauded the imminent departure of Yang, who has overseen the incineration of some $20bn of shareholder value since he reassumed the top spot at Yahoo in June 2007.

Aside from the ‘relief rally’ for Yang’s move, Yahoo shares also got a boost from speculation that the turnover in the corner office makes a deal with Microsoft more likely. We have our doubts about that. Instead, we’d focus on what the CEO change at Symantec means for deal activity. Our bet: Incoming CEO Enrique Salem will unwind several large chunks of the Veritas business, perhaps starting with NetBackup. As recently as last summer, Thompson said ‘nothing’ from the under-performing Veritas portfolio was for sale. Salem will set the company’s line on that in the future, and we wouldn’t be surprised to see NetBackup or other storage assets find their way onto the block.