Lessons from a big Yahoo

Talk about being thrown straight into the shark tank (or more accurately a barracuda tank): John Burris has agreed to step from the board to the CEO spot at Sourcefire. The appointment comes just two weeks after Barracuda Networks made an unsolicited offer for the network security vendor. We noted that the low-ball bid of $7.50 per share from Barracuda – an aggressive company that lives up to its name – will likely set the ‘floor price’ for any sale of Sourcefire. (Since the bared-teeth bid was revealed, Sourcefire’s long-suffering shares have closed above the offer price in every trading session, finishing Wednesday at $7.92. The $0.42 difference equates to about a $10m gulf between what the market says Sourcefire is worth and what Barracuda says the company is worth.)

The fact that Sourcefire – which had been looking for a chief executive replacement since February – stayed in-house to fill the top spot makes us wonder if the company hasn’t resigned itself to a sale. Don’t forget that Sourcefire was supposed to be sold to Check Point Software Technologies more than two years ago – at a higher price than its current valuation, no less. And although we are far from experts in employment contracts, we saw nothing in Burris’ agreement that would make an acquisition of Sourcefire prohibitively expensive. Certainly nothing like the employee severance plan at Yahoo, which is effectively a poison pill.

Indeed, Burris may well look at the tenure of Yahoo’s Jerry Yang during Microsoft’s unsolicited approach to the search engine as a quick executive lesson in how not to handle M&A. On the no-no list: refusing to talk to a suitor, erecting all sorts of obstacles to consolidation and, above all, continuing to insist that you know best in creating value at a company – even when all evidence points to the contrary. “I bleed purple,” Yang said at one point, using Yahoo’s signature color to demonstrate his closeness to the company he helped found. Yang may see it that way, but Carl Icahn and other Yahoo shareholders don’t particularly care. They’re very clear that blood is red, just as money is green. We think Burris – whose connection to Sourcefire only dates back to March and who previously headed up sales at Citrix Systems – won’t suffer a similar case of color blindness.