One sale leads to another at Sophos?

Contact: Brenon Daly

As leading indicators go, the recent decisions around Sophos paint a rather bearish picture for the current IPO market. The anti-malware vendor had briefly filed to go public back in late 2007 but then pulled the paperwork as the markets tumbled. We understand that Sophos had lined up banks earlier this year for another run at an IPO, but it ended up selling a majority chunk to buyout shop Apax Partners earlier this week. (Two of the three bookrunners on the most recent lineup were the same as the 2007 prospectus, according to a source.)

A dual-track process typically adds at least a few dollars to the price of a company, since it at least introduces the idea of another buyer (the public market). However, Sophos’ sale to Apax, in our view, comes at a discount to the valuation we would have penciled out for the company. The deal values Sophos at $830m, about 3.2 times trailing sales and 2.7 times projected revenue. Sophos’ stillborn IPO comes at time when other would-be debutants are having to cut terms or shelve their offerings altogether.

Yet somewhat paradoxically, we think the move by Apax actually makes an offering by the security company more likely, at least down the road. For starters, it replaces Sophos’ somewhat cumbersome ownership structure, which didn’t always share the same alignment, with a single owner to call the shots. (For instance, we heard there was a fair amount of dissention inside Sophos over its mid-2007 purchase of Utimaco, which stands as the largest acquisition of a public security company by a private one.)

Also, Apax probably got in at a low enough price that it could make a decent return by taking Sophos public in a year or two, provided the equity markets stay receptive. (We would argue that’s a much more likely exit than a flip to yet another buyout shop.) And finally, there are plenty of banks ready to (at long last) get Sophos on the market. Many of the underwriters have been working with Sophos for more than a half-decade, so it would be just a matter of updating numbers in what has to be a well-worn pitch book.