Big Yellow’s purple elephant

Asked not too long ago to explain the slump in Symantec’s stock since acquiring Veritas three years ago, CEO John Thompson memorably called the combined company ‘a purple elephant.’ The allegorical description was a bit of a departure for the straight-laced, straight-talking ex-Big Blue executive, who went on to add that since Wall Street had never seen such a large security-storage company, it didn’t know how to value it. (Generally speaking, however, investors have known how to value it: lower. Since announcing the $13.5bn acquisition in December 2004, Symantec shares have shed about 22% of their value, compared to a 15% gain in the Nasdaq over that same time.)

The purple elephant has turned into a bit of a sacred cow, with Thompson defending the combination at every turn and forcefully knocking down any suggestion that Symantec should shed some of the Veritas assets. (Of course, Symantec already ditched Precise – an application performance management product that it inherited from Veritas – back in January.) Talk of possible divestitures surfaced last week following a research note from Cowen and Co analyst Walter Pritchard, who speculated that NetBackup and Data Center Foundation, a storage and server management product, may find their way onto the auction block. Not so, countered Thompson on Symantec’s first-quarter earnings call last Wednesday. The company has ‘no plans to divest anything – none.’ A senior corporate development guy at a company named as one of the possible buyers of the Foundation business told us recently that he hasn’t even been informally approached to gauge the company’s possible interest in Foundation, much less seen a book on the possible asset sale.

Of course, M&A is cyclical, to some degree tracking the overall economy. And we know this about dealmaking in a recession: When times get tight, ties get thin. We’ve already seen that most dramatically in the private equity world, whether it’s former buyout buddies taking each other to court or banks looking to get out of their lending agreements they’ve already signed. That same thinking (‘maybe we shouldn’t have done…’) is now hitting the C-suite. Consider the ongoing sell-a-thon at Time Warner, with the company planning to split off its cable services business, and, we speculate, finally putting AOL’s core US access business on the block. Or, there’s eBay entertaining the idea of jettisoning Skype Technologies, after writing down basically half of the $2.6bn purchase price. Or, if current reports are to be believed, Sprint Nextel may unwind the $39bn acquisition that has soured into a money-burning debacle. Although Thompson says Symantec isn’t a seller, this is clearly the climate in which companies are being pushed to reexamine their acquisitions. That could very well mean taking the knife to the purple elephant again.

Reversing deal flow

Company Assets Comment
Symantec NetBackup, Data Center Foundation, according to rumors Symantec says it’s not looking to sell.
Time Warner Cable services business, and (we speculate) AOL’s US access unit AOL has already shed ISP businesses overseas.
eBay Skype Technologies New CEO says next few quarters will determine if company keeps its overpriced acquisition.
Sprint Nextel Nextel WSJ reports this week that Sprint may unwind Nextel deal, and look to sell itself.
VeriSign Numerous units picked up in 20-company shopping spree VeriSign has already divested three businesses this year.