Blue-light special on Brocade

by Brenon Daly

For all of the would-be suitors of Brocade Communications, now is seemingly the time to move on the enterprise networking vendor. The value of the company has been trimmed by about one-quarter this week, meaning that a buyer paying a typical premium would be getting Brocade for the price that it fetched on its own last week. (We understand that valuations aren’t quite that simple – and it probably shortchanges Brocade – but it’s directionally accurate.) The recent problems at Brocade stem largely from the Foundry Networks business that it acquired a little more than a year ago.

With investors lopping off the gains that Brocade had run up over the past 10 months, the company has clearly been marked down. Yet, on the other side of any theoretical deal for Brocade, the demand has probably dipped since M&A speculation was swirling around Brocade last October. The reason? One company that had been mentioned as a possible buyer for Brocade is probably now out of the market.

Hewlett-Packard made a major networking move of its own shortly after most people put it at the top of the list of potential suitors for Brocade. Last November, HP handed over some $3.1bn for 3Com, which means that it doesn’t need Brocade (or more specifically, Foundry) quite as much. Of course, IBM is still a big OEM partner for Brocade, as is Dell. Both of those vendors could still be interested in a major networking acquisition, particularly at a discounted price. Brocade currently sports an enterprise value of $3.1bn.

Brocade on the block? Of course it is

Contact: Brenon Daly, Simon Robinson

Having recently marked the anniversary of its largest-ever acquisition, Brocade Communications may now find itself on the other side of a transaction. At least that’s the speculation from The Wall Street Journal, which reported Monday that the storage and networking giant has retained a banker (reportedly Frank Quattrone’s Qatalyst Partners) to shop it. While the report was enough to goose the stock to its highest level since June 2008 (shares were up 15% to $8.82 in Monday-afternoon trading), it’s worth pointing out that being shopped is a long way from getting sold.

It’s also worth mentioning that speculation about Brocade being in play is nothing new. As my colleague Simon Robinson noted in late March, the consolidating networking landscape makes Brocade a likely target. (After all, Brocade itself is an example of the consolidation. A traditional SAN networking provider, Brocade spent $2.6bn to expand into IP networking with its landmark purchase of Foundry Networks.) In the report, Robinson taps IBM as a likely buyer for Brocade as a way to gain an immediate presence in the networking space as well as strengthen its lead in the server sector. (Big Blue is one of the largest of Brocade’s OEM partners, which now number 23 companies.)

Hewlett-Packard is a less likely acquirer, in our view, because of the substantial overlap between HP’s newly reinvigorated ProCurve line and Foundry. That said, Brocade is a key supplier of datacenter infrastructure technology, so it is likely to be of interest to sever vendors like HP. Brocade’s appeal might be even sharper now that HP and Cisco Systems, which were once chummy, have found themselves on opposing sides in their efforts to equip the modern datacenters.

One additional buyer that certainly makes sense for Brocade, even more so because of a recently strengthened OEM arrangement, is Dell. The hardware provider, which has already bought its way into storage and other IT infrastructure markets, recently bolstered its OEM arrangement with Brocade to include IP networking and fiber-channel-over-Ethernet gear. (For the record, the WSJ article doesn’t mention Dell as a possible acquirer but, inexplicably, includes Oracle as a suitor. We suspect that Larry Ellison has plenty of other areas of software to consolidate before a hardware-heavy purchase that pits Oracle against Cisco.)

In terms of valuation, we would note that with the M&A-inspired speculative buying, Brocade shares have more than tripled so far this year. (Trading in Brocade stock through mid-Monday was already more than five times heavier than average.) The run has given Brocade an enterprise value (EV) of $4bn, including the jump on Monday. That values it at almost exactly the same level as Cisco on an EV-to-trailing-EBITDA valuation and a slight discount to the networking giant on an EV-to-trailing-sales multiple.

A happy anniversary for Brocade-Foundry

Contact: Brenon Daly

As far as Wall Street is concerned, nothing has really happened to Brocade Communications over the past year. Shares in the storage and networking vendor trade exactly where they did this time last July. And yet, there have been monumental changes at the company during that time. Exactly a year ago today, Brocade announced its largest and riskiest deal: the $3bn purchase of Foundry Networks. The transaction faced a number of challenges, both in terms of strategy and execution. And compounding those difficulties was the fact that Brocade would be closing the acquisition during the most severe economic slowdown since the Great Depression.

For starters, Brocade was planning to borrow some $1.4bn of the $3bn purchase price. In normal times, that wouldn’t be a problem for a cash-producer like Brocade. But with the credit markets frozen last fall and people wondering about the economic outlook, borrowing seemed unlikely. (The uncertainty around the economy led the two sides to trim the final purchase price to just $2.6bn in late October; the transaction closed in mid-December.) Beyond the question of financing the pickup, folks questioned the wisdom of a deal that would move the combined company even more directly into competition with Cisco Systems, the most successful networking vendor of the modern era.

That thought certainly spooked investors. As soon as the pairing was announced, Wall Street knocked some 20% off Brocade shares and continued to put pressure on them well into this year. At their lows in early March, Brocade shares had lost some three-quarters of their value since the announcement of the acquisition. (That compares to a 40% decline in the Nasdaq during the same period.) The slide left Brocade in the absurd situation of sporting a market capitalization of just over $800m, despite tracking to generate about $1.9bn in sales in the current fiscal year. It was also a rather damning assessment of the Foundry buy, given that Wall Street was valuing the combined Brocade-Foundry entity at just one-third the amount that Brocade had valued Foundry.

It turns out that the market dramatically undervalued Brocade. Since bottoming out, its shares have quadrupled, giving the vendor a current market capitalization of $3.4bn. That run has left Brocade shares flat over the past year, while the Nasdaq is down some 18% during that time. Brocade has also slightly outperformed rival Cisco over the past year.

Wall Street seems to be digesting the fact that Brocade may actually be able to survive – even thrive – in its fight with Cisco. (For its part, Cisco hasn’t been helping its own cause. Recent actions, including introducing a new server offering, have created more enemies than friends.) Meanwhile, Brocade has integrated Foundry a quarter or two earlier than planned and has been pitching itself as a viable alternative to the giant. Despite a tough beginning, that message is starting to resonate with customers.

IBM-Sun: Nothing but March madness?

Contact: Brenon Daly

Maybe the speculation around IBM buying Sun Microsystems was nothing more than a bit of March Madness. When reports surfaced last month that a deal could be in the works, Sun’s long-ailing shares soared from about $5 to nearly $9 in a single session. (At the time, we also looked at what a potential pairing of the tech giants might mean.) And it wasn’t just sporadic trading that powered the mid-March move. More than 160 million Sun shares traded the day after The Wall Street Journal carried its report on initial talks, meaning volume was eight times heavier than average.

It turns out that anybody who bought the stock from then until last Friday is now underwater. (Or to continue our NCAA basketball terminology, they’ve had their bracket busted.) Both the WSJ and The New York Times reported Monday that a deal – even at a lowered price – may be off the table. Sun shares gave up one-quarter of their value in Monday afternoon trading, falling to about $6.50 each. Volume was again several times heavier than average.

Amid all these reports of tough negotiating and ‘recalibrated’ deal terms, we’re reminded of the five-month saga of one public company buying another public company last year. In mid-July, Brocade Communications unveiled a $3bn offer for Foundry Networks, paying nearly all of that in cash and only a tiny slice in equity. As the equity markets plunged last October, the two sides agreed to lower the deal value to $2.6bn by trimming the cash price and removing the equity component. (Brocade shares had been cut in half during the time from the announcement to the readjustment.)

Now, the combined Brocade-Foundry entity, which has existed since mid-December, has a total market capitalization of just $1.5bn. In fact, my colleague Simon Robinson recently speculated that Brocade may be attracting interest from suitors. One of the names that has popped up? IBM, which would get an instant presence in the networking market. And if Big Blue is done with Sun (as reports suggest), then perhaps the company will just shift its M&A focus.

Of ‘corrections’ and ‘recalibrations’

Since the beginning of September, a new euphemism has found its way into Wall Street parlance: ‘recalibration.’ It is a close cousin to the original euphemism, ‘correction.’ In fact, the pair of linguistically neutral terms are often popping up in the same sentence, such as ‘Given the market’s correction, we have recalibrated the deal.’ We gather that’s a lot more sensitive than saying, ‘Look, stocks have gone to hell, so we slashed the deal.’

Whatever the language, we saw two cases of this on Wednesday. Not unexpectedly, Brocade ‘amended’ its offer to buy Foundry, originally inked in late July. (‘Did we say $3bn? We meant $2.6bn.’) And Broadcom took a pair of scissors to its agreement to buy AMD’s digital television unit, cutting 25% from the price.

At least the deals will get done (probably). The same can’t be said for a transaction a banker described for us yesterday over coffee. Working on the sell-side, the banker and his client hammered out an agreement with a strategic acquirer over the summer. Terms called for the buyer to pay about $30m, about $25m of that in cash, the rest in equity. As shares in the would-be buyer ‘corrected,’ the company ‘recalibrated’ the price down to about $20m. The final kicker: the company planned to pay in stock. The would-be target is ‘recalibrating’ its interest in the offer.

Smoothing the spread

With the stock market in turmoil, more than a few deals have seen a gulf widen between the current price of a would-be target and its proposed takeout price. So the question becomes: How to smooth the spread? Well, two different approaches – with wildly different results – seem to support the idea of disclosure, with more being better. Wall Street, apparently, is a little skittish these days.

A month ago, JDA Software took the unusual step of issuing a press release to assure Wall Street that it can actually pay for its PE-style acquisition of i2. Originally, JDA was banking on Wachovia to help fund its purchase. But as that bank came undone, Wells Fargo stepped in to join Credit Suisse as the lenders to JDA. That deal, which was launched in mid-August, goes to i2 shareholders a week from Thursday. Meanwhile, i2 shares are currently changing hands at about $14, compared to JDA’s bid of $14.86.

Contrast that clarity with the cloudy situation surrounding Brocade Communications’ planned purchase of Foundry Networks. When Brocade unveiled its ‘Cisco-killer’ acquisition in July, it said it would pay $18.50 in cash plus a sliver of stock for each Foundry share. The networking equipment maker’s stock traded near the bid until a disastrous decision Friday to delay its shareholder vote on Brocade’s offer, citing ‘recent developments.’

While the company may have had its hands tied about what it could say about these ‘developments,’ the ominous move spooked the market. Concerns immediately arose about Brocade being able to pay for the $3bn acquisition, given the tight credit market, as well as the SAN vendor perhaps knocking down its offer price. Shares are now changing hands at $13.36 – almost exactly where they were before Brocade launched its bid three months ago. We’ll see if the initial offer holds up when Foundry shareholders vote on the deal Wednesday afternoon.

Meru: Nasdaq or bust

At the rate networking companies are consolidating, there may be no one left to buy Meru Networks. Earlier this week, Hewlett-Packard satisfied its appetite for WLAN equipment by acquiring Colubris Networks. That deal comes just two months after rival Trapeze Networks got snapped up by Belden, a cable and wiring company.

But the deal that probably scotched any potential trade sale for Meru was Brocade’s $3bn gamble on Foundry. The reason: Foundry has an OEM arrangement with Meru and was viewed as the most-likely acquirer of the WLAN equipment startup. We’re guessing Brocade probably figures it has its hands full with integrating Foundry’s existing business without adding additional pieces. Also, we view the planned Brocade-Foundry pairing as focused primarily on the datacenter, which wouldn’t have much use for WLAN equipment.

The only suitor we can put forward for Meru at this point is Juniper Networks. While Meru’s enterprise focus would fit well with Juniper, we understand the two companies kicked around a deal in 2005, at a reported $150m, but talks didn’t go far. Besides, a Meru source indicated recently that the company is plugging away on an IPO for next year. (We’ve heard that from the company for more than two years , but maybe 2009 will be the year.)

For Meru to go public at a decent valuation, however, it needs both a healthy IPO market and a healthy comparable, Aruba Networks. That company is currently trading at half the level it was at the start of the year, following a blown quarter in February. Aruba will have a chance to make amends in two weeks, as it will report results from its fiscal year on August 28.

Recent WLAN deals

Date Acquirer Target Price
Aug. 2008 HP Colubris Not disclosed
June 2008 Belden Trapeze Networks $133m
July 2008 Motorola AirDefense $85m*

Source: The 451 M&A KnowledgeBase