Sizing up Secure Computing

In many ways, Secure Computing’s divestiture of its authentication business to Aladdin Knowledge Systems raises more questions than it answers. Secure’s rationale for the sale is pretty simple: pay down some debt and get out of a sideline business that’s dominated by RSA and has a solid number two in Vasco Data Security. (For the record, Vasco is about four times the size of Secure’s SafeWord business and runs at a highly respected 25% operating margin.)

So it’s pretty clear why Secure was a willing seller (in fact, we hear that Secure had been a willing seller of the business for more than a year). Less clear is why Aladdin was a willing buyer of the property – at a relatively rich price of 2x sales, no less. Aladdin investors chose not to stick around for the company’s explanation of why it was willing to shell out two-thirds of its cash holdings for a product line in a cutthroat market. They fled the stock, trimming 14% off the price and sending Vasco to its lowest level since January 2004.

Of course, Secure has had an even rougher run of it on the market recently, as the company has come up short of Wall Street estimates for the past two quarters. Shares of Secure currently change hands lower than they have at any point during the past half-decade. Since the beginning of the year, the stock has shed 60%, a decline that recently cost longtime CEO James McNulty his job.

The long, uninterrupted slide in Secure’s valuation raises an even larger question about the divestiture: Was the sale of SafeWord just a prelude to an outright sale of the company itself? The numbers certainly don’t work against a deal. In fact, Secure is currently valued at basically 1x sales – just half the level it got for the divested property. (Usually, it’s the reverse, with corporate cast-offs getting sold at less than half the overall company’s valuation.)

Any planned acquisition, however, would probably have to go through Warburg Pincus, which holds the equivalent of about 7% of Secure’s common stock, going back to a financing deal it struck to help Secure buy CipherTrust in July 2006 for $264m. Warburg invested $70m at a time when Secure stock was trading at about 3x higher than it is now. With Warburg that far underwater on its holding, we can only imagine the pointed questions the private equity firm will ask Secure.