Starent gets a bit more pop than most Cisco buys

Contact: Brenon Daly

Announcing its second multibillion-dollar acquisition in as many weeks, Cisco Systems said Tuesday that it will hand over $2.9bn in cash for Starent Networks. The pickup comes just after the networking giant’s reach across the Atlantic for Norwegian videoconferencing vendor Tandberg. Cisco is paying $3bn in cash for Tandberg. Both of the October purchases are expected to close in the first half of 2010.

As many echoes as there are between this pair of recent deals, there’s one significant difference: Cisco is paying a premium on Starent’s stock price that’s substantially higher than what it paid for Tandberg. In fact, Cisco is paying nearly twice the premium for Starent than it has paid in its other recent purchases of public companies. The bid of $35 for each Starent share represents a 42% premium over the closing price 30 days ago for shares of the wireless infrastructure provider. That compares to a 27% premium for Tandberg, a 21% premium for WebEx Communications and a 23% premium for Scientific-Atlanta. (All of those calculations are based on the closing prices of the shares of the target 30 days prior to the acquisition, which we feel is a more accurate snapshot of the company than the previous day’s closing price.)

And a final echo in today’s acquisition of previous Cisco deals: the advisers. Barclays Capital worked for Cisco, while Goldman Sachs Group banked Starent. That’s the same banks on the same sides as Cisco’s pickup of WebEx two-and-a-half years ago. Of course, that was before Barclays acquired Lehman Brothers, which actually got the print.

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.

Starting strong, once again

Contact: Brenon Daly

For the second time this year, the first day of a new quarter brought with it a multibillion-dollar transaction. Back on April 1, Fidelity National Information Services opened the second quarter by announcing its $2.9bn all-equity acquisition of Metavante. (The deal closed yesterday.) And to start the fourth quarter on October 1, Cisco said it plans to spend $3bn in cash for Tandberg, the Norwegian maker of video and network infrastructure technology. The purchase, which is expected to close in the first half of 2010, should bolster Cisco’s TelePresence product.

Cisco’s reach for Tandberg stands as the company’s largest acquisition since it paid $3.2bn in cash for WebEx Communications in March 2007. The transaction also continues a flurry of recent deals. September came in with the highest spending of any month so far this year, with significant acquisitions announced by Xerox, Adobe, CA Inc and Dell, among others. In fact, September alone accounted for two-thirds of all M&A spending in the just-completed third quarter. (See our full report on the numbers and trends in the third quarter.)

Recent deal flow

Month Deal volume Deal value
September 2009 243 $22bn
August 2009 222 $4bn
July 2009 274 $9bn

Source: The 451 M&A KnowledgeBase

Will Adobe-Omniture marriage prompt online video M&A?

-Contact Thomas Rasmussen, Jim Davis

When Adobe Systems and Omniture announced the details and rationale behind their $1.8bn tie-up in mid-September, some interesting items emerged. Highlighted was the obvious benefit from a combination of Adobe’s popular Flash video platform and Omniture’s analytics capabilities. As the Web analytics market has become more saturated, Omniture has recently been expanding into higher-margin niches such as online video analytics. Combining online video content management with analytics is an area in which some early startups have carved out a profitable niche over the past few years as video has finally started to move to the Web.

However, if the newly bulked-up Adobe truly moves into the space – as we suspect the company will – it will undoubtedly present an enormous challenge to an industry previously dominated by a few well-funded startups. As a consequence of other larger players wanting to get a piece of the booming sector and startups being more inclined to strengthen their position, we believe consolidation in the market is inevitable. With that as our premise, who might be buying, and who are the potential prime targets?

Among a slew of startups in the space, the two primary ones we think could be in play in this scenario are market leaders Move Networks and Brightcove. The two have each taken in roughly $90m in venture capital. It is worth noting that both Microsoft and Cisco are strategic investors in Move Networks, and we think the company would make a great fit for either one since both have a strong focus on video moving forward. Meanwhile, both IAC/InterActive and AOL are strategic investors in competitor Brightcove. While we don’t think AOL is in a position to make an acquisition like this now, we would not put it past IAC. Google with its more consumer-oriented YouTube makes a logical acquirer as well, particularly as a way to add a business-friendly enterprise offering.

And finally, we might put forward rich content delivery networks (CDNs) such as Akamai and Limelight Networks. These vendors have been buying their way into premium verticals recently to escape the rapid commoditization of their core business and would be wise to consider acquiring into the space. From the estimated $40m or so in revenue that we understand Brightcove brings in, a large part of that comes from reselling bandwidth through CDNs.

Should Cisco dial up eBay’s Skype?

Contact: Thomas Rasmussen

In eBay’s recent report on second-quarter results, the online auction house announced a somewhat disappointing performance in its two core businesses, Payments and Marketplaces, but did see strong results from a surprising source: Skype. The VoIP service increased year-over-year revenue by 25%, while overall sales declined as the legacy Marketplaces revenue sank 14%. Skype revenue hit $170m in the quarter, bringing sales for the division over the past year to $587m. The service is closing in on a half-billion users, finishing June with 481 million users. All in all, that’s a solid performance for a unit largely considered the bastard child of the Silicon Valley auction giant.

However, that certainly isn’t enough to keep Skype inside eBay. The acquisition, which eBay has admitted overpaying for and has written down a huge chunk of the $3.2bn cost, remains largely irrelevant and immaterial to its core e-commerce business. The service has never been integrated into auctions – much less adopted by buyers and sellers – at a level anywhere close to what was planned when eBay picked up Skype four years ago. It stands as the company’s largest-ever purchase and a stark reminder of an ill-conceived deal by the earlier leadership of Meg Whitman. Current CEO John Donahoe has been clear that eBay is returning to its roots, and Skype won’t be a part of that.

So where will Skype go? We see the VoIP vendor on a dual track. It could well get spun off in an IPO. (Provided, of course, that the catastrophe at Vonage hasn’t poisoned the market for VoIP companies.) Or, Skype could look for an acquirer, although we wonder how deep the pool could be for potential buyers that could write a $2bn or so check for it. But we do have one possible interested party: Cisco. Granted, this is a proposal from left field and we’re not suggesting that talks between the companies are going on or anything. However, there is some indication that such a pairing might not be too farfetched. Cisco has increasingly been bulking up its consumer division and its strategy around the media-enabled home is finally starting to come to fruition. Video plays a big part of those plans, and the firm has been talking about expanding its TelePresence offering from the enterprise to the home. An acquisition of Skype with its enormous and growing user base and proven technology on desktops and mobile devices would do just that, and would fit well with its M&A strategy of picking up market adjacencies.

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.

Cisco ‘papers’ purchase of Pure Digital

Contact: Brenon Daly

When we wrote recently that Cisco Systems was an unpredictable acquirer, we only covered half of it. Who would have thought (prior to rumors and subsequent official word last Thursday) that Cisco really wanted to buy its way into the consumer electronics market? Much less that the company wanted to enter that space so badly that it would pay what looks a lot more like a 2007 valuation than a 2009 valuation?

We’re referring, of course, to the networking giant’s acquisition last week of Flip camcorder maker Pure Digital Technologies for $590m. As for the valuation, we understand that Pure Digital wrapped up last year with sales of $150m, meaning Cisco paid about four times trailing 12-month sales for the company. Of course, Pure Digital was growing quickly, but we would still note that its valuation is about twice as rich as Cisco’s current valuation. (There were no bankers on either side of deal, we’ve been told.)

The concern about Cisco’s valuation is more than an academic issue for Pure Digital. After all, it took payment in Cisco shares, rather than cash. And that’s the other part of Cisco’s unpredictability. According to our records, the Pure Digital purchase was the first time Cisco has used its equity to acquire a company in more than four years. (The last time Cisco did a paper deal was its $450m pickup of wireless LAN switch vendor Airespace in January 2005.)

Since then, Cisco has inked some 42 transactions with a disclosed deal value of $13.4bn. And of course, the company still has its well-reported $29bn in cash on hand. That level won’t change due to Pure Digital. We can only speculate why Pure Digital’s backers chose to take Cisco stock rather than cash in this economic environment. But we would note that this isn’t the first time that one of Pure Digital’s backers has taken a slug of Cisco equity. Way back in 1987, Sequoia Capital’s founder Don Valentine put money into Cisco.

Cisco: not a common-sense shopper

Contact: Brenon Daly

Through both direct and indirect cues, Cisco Systems’ John Chambers has created the impression that he’s about set to start wheeling a shopping cart up and down the Valley, grabbing technology companies with abandon. Folks who anticipate a dramatic return of Cisco to the M&A market have been busy putting together a shopping list for the company. (As has been well reported, the networking giant has plenty of pocket money; it current holds some $29bn of cash, and just raised another $4bn by selling bonds.) Most of the names on the list are ones that have been kicked around for some time.

For instance, fast-growing Riverbed Technology tops the list for some people. Indeed, Chambers approached the WAN traffic optimizer at least twice before the company went public in 2006, according to a source. We understand that talks ended with Riverbed feeling rather disenchanted with the giant. Other speculation centers on Cisco making a large virtualization play, either reaching for Citrix or VMware. The thinking on the latter is that Cisco would actually buy EMC, which sports an enterprise value of $21bn, to get its hands on the virtualization subsidiary. And last year we added another name to the mix, reporting that Cisco may have eyes for security vendor McAfee.

There’s a certain amount of logic to all of the potential acquisition candidates. At the least, speculation about them is defensible since they are all rooted in common sense. The only hook is that Cisco isn’t a ‘common-sense’ shopper. That’s not to say it isn’t an effective acquirer. Cisco very much is a smart shopper, and we’d put its recent record up there with any other tech company. What we mean is that Cisco’s deals are anything but predictable.

For instance, Cisco was selling exclusively to enterprises when it did an about-face nearly six years ago and shelled out $500m in stock for home networking equipment vendor Linksys. And it got further into the home when it followed that up with its largest post-Bubble purchase, the late-2005 acquisition of Scientific-Atlanta for $6.9bn. (Although word of the deal for the set-top box maker leaked out, few people would have initially put the two companies together.) Similarly, WebEx Communications wasn’t on any of the Cisco shortlists that we saw before the company pulled the trigger on its $3.2bn purchase of the Web conferencing vendor. But what do we know? Maybe some folks out there not only called one or two of those deals, but also hit the unlikely trifecta. If so, maybe you could email us to let us know – and while you’re at it, could you pass along some numbers for lottery picks?

Fixed on the market

Although the IPO market is closed right now, some VCs are nonetheless steering – and steeling – their portfolio companies for a public market payday. Of course, that often means passing up a trade sale, which holds out the appealing prospect of cash on close. But Menlo Ventures’ John Jarve pointed out in his talk at IBF’s early-stage investment conference that those sales can be shortsighted. Consider the case of portfolio company Cavium Networks.

Jarve says Cavium, which makes security processors for F5 and Cisco, among others, has attracted a number of suitors. One would-be buyer floated a $350m offer for the company. Instead, Cavium went public in May 2007. At its peak, it sported a market capitalization of nearly $1.5bn. Even in the midst of the current Wall Street meltdown, Cavium is still valued at $500m.

The Cavium tale sparked a round of (perhaps apocryphal) Silicon Valley chestnuts about companies that also passed on trade sales to remain independent: Cisco allegedly rejecting an $80m offer from 3Com and Google nixing a reported $1bn bid from Yahoo. One we can add to that list is Riverbed. Several sources have indicated that Cisco made a number of serious approaches to the WAN traffic accelerator, but was rebuffed. Riverbed, which at one point was valued at about $3.5bn, currently trades at a $740m market capitalization.

A battlefield Exchange

As the world’s largest and richest software company, Microsoft gets a lot of targets hung on it. Companies of all sizes are drawing a bead on Microsoft, whether it’s a startup looking to undercut or outperform one product or a fellow tech giant deciding Microsoft is making too damn much money on some particular line of business and buying a competing offering. (There are a lot of those cash-rich products at Microsoft, which hums along at an astounding mid-30% operating margin overall.)

Consider who’s been targeting Microsoft Exchange Server lately. In the last year, tech heavyweights Yahoo and, most recently, Cisco have both inked multimillion-dollar deals that allow them to offer a way around Exchange. The goal: siphon off some of the more than $1bn in high-margin revenue that flows to Microsoft from its email and collaboration server product line.

The first shot was fired almost exactly a year ago, when Yahoo spent $350m for Zimbra. (As a side note, it would have been interesting to watch how Microsoft – if its planned $44.5bn purchase of Yahoo had gone through – would have killed off Zimbra. We’re guessing it would have immediately and forcefully ‘cut off the air supply,’ to borrow a time-honored strategy in Redmond.)

In a direct echo of that deal, Cisco went shopping two weeks ago and found its own Linux-based replacement for Exchange, paying $215m for PostPath. Cisco says it picked up the five-year-old company, which had pocketed about $30m in venture backing, to enhance the email and collaboration tools available in WebEx.

Whatever the motivation, we’re guessing that at least one of PostPath’s board members may be relishing the chance to stick it to Microsoft. Bob Lisbonne, who led Matrix Partners’ investment in PostPath, spent a half-decade at Netscape, including the time in which Microsoft was trying to ‘cut off the air supply’ of the browser pioneer. Not that business is ever personal, of course.

Going after Exchange

Date Acquirer Target Price
September 17, 2007 Yahoo Zimbra $350m
August 28, 2008 Cisco PostPath $215m

Source: The 451 M&A KnowledgeBase