freenet: getting paid to sell

Contact: Brenon Daly

In a time when nearly all divestitures are done on the cheap, freenet’s recent sale of its mass-market hosting business Strato generated an unexpectedly rich return for the German telco. In fact, freenet more than doubled its money in the five years that it owned Strato. Back in December 2004, freenet handed over $177m ($107m in cash, $70m in equity) to German network equipment provider Teles for Strato. When freenet shed Strato to Deutsche Telekom (DT) two weeks ago, it pocketed $410m. (Arma Partners advised freenet on the divestiture.)

On top of that return, of course, freenet will hold on to the cash that Strato generated while owned by freenet. That’s not an insubstantial consideration, given that Strato ran at an Ebitda margin in the mid-30% range. We understand that Strato was tracking to about $50m in Ebitda for 2009, up slightly from about $46m last year. Revenue at Strato was also expected to show a mid-single-digit percentage increase in 2009, despite the tough economic conditions in freenet’s home market of Germany. DT’s bid values Strato at roughly 3x trailing sales and nearly 9x trailing Ebitda. That’s a solid valuation for corporate castoffs, which typically garner about 1x trailing sales and maybe 4-5x Ebitda.

Freenet’s divestiture of the Strato hosting business to DT comes a half-year after it sold its DSL business to United Internet, a sale that was also banked by Arma. The company has been looking to shed businesses as a way to pay down the debt that it took on for its $2.57bn acquisition of debitel in April 2008. Since that landmark deal, freenet has focused its operations on mobile communications, and had been reporting the DSL and Strato businesses separately. We understand that there may be additional divestitures by freenet, but they will be smaller transactions for more ‘ancillary’ businesses.