All quiet on the Eastern front

Contact: Ben Kolada

In contrast to the surge in deal flow that we’ve seen so far this year, IT giant IBM has been extremely muted. So far this year the Armonk, New York-based company has announced only one deal – the pickup of real estate and facilities management vendor Tririga in March for an undisclosed amount. In comparison, last year Big Blue announced 15 transactions worth more than $5bn. But that’s not to say that the company hasn’t been looking for new properties, and likely would have inked a couple of extra deals had it not been for Oracle’s meddling. In fact, Oracle’s most recent move could motivate IBM to announce a transaction of its own soon.

We’ve written in the past that IBM may have looked at Datanomic, which Oracle quietly picked up April. We considered Datanomic a nice complement to the business Big Blue got when it bought Initiate Systems in early 2010. (Initiate had an OEM arrangement with Datanomic.) More recently, though, the company was once again thwarted by Oracle in the Web content management (WCM) sector. Oracle announced yesterday that it is acquiring WCM vendor FatWire Software, and we see IBM as the potential loser here. Big Blue could use a stronger WCM component, as it is also positioning for Web experience management, and we hypothesized recently that FatWire could possibly fill this gap. However, there are a few alternatives left for IBM. For instance, the company could make a play for CoreMedia, which is the only other WCM independent with a Java-based offering that competes at the high end.

In the dark on Big Blue’s buys

Contact: Brenon Daly

At the risk of stepping into a Kantian dialectic on ‘materiality,’ we can’t help but comment on the fact that when IBM does a deal – even a semi-large deal – mum’s the word. So far this year, Big Blue has picked up two companies that were large enough to consider going public at some point, with each acquisition costing the company around $400m in cash (according to our estimates). Yet in both the purchase of Initiate Systems and BigFix, IBM declined to disclose the price.

Viewed from the Big Blue side, it’s understandable that a startup like Initiate or BigFix, both of which were generating less than $100m in sales, is hardly a significant addition to a tech giant that’s going to post about $100bn in sales this year. Further, even though $400m sounds like a lot of money to most of us, we have to remember that IBM generates that much in cash roughly every two weeks. So, the thinking goes, Big Blue is well within its rights to not disclose ‘immaterial’ transactions. (That’s a view shared by Apple, for instance, which we have taken to task in the past for being run more like a private fiefdom than a public company.)

However, as is often the case in arguments based on relativism, there’s a distinct lack of accountability in it. After all, IBM is spending other people’s money. Shareholders own the company and, at least theoretically, the executives and management at the company – including all those who had a hand in the deals – work for shareholders.

Not to get overly sanctimonious about it, but in deals like Initiate and BigFix, IBM’s true owners are in the dark about how their employees are spending their money. And we’re not talking about dipping into the petty cash jar, but emptying hundreds of millions of dollars from the corporate treasury. That seems to us to be a fairly significant event.

The Big Blue erasure

Contact: Brenon Daly

In addition to the current snarling bear market and the onerous regulatory requirements, we’ve noticed yet another hurdle IPO candidates have to clear to get to the public market: IBM. With last week’s purchase of BigFix, the tech giant has gobbled up two private companies this year that were both tracking for an IPO. In February, Big Blue snagged Initiate Systems, a master data management vendor that had filed to go public in late 2007 but pulled its prospectus in mid-2008.

As we understand it, BigFix wasn’t nearly as close to an offering as Initiate. But the security management startup certainly had the financial profile to become a public company. (In fact, we’ve listed the Emeryville, California-based vendor as a possible IPO candidate in our outlook for the security market in each of the past two years.) BigFix was tracking to $65m in revenue for 2010, up from $52m in 2009, according to sources. (Bookings were closer to $85m last year.) The company also generated some $14m in free cash flow in 2009, a surprisingly large amount for a 13-year-old startup that had only raised $36m in venture backing.

In both of the deals, IBM paid a fairly rich multiple. Although terms weren’t disclosed, we understand that Big Blue handed over $425m, or 5.3 times trailing revenue, for Initiate. And we hear from multiple sources that IBM paid $400m, or nearly 8x trailing revenue, for BigFix. The multiple in both deals is substantially higher than the median price-to-sales multiple (1.8x) that we recently calculated for all tech transactions in the second quarter.

As a final thought, we highly (highly, highly) doubt that if either Initiate or BigFix came public right now, it would garner anywhere near a $400m valuation. (We recently put out a special report on the dreary IPO market.) More likely, skittish investors would discount the debut valuation to around $250m, give or take. Add in lockup periods and other considerations in an IPO that draw out the path to liquidity, and it’s no wonder both Initiate and BigFix took a rich, all-cash offer from IBM.

Is IBM about to ‘initiate’ a major MDM purchase?

Contact: Brenon Daly

Although we recently noted that SAP may be considering a major master data management (MDM) move, we understand that the next buyer in the market may actually be IBM. We’ve heard from several sources that Big Blue is close to announcing an acquisition of Initiate Systems. If the deal does indeed happen, Initiate would substantially boost IBM’s offering for the healthcare industry. Despite being competitors, Initiate and IBM Global Services have been longtime partners for healthcare projects. The transaction could happen as soon as this week, we’re told. And we gather that it’ll come at a rather rich valuation for Initiate.

One of the largest stand-alone MDM vendors, Initiate filed to go public back in November 2007, but withdrew its IPO paperwork the following summer. (Goldman Sachs was lead underwriter of the planned offering.) Shortly after it pulled its prospectus, it announced a $26m funding round that included strategic investments from both EMC and Informatica. However, we hear that the biggest competition for IBM’s rumored bid for Initiate may have come from the public market.

Given the very real prospect that Initiate could reheat its plans to go public, IBM would effectively have to top the valuation that Initiate could receive in an IPO and afterward. We understand that the company was running around breakeven and likely did just shy of $90m in 2009. (That would imply mid-teens growth from the $76m in revenue that Initiate recorded in 2008.) With that dynamic at play, Initiate may well garner 4.5-5x sales in the trade sale to IBM, according to sources.