The market and Meru

Contact: Brenon Daly

Having watched at least three of its rivals get acquired in recent years, Meru Networks is now aiming for the other exit: a public offering. The WLAN equipment maker filed its IPO paperwork on Friday for an $86m offering to be led by Bank of America Merrill Lynch, with co-managers Robert W. Baird & Co, Cowen & Co, JMP Securities and ThinkEquity. Meru plans to trade on the NYSE under the ticker MERU. (Incidentally, the company was one we put on our list of IPO candidates for 2010 in our recently published 2010 M&A Outlook – Security and networks.)

If Meru does manage to make it onto the public market, it will reverse the flow of deals in the sector. In recent years, a large publicly traded rival (Symbol Technologies) and two other competing startups (Colubris Networks and Trapeze Networks) have all been acquired. Those trade sales have valued the WLAN equipment vendors at a range of 2.1-3x trailing 12-month (TTM) sales.

We noted a year and a half ago that all of the transactions probably meant that Meru would have trouble finding a buyer, except among public market investors. Not that Meru hasn’t kicked around a possible sale in the past. Rumors have tied it to both Juniper Networks and Foundry. The Foundry relationship seems to have died off since Foundry sold to Brocade Communications. According to Meru’s S-1, Foundry/Brocade accounted for a full 35% of its revenue in 2007, but that level has fallen to less than 10% now.

With Meru aiming to hit the market in 2010, we suspect that it will be hoping to have a stronger offering than publicly traded rival Aruba Networks, which initially priced its shares in its March 2007 offering at $11 each. Although Aruba traded above the offer price for almost a year, it broke issue in February 2008 and has not traded above the initial price since then. That said, the stock is nearing that level, changing hands at about $10.65 in midday trading Tuesday. It has more than quadrupled in 2009. The dramatic rebound in Aruba shares has pushed the firm’s valuation to 4.6x TTM sales. Applying that same multiple to Meru’s $67m TTM sales gives the company a valuation of about $310m.

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

Wire buys wireless

Two weeks ago, we noted Trapeze Networks had been sold without indicating what company had been sitting across the table from the wireless LAN (WLAN) infrastructure vendor. The buyer can now be named: Belden. The St. Louis-based company is more known for its wiring and cable products. (Indeed, before inking the Trapeze deal, Belden’s previous deal had been the $195m purchase of a Hong Kong cable company.) We’ll have a full report on this transaction – and the implications for the sector – in tonight’s Daily 451.

While the pairing of a wireless company with a company known for its wires may seem odd, there are actually a fair number of points that make sense for Belden-Trapeze. For starters, Belden is viewed in the WLAN market as a neutral vendor, which means that Trapeze’s sales arrangements shouldn’t be threatened by the acquisition. We would contrast that with the fallout from Cisco’s early 2005 purchase of Airespace, which forced Airespace partners Alcatel and Nortel Networks to scramble to find a replacement supplier of WLAN technology after the deal. Also, Trapeze had decent sales in Europe and Asia, markets that Belden has targeted.

In the end, however, it all comes back to money. In that sense, the Trapeze deal shows how steeply the valuations of the WLAN infrastructure vendors have come down. The multiple in this deal was two-thirds lower than the level that Cisco paid three years ago in its purchase to get into this market. (Granted, Cisco has a reputation of skewing the market with top-dollar bids.) Still, Trapeze exited for $133m after raising about $100m in venture funding. We understand that rival Meru Networks is currently out raising another round. The company already counts Lehman Brothers, Clearstone Venture Partners, Sierra Ventures and DE Shaw among its investors. While Meru may well land an up round, we’re guessing Trapeze’s valuation – combined with Aruba Networks’ rough ride on the Nasdaq – certainly haven’t helped those conversations. 

WLAN vendor valuations

Company Acquirer Price Price-to-TTM sales ratio
Airespace Cisco $450m 7.5x*  
Trapeze Belden $133m 2.3x  
Aruba NA $467m market cap 2.7x  

*estimated, Source: The 451 M&A KnowledgeBase

Trapeze swings to a deal

After nearly a year on the block, Trapeze Networks has been sold for about $150m, several sources have told us. An announcement is expected late next week. The buyer for the wireless LAN switch vendor isn’t immediately known – but it isn’t Juniper Networks. An OEM partner of Trapeze, Juniper also put money into Trapeze’s series D funding two years ago. One source indicated the two sides got very close to a deal last summer – at a price well north of the $150m Trapeze is expected to sell for now – but couldn’t agree on a final valuation.

We understand Trapeze looked to push the price higher, following the strong IPO of rival Aruba Networks. Aruba went public in late March 2007 at $11 per share and had doubled in price by July. At its peak, Aruba traded at a market capitalization of $1.9bn. However, Aruba has been stumbling recently, including reporting sales that were 20% lighter than Wall Street expected last quarter. The company now trades at just under a $500m market capitalization. Trapeze’s valuation also got caught in that downdraft. The rumored $150m price tag for Trapeze would value the company at roughly three times 2007 sales.

If indeed Trapeze is acquired, that would leave Meru Networks and Colubris Networks both looking for an exit. We understand that Meru, which is larger than Trapeze, is looking to hit the public markets when the IPO window opens again. In the past, we heard that Meru had talked with Foundry, although there was no indication of serious discussions. Meanwhile, Colubris would be a smaller acquisition, as it is running at about $30m in sales. Nortel Networks may be interested in Colubris. Whatever consolidation plays out in the WLAN switch market, most observers would agree that it’s overdue: It’s been more than three years since Cisco shook up the space with its $450m purchase of Airespace – a move that most expected to trigger a wave of deals. 

Rumored WLAN matchmaking

Company Rumored exit
Trapeze $150m sale to public company, to be announced next week
Meru Potential IPO, though reports of talks with Foundry
Colubris Rumors of talks with Nortel