Buyouts are back

Contact:  Brenon Daly

The pending take-private of Novell underscores just how much private equity (PE) activity has rebounded since the Credit Crisis nearly shut down tech buyouts. The $2.2bn purchase of infrastructure software and SUSE Linux vendor Novell stands as the seventh PE tech deal so far this year valued at more than $1bn. That’s up from five big-ticket transactions in all of last year and only four in 2008.

What’s behind the buyout boom? The reopened debt market has allowed PE shops to make bigger bets once again. Consider this: With still more than a month left to go in 2010, PE firms have already tallied 264 deals valued at $30.2bn. The spending level is 50% higher than in all of 2009 and tops 2008, as well.

Also adding to the spending totals is the fact that targets are getting richer valuations. We’ve seen a trio of large leveraged buyouts (LBOs) go through this year with enterprise values of 4 times sales or even higher. However, that’s not the case with the latest LBO for Novell. Cash-rich Novell is garnering an enterprise value of $1.2bn, or just 1.5 times sales. Still, Novell’s LBO price is about 50% higher than where the company was valued at the start of the year.

PE Activity

Year Deal volume Deal value
YTD 2010 264 $30.2bn
2009 301 $19.7bn
2008 249 $24.8bn
2007 305 $118.4bn

Source: The 451 M&A KnowledgeBase

Not pretty, but it’s done at Novell

Contact: Brenon Daly

After holding out for more than eight months, Novell finally accepted on Monday a $2.2bn buyout offer from private equity-backed Attachmate. From the outside, it looks like a case where the buyer – or maybe more accurately, the hedge fund that put the company in play – simply wore down Novell. Under terms, Attachmate will hand over $6.10 in cash per share, or roughly $2.2bn, for Novell.

Yet if we step back and look at the offer, we can’t help but notice that the company is now embracing a bid that only values it slightly more than the original offer that put it in play. For the record, Novell’s board said three weeks after receiving the unsolicited bid from gadfly investor Elliott Associates that the offer of $5.75 for each share ‘undervalues’ the company and its prospects.

Apparently, Elliott’s opening bid wasn’t all that lowball because the company is selling for just 6% more than the offer that ‘undervalued’ it. We would also mention that Novell traded above the $6.10 bid several times over the summer, albeit on pure speculation. (JP Morgan Securities advised Novell, while Credit Suisse Securities and RBC Capital Markets worked for Attachmate.) The deal is expected to close in the first quarter of 2011, pending shareholder approval.

To be fair, the fact that Novell’s board got shareholders even a slight bump above the original offer should be viewed as a sell-side accomplishment. After all, Novell is a hoary, mixed-bag of businesses, with each unit attracting specific suitors. All of that made for an undoubtedly complicated process, with multiple permutations on bidders and bidding teams, as we understand it. (Companies we heard that may have taken a serious look at some point at Novell – or at least some of its businesses – include VMware and Oracle, among others.) Indeed, as part of the transaction, Microsoft will be acquiring a sprawling portfolio of 882 patents from Novell for $450m.

And beyond all of the complications around matchmaking is the fundamental fact that Novell just isn’t that attractive, regardless of whatever business we look at inside the company. Each component of its revenue (license, maintenance/subscription, services) has dropped so far this year, which is part of the reason why Novell has come up short of Wall Street expectations every quarter this year. Overall, sales have dropped 6% in 2010, and current projections call for Novell’s revenue to decline next year, too. So as we look at it, the board probably did a fair job to get Novell valued at $1.2bn (net of cash), which works out to basically 1.5 times sales. Novell shareholders will now have their say on the outcome of the more than eight-month process.

Same old, same old at Novell?

Contact: Brenon Daly

Ever since hedge fund Elliott Associates put Novell in play five months ago, we’ve said that the company was going to be a tough sell. It’s a mixed bag of businesses, both in terms of what those businesses sell and how they perform. (Or rather, how those businesses underperform, as we were reminded by Novell’s warning earlier this week about third-quarter results. If nothing else, that kept alive Novell’s streak – it also came up short in the two quarters leading up to Elliott’s run at the company.)

Undoubtedly, Novell – an underperforming company that nonetheless found its treasury stuffed with more than $1bn of cash – offered an easy target for the gadfly investor. But having that agitation turn into an acquisition is proving much more difficult. (We recently took an in-depth look at Novell, as well as the specific business lines and which suitors might be eyeing them, in a special report.)

While the process initially attracted a number of parties, we understand that there are only three left at the table: a private equity-backed company, a UK-based PE firm and a joint bid between a publicly traded tech company and a buyout shop. It’s not clear that any of the three will actually close a deal for Novell. (The process has already run past two deadlines, we gather.) Without a deal, shares of Novell would be left to trade on the company’s own merits, which probably wouldn’t do much for shareholder value.

Novell timeline

Date Event
March 2, 2010 Elliott Associates launches unsolicited bid of $5.75 per share, or $2bn equity value
March 20, 2010 Novell board rejects Elliott’s bid, retains JP Morgan Securities to explore alternatives

Source: The 451 M&A KnowledgeBase

What’s new at Novell?

Contact: Brenon Daly

Even though its shareholders aren’t overwhelmingly concerned with Novell’s financial numbers right now, the company will nonetheless be releasing results for its fiscal second quarter later Thursday afternoon. For what it’s worth, Wall Street expects earnings of about $0.07 per share on sales of $205m, representing year-over-year declines on both the top and bottom lines. (We should add that if Novell does manage to hit expectations, it will snap two straight quarters of earnings whiffs.)

But then Novell hasn’t traded on fundamentals for the past three months, ever since hedge fund Elliott Associates launched an unsolicited offer for the company. Novell, which is being advised by JP Morgan Securities, stiffed the bid, but did leave the door open to other ‘alternatives to enhance shareholder value.’ Since Elliott floated the offer, shares of Novell have basically changed hands at or above the $5.75-per-share bid.

As a decidedly mixed bag of businesses, Novell isn’t the cleanest match for any other company that might want to take it home. For that reason, most speculation around a possible buyer for Novell has centered on private equity firms. (The buyout shops are undoubtedly licking their chops at the prospect of picking up Novell’s $600m of maintenance and subscription revenue, not to mention the $1bn that sits in the company’s treasury.) However, we understand from a person familiar with the process that there are a handful of strategic buyers still interested in Novell.

If we were to put forward one potential suitor that could probably benefit more than any other company in picking up Novell’s broad portfolio of businesses, we might single out SAP. OK, we know it’ll never happen. (Never, ever.) But a hypothetical pairing certainly does go a long way toward filling a few notable gaps in SAP’s offering, while also making the German giant far more competitive with Oracle.

Consider this fact: some 70% of SAP apps that run on Linux run on Novell’s SUSE Linux Enterprise. Add in Novell’s additional technology around identity and access management, systems management, virtualization and other areas, and SAP’s stack suddenly looks a lot more competitive with Oracle’s stack. Again, an SAP-Novell deal will never happen, but the combination certainly does lend itself to some intriguing speculation.

Timeline: Novell in the crosshairs

Date Event Comment
March 2, 2010 Elliott Associates launches unsolicited bid of $5.75 per share for Novell The offer values Novell at a $2bn equity value but only a $1bn enterprise value
March 20, 2010 Novell rejects Elliott’s bid as ‘inadequate’ By our calculation, Elliott is valuing Novell at just 1.6 times its maintenance/subscription revenue

Source: The 451 Group

A nope from Novell

Contact: Brenon Daly

The only surprise about Novell turning down the unsolicited $2bn offer from Elliott Associates was the timing. In an unorthodox move, the software vendor said ‘thanks, but no thanks’ to the hedge fund on Saturday morning, when most thoughts were turning to a full day of March Madness. (And what a maddening day it turned out to be, at least for people who filled out their brackets with top seeds: On Saturday, teams seeded No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 all got sent packing.)

In dismissing the bid, Novell’s board of directors said the offer from Elliott of $5.75 for each share ‘undervalues’ the company and its growth prospects. As an aside, we’re not exactly sure what growth Novell is referring to. The vendor has come up short of Wall Street revenue estimates for both quarters of its current fiscal year so far, and sales this fiscal year, which ends in October, will almost certainly come in below the $862m it recorded last fiscal year. Revenue in the following fiscal year is also likely to come in below last fiscal year, at least according to Wall Street projections.

Even without much top-line excitement, Novell does nonetheless have some valuable assets: A bankable $600m maintenance revenue stream, a decent Linux business and probably the fourth-largest portfolio of identity and access management technology. Of course, its most attractive property is its treasury, which is stuffed with a cool $1bn in cash and short-term investments.

And finally, we would note that Novell does have an experienced adviser in JP Morgan Securities as it explores options to enhance shareholder value. In just the past 10 months, JP Morgan has worked with two other long-in-the-tooth software companies that have been targeted in publicly contested M&A processes. Both Borland Software and MSC Software ended up getting sold, with Borland going for a whopping 50% higher than the initial bid.

Next to nothing for Novell

Contact: Brenon Daly

As bargains go, Novell’s valuation in the recently floated bid from a hedge fund is a bit like a ‘crazy Eddie’ discount. Earlier this week, Elliott Associates offered $5.75 for each of the roughly 350,000 shares for Novell. Altogether, the equity value totals about $2bn.

But the true cost of Novell is actually about half that amount because the company carries about $1bn in cash and short-term investments. (Don’t forget that some of that cash flowed from Novell’s good friends at Microsoft, which handed over some $350m in cash several years ago and is still buying more licenses.) So, at the current valuation, what does the $1bn buy?

Perhaps the most revealing way to look at it is that Elliott (or any other buyer, for that matter) would get more than $600m in rock-steady maintenance and subscription revenue, meaning the bid values Novell at a paltry 1.6 times maintenance/subscription revenue. And let’s be honest, that’s the most attractive asset at Novell. The business actually grew in the just-completed fiscal year, while revenue from both licenses and services declined. (License revenue plummeted 38% in the previous fiscal year, and continued to slide in the most-recent quarter, which ended January 31.)

Novell has said only that it is reviewing the bid. (It is being advised by JP Morgan Securities, which also worked with Novell on its purchase of PlateSpin two years ago. At $205m in cash, that was the largest acquisition Novell had done in a half-decade.) Meanwhile, the market has indicated that it expects Novell to go for a bit more than Elliott’s ‘crazy Eddie’ discount price. Shares have traded above $6 each since Elliott revealed its $5.75-per-share bid, changing hands at $6.07 each in mid-afternoon trading on Thursday.

Real deal for Virtual Iron?

Contact: Brenon Daly, Rachel Chalmers

Several sources, both from industry and financial circles, have indicated that server virtualization startup Virtual Iron Software is nearing a deal to sell to a strategic buyer. The name at the top of the list? Oracle, which has a Xen-based hypervisor (OVM), but lacks management tools. Virtual Iron would bring Xen management.

Another name that has surfaced is Novell. A year ago, the company handed over $205m for PlateSpin, which was its largest virtualization acquisition and one that valued eight-year-old PlateSpin at roughly 10 times its revenue. Virtual Iron would fit well with Novell’s virtualization efforts as well as with its open source leanings (Virtual Iron is based on Xen).

Sometimes viewed as a ‘down-market VMware,’ Virtual Iron sells primarily to SMEs through its channel. The Lowell, Massachusetts-based company has raised some $65m in funding since its founding in 2003. Backers include Highland Capital Partners, Matrix Partners, Goldman Sachs Group and strategic investors Intel Capital and SAP Ventures.

We understand that Virtual Iron had somewhat ‘frothy’ expectations after Citrix paid a half-billion dollars for XenSource in mid-2007. However, sources say Virtual Iron won’t get anywhere near the valuation of XenSource. In fact, most folks have doubts that the company will even sell for the amount of VC dollars that went into it.