In HP’s earnings call, M&A talk expected to be muted

Contact: Thejeswi Venkatesh

Under the stewardship of its new CEO, Meg Whitman, who took the executive seat almost a year ago, Hewlett-Packard has been cautiously quiet when it comes to M&A. The usually acquisitive firm hasn’t announced a single deal this year, and likely won’t announce a large acquisition anytime soon, since many of its previous plays are widely regarded as blunders.

Following the purchase of Autonomy Corp, the largest software acquisition in seven years, and admitting failure in some of its previous transactions, most expect that HP won’t do another big deal in the near future.

The company is still reeling from some of its prior acquisitions. HP shuttered its Palm Inc business just one year after paying $1.4bn for the company. And HP recently announced that it would take an $8bn goodwill charge on its 2008 acquisition of Electronic Data Systems. Investors expect that write-downs in goodwill may continue because the value of HP’s goodwill ($45bn) exceeds its own market cap ($38bn).

Further reinforcing analysts’ expectations that HP will stay out of M&A is the fact that the company is struggling with its own operations. HP reports its fiscal third quarter after the closing bell today. The company has already indicated that it expects a loss of $4.31-4.49 per share. Over the past six months, HP’s shares have lost one-third of their value, while the Nasdaq has gained 5%.

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Stick with what you know

Contact: Ben Kolada, Thejeswi Venkatesh

Some moves just don’t pan out as planned, such as basketball legend Michael Jordan playing baseball or actor Joaquin Phoenix attempting to become a rapper. While those moves may have dented personal pride, when companies make failed moves, it hits their bottom line. Videoconferencing giant Polycom is experiencing that pain today. The company announced on Friday that it is divesting its enterprise wireless communications assets for just $110m to Sun Capital Partners, or about half the price that it paid for the business five years ago.

Polycom entered the wireless communications market in 2007 when it paid $220m for then publicly traded SpectraLink – it’s largest-ever acquisition (today’s divestiture also includes the assets of Kirk Telecom, which SpectraLink acquired for $61m in 2005). While we had doubts, Polycom argued that its rationale for the deal was sound. Polycom thought it would be able to boost revenue by leveraging the two companies’ complementary sales channels as well as by merging their server-side software products into a single platform.

Polycom, however, wasn’t able to generate the revenue that it expected from the acquired assets. The SpectraLink and Kirk Telecom assets dwindled within their newfound parent, falling from $144m in revenue in 2006 to about half that, $94m, in 2011.

Not to pick on Polycom, but its SpectraLink divestiture is just the most recent reminder of the risks involved in attempting game-changing acquisitions. Companies use M&A to enter new markets all the time, and often fail. HP shuttered its Palm Inc business just one year after paying $1.4bn for the company. And in 2010, Yahoo divested its Zimbra collaboration assets for $100m, or less than one-third of the $350m that it paid for the company in 2007. Cisco attempted to move into the consumer video segment when it paid $590m for Pure Digital Technologies, maker of the Flip video camera, but shut down that division two years later.

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What would Palm be worth today?

by Brenon Daly

We have to hand it to Palm Inc – the smartphone maker got out while the getting was (relatively) good. At least that’s one way to think about Palm’s decision to sell to Hewlett-Packard in April 2010 for $1.2bn. Hitting that bid looks even smarter in light of the beating that Research In Motion has taken since then, including Friday’s capitulation by many longtime shareholders. Consider this: since Palm became an HP business, RIM on its own has lost 80% of its market value. (Meanwhile, the Nasdaq is up slightly during that period.)

While some of RIM’s staggering decline can be traced back to the company’s own missteps around product delays, its fortunes also stand as a sort of proxy for the ‘non-hot’ (i.e., not Apple iOS- or Google Android-based) mobile market. And in that way, we shudder to think how Palm would have fared there if it remained a stand-alone smartphone vendor.

After all, Palm was barely holding on with a single-digit market share, not to mention the fact that it was teetering financially at the time of its sale. The unprofitable company was burning cash and, in the quarter the deal was going through, had just forecast that sales would fall off a cliff. In contrast, RIM is still profitable and growing. But you wouldn’t know that from the relative valuations of the firms. In its sale, Palm was able to fetch a not insignificantly higher valuation than RIM currently garners on the market.

HP: relentlessly reaching for Palm

Contact: Brenon Daly

As Hewlett-Packard prepares to report fiscal second-quarter results after the close of the market today, there’s already been an SEC filing related to the tech giant that has attracted a fair amount of interest. That document is the proxy statement for HP’s pending acquisition of mobile OS maker Palm Inc. The background on the deal shows that despite Palm being in a fairly vulnerable financial position, the company managed to attract significant interest.

Perhaps reflecting Palm’s dwindling cash and overall dimming outlook, the $1.2bn deal came together with almost unprecedented speed. It took just two months for the acquisition to transpire. The target – along with law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell and financial advisers Goldman Sachs and Qatalyst Partners – winnowed an initial list of 24 possible suitors to just six companies, including HP, in quick order.

According to the proxy, there were two primary bidders besides HP for Palm, along with other parties that were interested in all or just some of the vendor’s patents. HP initially offered $4.75 for each share of Palm, about one dollar less than the $5.70 per share that it ended up paying for it two weeks later. The reason for the bump? A bid of $5.50 per share from an unidentified suitor, referred to as ‘Company C’ in the proxy.

Palm’s down

Contact: Brenon Daly

Just two weeks ago, we wrote that we thought Palm Inc would be a tough sell because the cash-burning smartphone pioneer seemed mired in irrelevance, both to consumers and developers. OK, so we were a bit off on that. The company apparently appeared relevant enough to Hewlett-Packard for the tech giant to hand over more than $1bn in cash for Palm.

While Palm’s board has backed the deal, it appears to be a bit of a tough sell to the company’s shareholders, who have bid Palm stock above the offer since it was announced. From their perspective, anyone who bought the stock over the past year – with the exception of a period from roughly mid-March to mid-April – is underwater, despite the 23% premium offered by HP. Palm shares changed hands at twice the level of HP’s bid for most of January.

But then, valuing Palm has always been tricky, going back to its fitful birth on the Nasdaq as a spin-off from 3Com. (As a side note, HP’s pending pickup of Palm would reunite the smartphone company with its former parent, as HP just closed its purchase of 3Com three weeks ago.) When the tiny stake of Palm hit the market in early 2000, investors were pushing each other out of the way to get their hands on Palm (if you will). The company finished its inaugural day on the Nasdaq at a valuation of some $50bn – roughly twice as much as Apple was worth at the time. Today, Apple fetches a market cap of $250bn, while Palm just sold for $1.4bn.

Disconnected at Palm

Contact: Brenon Daly, Chris Hazelton

Palm Inc has lost a key set of hands. In an SEC filing Friday, the troubled company said that the head of its software and services, Michael Abbott, will be cleaning out his desk by the end of this week. (No word yet if he’ll also have to give back his smartphone.) The departure is significant because Abbott was responsible for building third-party developer support for Palm’s smartphone platform, which has lagged well behind the developer communities for Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android OS. It also underscores one of the key problems at Palm, which we explored in more depth in a recent report.

Specifically, Palm has precious little to show for its efforts to stay relevant in the mobile world. Here’s our back-of-the-envelope math: the company will spend in the neighborhood of $300m on sales and marketing and another $200m on R&D for the current fiscal year, which ends next month. (The levels are basically annualized totals from the first three quarters of the current fiscal year.) We would also add that they are significantly higher than spending levels at rival vendors. For instance, Palm spends 2.5 times more on R&D (as a percentage of revenue) than Blackberry maker Research In Motion.

Adding together sales and marketing plus R&D spending at Palm, we get about $500m, compared to projected revenue of about $1.1bn. And what does the company have to show for that half-billion-dollar outlay? Palm’s already tiny slice of the smartphone market actually got smaller this fiscal year. And yet, despite that dismal return on investment – not to mention a key executive departure – speculation continues to swirl that Palm will get snapped up. Most often, HTC, Lenovo or even Motorola are named as suitors for Palm. However, in our report, we note key reasons why those vendors wouldn’t be interested. For our money, Dell still seems the most-logical buyer of Palm.

Navigating for relevance in a changing landscape

-Email Thomas Rasmussen

It’s becoming increasingly evident that once-dominant makers of personal navigation devices, such as Garmin and TomTom, have lost their way. They have seen billions of dollars in market capitalization erased as smartphone manufacturers have encroached on their sector, largely through M&A. Consider the most-recent example of this trend: Research in Motion’s acquisition of startup Dash Navigation earlier this month.

RIM’s buy is more of a catch-up move than anything else. Rival Nokia has already spent the last few years – and several billion dollars – acquiring and building a dominant presence in the location-based-services (LBS) market. And let’s not forget about the omnipresent Google. Starting with its tiny 2005 purchase of Where2, the search giant has quietly grown into a LBS powerhouse that we suspect keeps even the larger players up at night.

The Dash Navigation sale may well signal the start of some overdue consolidation, a trend we outlined last year. Specifically, we wonder about the continued independence of TeleNav, Telmap and Networks in Motion. TeleNav, for instance, is the exclusive mapping provider for the hyped Palm Pre through Sprint Navigation. But with the trend for open devices, we wonder how long that will be the case.

What’s the outlook for mobile payment startups?

-Contact Thomas Rasmussen

The consolidation in the mobile payment market that we outlined recently is still on. Startup Boku announced on Tuesday a $13m venture capital infusion in the form of what we understand was a $3m series A round followed quickly by a $10m series B round a little over a month later. Benchmark Capital led the latest round, with Index Ventures and Khosla Ventures also pitching in some cash. The money was used to acquire two competitors, Paymo and Mobillcash. We estimate that very little of the cash was used to buy the vendors. We understand that the purchase of Paymo, which raised a reported $5m itself, was primarily done in stock. The deals were largely a way for Boku to gain customers and technology, as well as expand its international reach. It’s increasingly important for mobile payment startups to do something to stand out among the dozens of rivals also trying to crack this market. What’s unusual about Boku is that this strategy is playing out so quickly. The company only incorporated in March.

The real question for Boku and other promising startups in the mobile payment space such as RFinity is what will ultimately happen to this hyped market. Despite hundreds of millions of dollars poured into startups, they haven’t been able to generate much revenue, certainly not to the level that would make them viable businesses at this point. We believe the best outcome for these firms is an exit to a larger strategic acquirer. An example of this that may well be in the offing is Obopay, which took an investment from Nokia a few months ago. We suspect that could be a ‘try before you buy’ arrangement for the Finnish mobile company. Research in Motion and others could look to use acquisitions to catch up, as well.

However, we wonder how long it will be before other smartphone providers, platforms and mobile operators do as Apple has done. Micro-transactions are a huge selling point for the new iPhone 3.0 update and, frankly, one of the few bright spots for the mobile payment sector. However, all transactions for iPhone applications are done through Apple itself, leaving companies such as Boku out in the cold. If other vendors – including RIM, Palm Inc, Google, Microsoft and even application platforms like Facebook – stay in-house to develop the technology, there isn’t much need to go shopping. That could well hurt the valuations of mobile payment startups, even those that survive this current period of consolidation.

Mapping vendor Garmin searches for direction

In a time of increasing competition and decreasing margins, the once-soaring navigation companies seem to have lost their bearings. Former Wall Street darlings Garmin and TomTom both reported lackluster quarters last month. Although overall revenue at both companies is still solid, other lines on the P&L sheet have deteriorated – notably margins. Both companies are now trading near 52-week lows, down roughly 70% from their highs for the year. (Undoubtedly, Garmin will face some investor ire when the company holds its shareholder meeting on June 6.)

With fierce consolidation and price declines, the issue facing Garmin and others is how to differentiate themselves from the new entrants that range from conglomerates Nokia and Research in Motion to small startups such as Dash Navigation. (Looming over all of this is the phenomenal success of Apple’s iPhone.) We foresee 2008 being a year of further consolidation as Garmin continues to shop in an attempt to retain its competitive edge.

Garmin’s gross margins are down to less than 50% from 70% just a few years ago and are expected to decline to below 40% this year, according to CFO Kevin Rauckman. The new competitive environment has forced a steep decline in average selling price: the company’s personal navigation device sold for $500 just a few years ago, but now the gizmo goes for half that amount. Garmin has stated that it intends to stave off the price erosion by setting up its products as a premium brand, much like what Apple did with the iPod. In order to achieve this, Garmin has been looking to make acquisitions in the content segment and will launch its first mobile phone, the Nuvifone, which looks, sounds and works eerily similar to a GPS-enabled iPhone.

So which companies might be ripe for the taking? Aside from the expected distribution acquisitions such as Garmin’s rumored purchase of Raymarine, mapping, traffic and content provider startups such as Dash, Inrix and Networks in Motion offer the kind of technology that Garmin needs. Moreover, if Garmin is serious about branching into the complex mobile phone market, a case could easily be made for an acquisition of longtime partner Palm Inc. The struggling pioneer was reportedly in play last year, but instead opted to have Elevation Partners take a 25% stake in the firm. Palm’s valuation has since been cut in half; we believe the company could surely be had for cheap as investors are eager to recoup their losses. Debt-free Garmin is cash-rich with about $600m, plus another $550m in marketable securities. So financing acquisitions is not a big issue for the company. The real question is whether Garmin can navigate a margin-boosting plan into place before it plummets off a cliff.

Signs of a consolidating industry

Announced Acquirer Target Deal value
Oct. 1, 2007 Nokia Navteq $8.1bn
July 23, 2007 TomTom Tele Atlas $2.8bn

Source: The 451 M&A KnowledgeBase