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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Cisco shares are a flop for Flip’s owners

Contact: Brenon Daly

Since the purchase of Flip, Cisco Systems shares have been a flop. That’s actually an important consideration for the former owners of digital camera maker Pure Digital Technologies, which Cisco shuttered on Tuesday. Recall that when the networking giant (somewhat inexplicably) reached for Pure Digital two years ago, it covered the $590m purchase with its own equity. It was the first time Cisco had used its own equity as currency in four years, according to our records.

For the first year or so after the deal closed on May 21, 2009, Cisco basically tracked the S&P 500 Index. However, over the past half-year, Cisco stock has slumped as it has failed to execute, as the company indicated in a recently leaked memo from CEO John Chambers. Those acknowledged missteps have left Flip’s backers (at least the ones who haven’t sold) underwater on their holdings. Since the deal closed, Cisco stock has dropped 10% while the S&P 500 has tacked on 50%.

Cisco ‘papers’ purchase of Pure Digital

Contact: Brenon Daly

When we wrote recently that Cisco Systems was an unpredictable acquirer, we only covered half of it. Who would have thought (prior to rumors and subsequent official word last Thursday) that Cisco really wanted to buy its way into the consumer electronics market? Much less that the company wanted to enter that space so badly that it would pay what looks a lot more like a 2007 valuation than a 2009 valuation?

We’re referring, of course, to the networking giant’s acquisition last week of Flip camcorder maker Pure Digital Technologies for $590m. As for the valuation, we understand that Pure Digital wrapped up last year with sales of $150m, meaning Cisco paid about four times trailing 12-month sales for the company. Of course, Pure Digital was growing quickly, but we would still note that its valuation is about twice as rich as Cisco’s current valuation. (There were no bankers on either side of deal, we’ve been told.)

The concern about Cisco’s valuation is more than an academic issue for Pure Digital. After all, it took payment in Cisco shares, rather than cash. And that’s the other part of Cisco’s unpredictability. According to our records, the Pure Digital purchase was the first time Cisco has used its equity to acquire a company in more than four years. (The last time Cisco did a paper deal was its $450m pickup of wireless LAN switch vendor Airespace in January 2005.)

Since then, Cisco has inked some 42 transactions with a disclosed deal value of $13.4bn. And of course, the company still has its well-reported $29bn in cash on hand. That level won’t change due to Pure Digital. We can only speculate why Pure Digital’s backers chose to take Cisco stock rather than cash in this economic environment. But we would note that this isn’t the first time that one of Pure Digital’s backers has taken a slug of Cisco equity. Way back in 1987, Sequoia Capital’s founder Don Valentine put money into Cisco.