How do you say ‘Tumbleweed’ in French?

About a year and a half ago, we heard Tumbleweed Communications was being shopped hard by private equity firms. The intervening credit crises – which bumped up the price of debt and trimmed the returns on LBOs – quite likely tabled any buyout. The email security vendor has struggled since then. It came up short of Wall Street estimates in every quarter in 2007. Shares that changed hands above $3 each in early 2007 dropped in a straight line to just above $1 this March.

Rather than a PE shop, however, it turns out Tumbleweed’s buyer will be the Sopra Group, a French IT consulting firm. Sopra will make the acquisition through its Axway subsidiary, paying $2.70 in cash for each share. With about 51 million shares outstanding, Tumbleweed gets a an equity value of about $138m, only slightly more than twice the sales it is expected to record this year. Sopra also got a discount from its currency: the Euro has climbed about 18% in value since we reported on Tumbleweed in February 2007. See full report.

Creative destruction and its discontents

In a February 2007 report, we asked an egghead question about valuations in a sector that had been ‘creatively destroyed,’ to borrow Joseph Schumpeter’s oft-used phrase. At the time, we weren’t asking for purely academic reasons. Rather, we were trying to put a price on Tumbleweed Communications following Cisco’s purchase of rival anti-spam appliance vendor IronPort Systems. (Rumors had private equity firms looking at Tumbleweed.)

It turns out we weren’t far off in our valuation. We slapped a $150m price tag on Tumbleweed; last Friday, French IT consulting firm Sopra Group said it would pay $138m in cash for the company. The deal is expected to close in the third quarter. While the companies see a bright future for the combination, we have some reservations. Specifically, we wonder how Sopra, which is making the acquisition through its Axway subsidiary, will hit its target of 12-15% operating margins for the combined company next year. (Tumbleweed has run at negative operating margins for years, piling up an accumulated deficit of $300m in its history.)

Whatever the performance of Tumbleweed under its new owners, we have to say that Sopra certainly didn’t overpay for the company, which should double its sales here in North America. At just two times trailing sales, Tumbleweed was valued at less than half the price-to-sales multiple found in comparable transactions.

Anti-spam shopping

Acquirer Target Date Price Target TTM sales
Sopra/Axway Tumbleweed June 2008 $138m $58m
Google Postini July 2007 $625m $70m*
Cisco IronPort Jan. 2007 $830m $100m
Secure Computing CipherTrust July 2006 $264m $48m
Symantec Brightmail May 2004 $370m $26m

*estimated, Source: The 451 M&A KnowledgeBase