Symantec still struggling with storage

Contact: Brenon Daly

Symantec gives its latest quarterly update on business after the closing bell Wednesday, with Wall Street wondering if the company will ever emerge from its ‘Veritas hangover.’ The storage business, which Symantec picked up in its $13.5bn purchase of Veritas in late 2004, has long weighed on Big Yellow’s overall performance. The division posted the sharpest revenue decline at Symantec’s three business units in the previous fiscal year, and was the only one that shrank again in the first fiscal quarter. The storage business will likely shrink again in the just-completed second fiscal quarter.

None of that, of course, is new. In fact, more than two years ago, we noted how Symantec was busy knocking rumors about unwinding any of the underperforming Veritas assets. But ever since rival McAfee sold to Intel, the paltry valuation of Symantec has come into sharp relief. Consider this: Symantec generates three times the sales of McAfee ($6bn vs. $2bn) but garners less than twice McAfee’s valuation (current market cap of $12.5bn vs. McAfee’s $7.7bn equity value in its sale to Intel).

Perhaps that valuation discrepancy alone accounts for the market buzz we’ve heard recently that Symantec may be (once again) considering shedding Veritas. That move has been looked at a number of different times, in a number of different ways, over the years.

Most recently, we heard a variation on it that had the storage business going to EMC in return for the RSA division and some cash. Another rumor had the business landing at a buyout shop. (Although shrinking, the storage business is still Symantec’s largest unit, and runs at the highest margin in the company. It generates more than $1bn in operating income.) Whatever the destination, it may well be time for Symantec to acknowledge that its grand experiment of a combination of storing and securing information hasn’t gone according to plans. Wall Street has certainly given that verdict, having clipped Symantec shares in half since the Veritas deal was announced.

Dealing with a legacy

Justly or not, acquisitions go a long way toward shaping a CEO’s legacy. (If you don’t believe us, just ask Jerry Levin, who sold Time Inc for what turned out to be a pile of wampum, in the form of overinflated AOL equity.) With Monday’s announcements that two major tech CEOs are on their way out, we pause to look at how deals – or lack of deals – will shape their respective legacies.

Let’s start with Symantec’s John Thompson, who will leave the storage and security giant by the end of its current fiscal year next April. Under his nearly decade-long leadership, Symantec shares rose some 500%, compared to a flat performance over the same period in shares of rival McAfee and a 40% decline in the Nasdaq. However, the one blemish on his record is Symantec’s largest-ever deal, its $13.5bn purchase of Veritas. (Thompson guided Symantec through more than 40 other acquisitions during his tenure.) Symantec shares peaked at about the time the company announced the deal, and have given back most of the gains they had piled up since mid-2003.

And then there’s Yahoo’s once-and-future king, Jerry Yang. We’re guessing history will be less kind to the man who turned down Microsoft’s offer of at least $31 for each share of Yahoo. Shares of the foundering search giant briefly dipped into the single digits earlier this month. However, they jumped almost 10% on Tuesday as Wall Street applauded the imminent departure of Yang, who has overseen the incineration of some $20bn of shareholder value since he reassumed the top spot at Yahoo in June 2007.

Aside from the ‘relief rally’ for Yang’s move, Yahoo shares also got a boost from speculation that the turnover in the corner office makes a deal with Microsoft more likely. We have our doubts about that. Instead, we’d focus on what the CEO change at Symantec means for deal activity. Our bet: Incoming CEO Enrique Salem will unwind several large chunks of the Veritas business, perhaps starting with NetBackup. As recently as last summer, Thompson said ‘nothing’ from the under-performing Veritas portfolio was for sale. Salem will set the company’s line on that in the future, and we wouldn’t be surprised to see NetBackup or other storage assets find their way onto the block.

Symantec-Veritas without the strings

Where Symantec purchased, McAfee will partner. Having watched its major security competitor get bogged down with a storage acquisition, McAfee has opted for a low-risk partnership to tie its security products with storage. The largest stand-alone security vendor said Tuesday that it has struck an alliance with data management software provider CommVault. The initial integrated product, which will put CommVault’s storage resource management tool into McAfee’s ePolicy Orchestrator console, will be available next year.

With modest integration and no bundled products planned, we would characterize McAfee’s loose partnership with CommVault as ‘Symantec-Veritas lite.’ And the two sides have reason to be cautious, given the struggles Symantec has had with its $13.5bn purchase of Veritas. (Although he continues to back the deal, Symantec CEO John Thompson has said the market considers the combination a ‘purple elephant’ and is uncertain of how to value it.) Since the transaction was announced in December 2004, Symantec shares have lost about half of their value, compared to a 20% decline in the Nasdaq and a slight 5% dip in McAfee stock.

Big Yellow’s purple elephant

Asked not too long ago to explain the slump in Symantec’s stock since acquiring Veritas three years ago, CEO John Thompson memorably called the combined company ‘a purple elephant.’ The allegorical description was a bit of a departure for the straight-laced, straight-talking ex-Big Blue executive, who went on to add that since Wall Street had never seen such a large security-storage company, it didn’t know how to value it. (Generally speaking, however, investors have known how to value it: lower. Since announcing the $13.5bn acquisition in December 2004, Symantec shares have shed about 22% of their value, compared to a 15% gain in the Nasdaq over that same time.)

The purple elephant has turned into a bit of a sacred cow, with Thompson defending the combination at every turn and forcefully knocking down any suggestion that Symantec should shed some of the Veritas assets. (Of course, Symantec already ditched Precise – an application performance management product that it inherited from Veritas – back in January.) Talk of possible divestitures surfaced last week following a research note from Cowen and Co analyst Walter Pritchard, who speculated that NetBackup and Data Center Foundation, a storage and server management product, may find their way onto the auction block. Not so, countered Thompson on Symantec’s first-quarter earnings call last Wednesday. The company has ‘no plans to divest anything – none.’ A senior corporate development guy at a company named as one of the possible buyers of the Foundation business told us recently that he hasn’t even been informally approached to gauge the company’s possible interest in Foundation, much less seen a book on the possible asset sale.

Of course, M&A is cyclical, to some degree tracking the overall economy. And we know this about dealmaking in a recession: When times get tight, ties get thin. We’ve already seen that most dramatically in the private equity world, whether it’s former buyout buddies taking each other to court or banks looking to get out of their lending agreements they’ve already signed. That same thinking (‘maybe we shouldn’t have done…’) is now hitting the C-suite. Consider the ongoing sell-a-thon at Time Warner, with the company planning to split off its cable services business, and, we speculate, finally putting AOL’s core US access business on the block. Or, there’s eBay entertaining the idea of jettisoning Skype Technologies, after writing down basically half of the $2.6bn purchase price. Or, if current reports are to be believed, Sprint Nextel may unwind the $39bn acquisition that has soured into a money-burning debacle. Although Thompson says Symantec isn’t a seller, this is clearly the climate in which companies are being pushed to reexamine their acquisitions. That could very well mean taking the knife to the purple elephant again.

Reversing deal flow

Company Assets Comment
Symantec NetBackup, Data Center Foundation, according to rumors Symantec says it’s not looking to sell.
Time Warner Cable services business, and (we speculate) AOL’s US access unit AOL has already shed ISP businesses overseas.
eBay Skype Technologies New CEO says next few quarters will determine if company keeps its overpriced acquisition.
Sprint Nextel Nextel WSJ reports this week that Sprint may unwind Nextel deal, and look to sell itself.
VeriSign Numerous units picked up in 20-company shopping spree VeriSign has already divested three businesses this year.