Trapeze’s long road to an obvious home

Contact: Brenon Daly

Two and a half years after a head-scratching sale to an unexpected buyer, Trapeze Networks has finally landed where it pretty much should have gone in the first place: Juniper Networks. The networking giant said Tuesday that it will hand over $152m in cash for the WLAN gear maker, with the deal expected to close before the end of the year. The price is actually $19m (or 14%) higher than Trapeze fetched in its sale in June 2008 to Belden. (That’s a reversal from most divestitures, which typically return dimes on the dollar compared to the original acquisition price.)

Trapeze’s combination with Belden was a bit puzzling from the start, so it’s not surprising to see the company, which is primarily known for its wiring products, unwind its purchase of a wireless vendor. In fact, it’s only surprising that Trapeze went through a period of ownership at a company other than Juniper. After all, Juniper had an OEM arrangement with Trapeze and even put money into the startup’s series D round of funding. We gather that Juniper was close to taking home Trapeze before it sold to Belden, but the two partners got snagged on a final price.

Since Trapeze sold for the first time, there have been a handful of exits for other WLAN providers. Most notably, Colubris Networks got snapped up by Hewlett-Packard and Meru Networks actually made it to the Nasdaq. Meru went public at $15 per share, which has been basically the midpoint of its trading range since its debut in late March. The stock also currently trades at about $15, giving Meru an equity value of roughly $240m, or about three times 2010 sales. Incidentally, Bank of America Merrill Lynch both led Meru’s offering and advised Juniper on its pickup of Trapeze.

Meru: Nasdaq or bust

At the rate networking companies are consolidating, there may be no one left to buy Meru Networks. Earlier this week, Hewlett-Packard satisfied its appetite for WLAN equipment by acquiring Colubris Networks. That deal comes just two months after rival Trapeze Networks got snapped up by Belden, a cable and wiring company.

But the deal that probably scotched any potential trade sale for Meru was Brocade’s $3bn gamble on Foundry. The reason: Foundry has an OEM arrangement with Meru and was viewed as the most-likely acquirer of the WLAN equipment startup. We’re guessing Brocade probably figures it has its hands full with integrating Foundry’s existing business without adding additional pieces. Also, we view the planned Brocade-Foundry pairing as focused primarily on the datacenter, which wouldn’t have much use for WLAN equipment.

The only suitor we can put forward for Meru at this point is Juniper Networks. While Meru’s enterprise focus would fit well with Juniper, we understand the two companies kicked around a deal in 2005, at a reported $150m, but talks didn’t go far. Besides, a Meru source indicated recently that the company is plugging away on an IPO for next year. (We’ve heard that from the company for more than two years , but maybe 2009 will be the year.)

For Meru to go public at a decent valuation, however, it needs both a healthy IPO market and a healthy comparable, Aruba Networks. That company is currently trading at half the level it was at the start of the year, following a blown quarter in February. Aruba will have a chance to make amends in two weeks, as it will report results from its fiscal year on August 28.

Recent WLAN deals

Date Acquirer Target Price
Aug. 2008 HP Colubris Not disclosed
June 2008 Belden Trapeze Networks $133m
July 2008 Motorola AirDefense $85m*

Source: The 451 M&A KnowledgeBase

Wire buys wireless

Two weeks ago, we noted Trapeze Networks had been sold without indicating what company had been sitting across the table from the wireless LAN (WLAN) infrastructure vendor. The buyer can now be named: Belden. The St. Louis-based company is more known for its wiring and cable products. (Indeed, before inking the Trapeze deal, Belden’s previous deal had been the $195m purchase of a Hong Kong cable company.) We’ll have a full report on this transaction – and the implications for the sector – in tonight’s Daily 451.

While the pairing of a wireless company with a company known for its wires may seem odd, there are actually a fair number of points that make sense for Belden-Trapeze. For starters, Belden is viewed in the WLAN market as a neutral vendor, which means that Trapeze’s sales arrangements shouldn’t be threatened by the acquisition. We would contrast that with the fallout from Cisco’s early 2005 purchase of Airespace, which forced Airespace partners Alcatel and Nortel Networks to scramble to find a replacement supplier of WLAN technology after the deal. Also, Trapeze had decent sales in Europe and Asia, markets that Belden has targeted.

In the end, however, it all comes back to money. In that sense, the Trapeze deal shows how steeply the valuations of the WLAN infrastructure vendors have come down. The multiple in this deal was two-thirds lower than the level that Cisco paid three years ago in its purchase to get into this market. (Granted, Cisco has a reputation of skewing the market with top-dollar bids.) Still, Trapeze exited for $133m after raising about $100m in venture funding. We understand that rival Meru Networks is currently out raising another round. The company already counts Lehman Brothers, Clearstone Venture Partners, Sierra Ventures and DE Shaw among its investors. While Meru may well land an up round, we’re guessing Trapeze’s valuation – combined with Aruba Networks’ rough ride on the Nasdaq – certainly haven’t helped those conversations. 

WLAN vendor valuations

Company Acquirer Price Price-to-TTM sales ratio
Airespace Cisco $450m 7.5x*  
Trapeze Belden $133m 2.3x  
Aruba NA $467m market cap 2.7x  

*estimated, Source: The 451 M&A KnowledgeBase

Trapeze swings to a deal

After nearly a year on the block, Trapeze Networks has been sold for about $150m, several sources have told us. An announcement is expected late next week. The buyer for the wireless LAN switch vendor isn’t immediately known – but it isn’t Juniper Networks. An OEM partner of Trapeze, Juniper also put money into Trapeze’s series D funding two years ago. One source indicated the two sides got very close to a deal last summer – at a price well north of the $150m Trapeze is expected to sell for now – but couldn’t agree on a final valuation.

We understand Trapeze looked to push the price higher, following the strong IPO of rival Aruba Networks. Aruba went public in late March 2007 at $11 per share and had doubled in price by July. At its peak, Aruba traded at a market capitalization of $1.9bn. However, Aruba has been stumbling recently, including reporting sales that were 20% lighter than Wall Street expected last quarter. The company now trades at just under a $500m market capitalization. Trapeze’s valuation also got caught in that downdraft. The rumored $150m price tag for Trapeze would value the company at roughly three times 2007 sales.

If indeed Trapeze is acquired, that would leave Meru Networks and Colubris Networks both looking for an exit. We understand that Meru, which is larger than Trapeze, is looking to hit the public markets when the IPO window opens again. In the past, we heard that Meru had talked with Foundry, although there was no indication of serious discussions. Meanwhile, Colubris would be a smaller acquisition, as it is running at about $30m in sales. Nortel Networks may be interested in Colubris. Whatever consolidation plays out in the WLAN switch market, most observers would agree that it’s overdue: It’s been more than three years since Cisco shook up the space with its $450m purchase of Airespace – a move that most expected to trigger a wave of deals. 

Rumored WLAN matchmaking

Company Rumored exit
Trapeze $150m sale to public company, to be announced next week
Meru Potential IPO, though reports of talks with Foundry
Colubris Rumors of talks with Nortel