Acquisition Binge Can Cause Indigestion
Over-eating or bingeing is detrimental to one’s health. Similarly, over-acquisition can cause corporate indigestion such as over-leveraging, integration difficulties, cultural misfits etc. You are what you eat.
While fast growth through acquisition is a thrilling experience in running businesses, it also holds much more risks than meets the eye. When the company is in trouble, some CEOs also go on a shopping spree – acquisition. It is more glamorous and exciting than trying to fix mundane turnaround issues back in the office. It takes shareholders’ attention away from the domestic problems and impressed them with expansionary programs. Rapid acquisition done in haste with inadequate homework, wrong timing, egoistic reasons and impatience for success can result in calamity.
Harvard don, Michael Porter studied the success rate of 33 highly regarded companies over a 36-year period of acquisition. His data revealed that over half of the ‘unrelated’ acquisitions were later divested. Research by McKinsey & Company found a failure rate of 61% in acquisition programmes, with failure defined as not earning a sufficient return on the funds invested. Sometimes these failures are due to the fact that the acquisition was a mismatch in the first place, with small odds for success.
A high percentage of merger difficulties and failures are the result of defective management. Target companies are strategically sought and stalked, but then the follow-up acts are poorly orchestrated. Often people in both firms will be seriously troubled about how the acquisition may affect their personal careers. A good part of the merger/acquisition planning should be aimed at deciding how these concerns will be addressed. For instance, Novell’s merger with WordPerfect caused people in both organizations to experience dismay and the combined company teetered subsequently on the brink of disaster.
After buying WordPerfect for US$855 million, Novell sold it to Corel less than two years later for only US$115 million. Media companies faced similar problems of acquisition binge. The conventional wisdom in the industry that spur such manoeuvre was to grow the business by acquisition. Sony Corporation (Japan) was a case in point of being one of the first to venture aggressively into music and films. The same course of action was adopted by Vivendi Universal (French), Bertelsmann (German) and AOL Time Warner (US). It was believed that a product could be developed, then marketed through a wide range of in-house channels, from compact disks, DVDs, Web sites and even theme parks. This led to a proliferation of businesses requiring different skills and expertise, resulting in the failures of these acquisition ventures.
In their haste to capitalize on the boom years, many companies reckoned that the fastest way to beat the competition was to join in. After all, if you cannot beat it, join it. Thus goes the acquisition spiral. With each new acquisition, it is assumed that revenues automatically jumped up, while margins presumably stayed within acceptable ranges, especially if the deal is accomplished through stock swaps. The growing company acquires not just the market share but the expertise as well. Everything seems to augur well especially from the stock market as long as the company grows and numbers are good. However, therein lies the fundamental flaw with the growth-by-acquisition strategy.
This is what Herb Greenberg of Fortune magazine commented of the US corporate scene: “As with any addiction, the growth-by-bulk acquisition approach necessitates increasing doses of the drug to preserve the high. The only way to keep revenues growing fast enough for Wall Street is to buy ever more companies.” Once the growth curve halts and the stock price plummets to an extent that initiates a vicious downward spiral. The company loses its leveraging ability when capitalization decreases and interest expense increases to service the loan financing for acquisition. In the bid to reduce costs, the company starts trimming corners at the expense of quality, customers, and employees.
Therefore, the adage still holds true, “Do not bite more than you can chew”. It can become toxic for the company if they go into acquisition binge.
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Dr Mike Teng (DBA, MBA, BEng, FIMechE, FIEE, CEng, PEng, FCMI, FCIM, SMCS) is the author of the best-selling business book “Corporate Turnaround: Nursing a sick company back to health”, in 2002. In 2006, he authored another book entitled, “Corporate Wellness: 101 Principles in Turnaround and Transformation.” Dr Teng is widely recognized as a turnaround CEO in Asia.