Cheap valuations and glimmers of economic recovery are tempting cash-rich technology companies to seek acquisitions, and the second half of 2009 could see some steady dealmaking.
Having assessed the damage to their balance sheets — at least for now — from the recession, tech companies from behemoths like IBM to niche players like NetSuite Inc are turning their attention to new growth opportunities.
Already this year, Oracle Corp scooped up Sun Microsystems Inc for $7.1 billion. Chipmaker Broadcom Corp is in a hostile pursuit of Emulex Corp for $764 million. And NetApp Inc announced a deal this week to buy Data Domain Inc for $1.5 billion.
The pace of acquisitions is going to quicken in coming months but most deals will be small to medium-sized, top U.S. technology executives said at the Reuters Global Technology Summit in New York this week.
They agreed that potential targets on their shopping lists were cheaper now than even a few months ago. But they were divided on whether valuations have hit rock bottom or if they could fall further, since the feeble signs of improvement in the economy could be temporary.
“Valuations could go lower,” said Sybase Inc Chief Executive John Chen. “Somehow everybody thinks things are on the rebound. I think we’re going to stay low for a while.”
Sybase is on the lookout for acquisitions to help expand its mobile enterprise business. Chen said he frequently gets calls from venture capitalists and private equity firms wanting to sell him their start-up companies.
“Some of the start-ups are under the gun a little bit … But we’re cautious. There is no hurry,” Chen said.
Symantec Corp Chief Executive Enrique Salem also said he is patient about dealmaking because he expects valuations to fall further in the next few months.
“We have $2 billion in cash, very little debt, high recurring revenue, so we have the opportunity to do M&A,” Salem said. He added that Symantec wants to buy companies to pad up its core security, storage and systems management businesses.
But “private companies’ valuations need to be reset. I don’t think private companies at this point have realised that there’s been a change in the economy,” Salem said.
Other executives felt that valuations are low enough to go on buying sprees.
Yahoo Inc Chief Technology Officer Ari Balogh said it was “amazing” how much lower valuations are compared to a few months ago.
“It’s a good time to be buying now,” Balogh said, as Yahoo adds more social networking features to its properties as part of a renewed turnaround focus. I can guarantee you there will be some acquisitions.”
Mark Loughridge, chief financial officer of International Business Machines Corp, was also bullish about his company’s appetite for deals.
“I go through a deal review every week,” he said, adding that the economic climate provided a “fertile” hunting ground for acquisitions.
Even a company like Corning Inc, which has traditionally not been an aggressive acquirer, is on the prowl. Chief Financial Officer Jim Flaws said the specialty glass maker is looking to hire to expand its mergers and acquisitions team.
Companies that were too expensive to buy earlier are now available at attractive prices, Flaws said, as the recession takes it toll.
“Right now we have the money to do small acquisitions … and we are actively looking,” he said.
Attractive prices apart, Dell Inc President Steve Shuckenbrock also suggested companies ought to act quickly or they risk losing potential targets to competitors amid a wave of consolidation in the industry.
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