Analysis - What the Dell deal means

Tuesday 05 February 2013 19.27
Michael Dell will be able to change the company away from the glare of the markets
Michael Dell will be able to change the company away from the glare of the markets

Dell’s founder will hope that taking the company private will allow him to realise a turnaround plan six years in the making, without having a nervous stock market looking over his shoulder, writes Adam Maguire.

It is six years – almost to the day – since Michael Dell returned as Dell CEO, having stepped aside from the role in 2004.

Upon his return he pledged to recast the company – ‘Dell 2.0’ as it was termed - to make it less about cheap consumer computers and more about high-value corporate services.

The motivations for this shift were clear.

By the time Mr Dell retook the lead role the company had not only lost its title as the world’s biggest computer maker, but had also gained a reputation for being bad at customer service and disinterested in innovation.

Michael Dell’s plan was to significantly reduce the company’s exposure to the low-value and narrowing area of PCs by putting more emphasis on corporate and government-friendly solutions, services, storage and software – similar to the move IBM engineered by exiting the PC business in 2004.

As part of this he reduced the number of senior managers at the company, cut back its offices and plants – including its manufacturing facilities in Limerick – and set about on a wave of billion-dollar acquisitions.

However, events have made this gradual transition much harder than most anticipated.

The radical shift towards smartphones and tablets – led by the likes of Apple, Google and Samsung – has accelerated the decline in PC sales since 2007, meaning Dell’s traditional revenue has shrunk at a faster rate than it can build up its new business areas.

The company's share price has fallen along with profits.

In its quarterly results in November 2012, for example, Dell announced an 11% drop in revenue compared to the previous year, and a 47% fall in profits to $475m. The blame was laid squarely at falling PC sales; be it as a result of Asian rivals, the growth of tablets or weaker consumer demand.

These kinds of road-bumps have made the markets understandably nervous.

For some the company should remain consumer-focused but try harder to innovate, while others agree with Michael Dell’s shift to services but question the precise path taken so far.

Many more worry that, even with a successful transition, the company will never again generate the kind of revenue and profit it saw in its heyday.

By going private, Michael Dell will no longer have to appeal to these doubters or appease their concerns.

Assuming he is confident enough in his vision, he can now push forward even if the result is weaker revenue and profits in the short-term.

Instead of having to worry about shareholders and quarterly reports, Mr Dell will now just have to deal with a small group of investors who, presumably, already agree with his grand plan.

Interestingly, one of those new stakeholders will be Microsoft, which is loaning $2bn to the deal to take the company private.

It is unclear what its motivations are; though perhaps it may echo the deal it struck with Nokia to make Windows Phone the flagship operating system on its phones.

It may too be about Microsoft’s increasing desire to become a player in the hardware market, though it runs the risk of alienating partners like HP and Acer if it starts playing favourites with Dell over the rest.