The big headlines in tech M&A come when they involve growth – Facebook buying Instagram or WhatsApp, for example – but more often they tie together two aging companies in established but still important industries. Ideally, in those cases, the merging partners will complement each other’s weaknesses, making for a stronger corporate marriage.
Take the mature but competitive telecom-equipment industry. If selling and maintaining the arcane gear that quietly keeps the Internet humming is hardly a sexy industry, it’s crucial if you want to watch a video of a dog trying to catch a taco in its mouth. Last week, when one industry giant (Nokia) offered to merge with another (Alcatel-Lucent) in a $16.6 billion deal, it seemed like a textbook tech M&A deal, one that analysts have been expecting for years.
Instead, the announcement of the deal seems to have left everyone unhappy. Analysts lined up to argue why the tie-up would be troubled, while investors wasted little time in selling off shares of both companies. Since the deal was announced Wednesday, Nokia’s shares have lost 4% of their value and Alacatel-Lucent’s have lost 21%.
This is the rare M&A deal that everyone has long-expected to happen and yet seems to please almost nobody. The telecom-equipment sector has been rife with consolidation and restructuring for years, as companies scramble to grab control of technologies that power broadband, wireless networks, networking software and cloud infrastructure.
Both Nokia and Alcatel-Lucent have been undergoing wrenching restructuring to compete with Sweden’s Ericsson, the market leader, and China’s up-and-comers Huawei and ZTE. Nokia sold its handset business to Microsoft for $7.2 billion in 2013, which helped return the company to profitability last year. Now that Nokia is alsoshopping around its mapping software, a merger seems like an important step toward strengthening its remaining operations in the telecom-equipment business.
Alcatel-Lucent has been having a harder time in the past decade. In 2006, the stock of France’s Alcatel was trading near $16 a share when it paid $13 billion for US-based Lucent. But clashing cultures, rigid bureaucracies and a failure to innovate led to years of losses at the combined firm, pulling Alacatel-Lucent’s stock down as low as $1 a share. Years of restructuring brought tens of thousands of job cuts but also, in recent quarters, signs the company may be making a fragile comeback.
So why did everyone expect a Nokia-Alcatel merger to work when the Alcatel-Lucent one failed? For one, there was a complementary fit in terms of the product and geographical markets both companies served. Also, both companies had just emerged from painful restructurings holding smaller shares of a competitive market. By combining, they could command a market share rivaling Ericsson’s and also marshall resources needed for the high R&D costs of next-generation gear.
That was the theory on paper, and for years reports surfaced periodically that the two were talking about joining forces. Talks of Nokia buying Alcatel’s wireless business fell through in 2013, and another report of a merger last December went nowhere. Now that it’s happening, the conversation has shifted from speculation about the deal to the details of how it would work. And some of the details aren’t pretty.
Any large-scale tech merger requires years of integration of sales, engineering and managerial ranks. In the best case, it takes years to complete. In the worst, it leads to entrenched fiefdoms and a bureaucratic hall of mirrors. And in areas where there is overlap, job losses will follow. But Alcatel-Lucent is partly owned by the government of France, which sees the company as a strategic national asset. It will fight massive post-merger layoffs in France, and the Finnish government is likely to do the same.
Analysts expect the trouble that all this work involves will hamper Nokia for some time. Some argued Nokia should have bought only Alcatel’s wireless assets, but since that didn’t didn’t work Nokia offered a discount for the whole company. And what a discount: Nokia’s bid is worth only 0.9 times Alcatel-Lucent’s revenue last year, well below the average figure of 2.5 times revenue for recent telecom deals. Alcatel-Lucent’s shareholders feel the discount is too much, leading to last week’s selloff.
So as inevitable as a combination of Nokia and Alcatel-Lucent seems, there are regulatory, integration and cultural issues that will complicate things for years. In the meantime, few investors are pleased about the deal. Throwing these companies together may be like, well, that taco heading toward the dog’s mouth: the appetite is there, but in the end all you have is a mess.