Oracle Corp.’s bid to buy Siebel Systems Inc. set Silicon Valley abuzz this fall as gossips gloated over the details of the final chapter in a rivalry that simmered for more than a decade. Siebel founder Thomas Siebel left Oracle in 1990, and three years later started his own firm. For years he has been waging a competitive war against his old boss, Oracle’s Larry Ellison, the brash enfant terrible of the Valley. In recent years, a slump in the software industry has weakened Siebel. Oracle has grown stronger, snapping up faltering competitors in a bold bid to be the titan of the software industry. In September, Oracle pounced on Siebel. Cost of the coup: $5.85 billion.
Was it sweet revenge for Ellison? If so, then Thomas Siebel’s pain was allayed by plenty of money in his pocket. Investment bankers employed a complicated deal structure aimed at minimizing Mr. Siebel’s tax bill. With the help of an arcane but effective tool called the horizontal double dummy, the deal will mean millions in tax savings for Siebel while at the same time offering certain advantages to Oracle. In this transaction, everyone wins — except, maybe, the Internal Revenue Service.
Tax lawyers first devised the double dummy in the 1970s. One of the first big corporate deals to use the strategy was Unilever U.S. when it purchased National Starch and Chemical Corp. in 1978. Robert Willens, a tax and accounting specialist with investment banker Lehman Brothers in New York, calls the device “the most creative structure I have ever seen.” (Lehman investment bankers have advised both acquiring and target companies on six double-dummy deals since 1996, including the 2004 Sears, Roebuck/Kmart merger.)
Despite the tax advantages, the double dummy has rarely been used, in part because it complicates the corporate structure by creating a permanent holding company at the top. Since 1996, the number of mergers using the structure totals 104, or fewer than 1 percent of the total number of deals, according to Capital IQ, a division of Standard and Poor’s. Still, there have been some very high-profile double-dummy transactions, including Walt Disney’s purchase of ABC/Capital Cities, Berkshire Hathaway’s purchase of General Re, and Time Warner’s purchase of Turner Broadcasting.
Under the terms of the deal announced in September, Oracle is offering $10.66 for each share of Siebel stock. The offer represented a premium of 26 percent over the price Siebel shares were commanding on Nasdaq in September. San Mateo, California-based Siebel had been a highflier — its stock once traded at more than $100 — but it had stumbled in recent years amid weakening demand for its product, software that helps companies analyze sales and customer needs.
In this transaction, the double dummy offers the greatest benefit to Siebel’s large individual shareholders, especially to Thomas Siebel, the single largest individual shareholder. Siebel holds 36.2 million shares, or 7 percent of his company’s common stock. At $10.66 a share, his stake is valued at $386 million. (At the time of the proposed bid by Oracle, he also held an additional 11.2 million stock options.) Siebel likely has a small basis in the stock, having acquired it when the company was launched in 1993.