Close to Divest

Many companies are poised to shed failed acquisitions -- but few want to talk about it.

Amid the uncertainty about just when deal-making will resume in earnest, one thing is sure: the backlog of operations to be divested by companies is burgeoning. “If I were to open a business right now, I’d open a practice in divestitures, not mergers,” says Prof. Thomas Lys, who teaches in the Merger Week program at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

Indeed, business divestitures — often a byproduct of mergers and acquisitions — are holding up well even in the current M&A lull (see “Bombs Away?” at the end of this article). And giant examples like AT&T’s 2002 sale of its cable-TV business, or this year’s proposal by Vivendi Universal to shed U.S. operations, may end up being forerunners, suggests David Barnes of merger adviser Houlihan Lokey Howard & Zukin.

“There’s going to be an incredible flood of divestitures,” predicts Barnes. After two decades of acquisitive buyers being stuck with overpriced properties, many acquirers “must divest themselves of certain noncore assets to reduce the amount of debt they’ve taken on during their acquisition binges,” he explains. CFOs know this well. In fact, a just-released Accenture survey of 150 Fortune 1,000 executives showed a surprising 27 percent saying their corporate strategies would make “greater use of divestitures and portfolio management,” compared with the past 18 months.

The problem, though, is that corporations generally do a poor job with such “details” as valuing the assets to be divested or selecting the proper form of separation. In the same Accenture survey, executives rated their companies as more successful at acquisitions than divestitures by a wide margin. And Justin Jenk, the London-based head of Accenture’s M&A and corporate-restructuring practice, believes that the dichotomy exposes both a basic ignorance about divestitures and inattention to the nuts and bolts of divesting — which can be costly for selling companies. “Good deals are all about passion, whether you buy or sell,” says Jenk. He says that it would be “great to know why there’s this reticence among executives over divestitures.”

Houlihan’s Barnes thinks the answer is obvious: CFOs are embarrassed by having to divest operations. “It starts with the point of view that divesting means ‘we blew it,’ ” he says. Some executives are afraid “they’ll look like buffoons” if they have to sell off a business they earlier acquired. “So companies aren’t real outgoing about discussing their divestiture programs.”

The Silent Treatment

Tyco International Ltd., with acquisitive CFO Mark Swartz now gone, is quite publicly undoing a number of its purchases. But that’s because the diversified manufacturer’s involvement in numerous business scandals has forced new managers to call attention to past strategic mistakes. “Deals like its purchase of [financing unit] CIT just didn’t make sense,” says Barnes, pointing to Tyco’s $9.5 billion acquisition in 2001. “More typically, Westar Energy, another prolific acquirer, now has started divesting assets because its debt has grown too high — and with far less fanfare.” One unit that Topeka, Kansas-based Westar may divest: Protection One, a competitor of Tyco’s ADT alarm unit.

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