Buying Big

When looking for an acquisition target, sometimes it pays to pick on someone not your own size.

With 148 Properties, Extra Space Storage Inc. was a small player in the self-storage business. But it had big dreams. In July 2005, it plunked down $2.3 billion cash for Storage USA, a company with 458 properties in 34 states. In a stroke, Extra Space became the second-largest provider of self-storage, behind Public Storage Co.

Last June, McClatchy Co., publisher of 12 midsize dailies, paid $6.5 billion in cash and stock for Knight-Ridder Inc., a rival three times its size. McClatchy, too, suddenly found itself the number-two player in its industry, and now seems on track to reduce debt and navigate through the newspaper industry’s tough times (see “Front-page News” at the end of this article).

The fastest way for a small company to grow big is to acquire a big company, as Extra Space Storage and McClatchy did. But it’s not easy for a minnow to swallow a whale. AOL made headlines when it merged with Time Warner in 2001, five years after WorldCom came out of nowhere to buy MCI. Neither result was pretty. “Deals like this can be catastrophic if they don’t work,” says Mark Sirower, leader of PricewaterhouseCoopers’s M&A strategy practice. “They must be very carefully planned, especially if there is stock involved,” since stock deals can quickly lose value if shareholders sense that something is amiss.

That said, Sirower applauds the care taken in the financial and operational underpinnings of the ExtraSpace Storage and McClatchy acquisitions. “Compared with some of those earlier deals,” he says, “we’ve learned a few lessons.”

Taught By His Own Class

When Kent Christensen joined then-private Extra Space Storage as CFO in 1998, the Salt Lake City–based real estate investment trust was barely noticed in the fragmented self-storage business. It owned just 12 properties and managed 15 others. CEO Kenneth Woolley, however, had begun plotting out growth strategies based on an epiphany he’d had while teaching a business-strategy course at Brigham Young University.

“Ken realized that he didn’t have a strategy for himself, personally,” says Christensen. Woolley had worked in self-storage for 20 years, including as an acquisition broker for Public Storage, and thought the industry ripe for a fast-growing company. A $100 million joint venture with Prudential Real Estate Investors (PREI) helped Extra Space increase its portfolio fivefold over 7 years, and prepared it for its big leap last year.

The company also benefited from a relationship with GE’s commercial finance unit, which had provided financing for previous Extra Space deals. GE itself had entered the self-storage field years earlier, eventually acquiring Storage USA, but not without headaches.

“GE managed self-storage like it manages all its other businesses,” says Christensen, and it stumbled in the early years with problems related to the peculiarities of the self-storage business, like the intensely local nature of its operations. GE’s image-consciousness also posed a curious burden. “We’ve had meth[amphetamine] labs discovered on some of our properties,” the Extra Space CFO says. While a minor problem for his company, “for GE, having that kind of news on the front page would be really bad publicity.”

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