When United Rentals Inc. agreed to be acquired by Cerberus Capital Management last summer, the deal seemed secure and members of the management team were happily calculating their share of the $6.2 billion windfall.
Those calculations were premature. In November, four months into the credit crisis, Cerberus walked out on the world’s largest equipment-renter, leaving behind a stunned company that had to reinvent its future in the face of a sudden 30 percent drop in the price of its stock.
United Rentals sued the private-equity firm, ultimately collecting a $100 million breakup fee. “It felt like being left at the altar,” says Martin Welch, CFO of the Greenwich, Connecticut-based company. “You are getting ready to go and there is no one there.”
United Rentals was far from the only jilted seller last year. According to Thomson Financial, some $55 billion worth of acquisitions of public companies by private-equity buyers have fallen through since the start of the 2007 credit crunch (see the chart link at the end of this article) for reasons ranging from difficulty in obtaining financing to unforeseen deterioration in business. The casualties included student lender Sallie Mae, audio- and electronic-equipment maker Harman International Industries, and Affiliated Computer Services, an IT services firm best known for the E-ZPass. And while sectors varied, the pain was universal. “You’re not only penalized for not having a transaction, you’re also penalized by the market for not having a transaction consummated,” says Jeff Bistrong, managing director at investment bank Harris Williams.
In the wake of a blown deal, companies have a few immediate alternatives, including suing the buyer or starting talks with a new one. But given the severity of the recent credit meltdown, other viable bidders rarely materialize. Consequently, most of the jilted companies have had to figure out how to carry on. Initially that involves reestablishing contact with affected constituencies, from employees to shareholders to equity analysts and rating agencies. “People want to know how you as a leader feel about the situation,” says Welch.
Then there is a lot of work to do: securing capital, replacing key people who have left, and executing a new growth plan. Amid all the tumult, success ultimately depends on staying on course, says Welch. “We have to execute our plan, set the appropriate guidance, and make sure we meet it,” he says.
Successfully rebounding from a broken deal often hinges on maintaining management’s focus during the sale process. United Rentals and Affiliated Computer Services made conscious efforts to minimize distractions and have quickly regained their footing.
Management at United Rentals decided to limit the number of people involved in the deal and kept the company largely operating as usual. The finance team, for example, played a key role in maintaining stability by focusing on the company’s daily affairs and responding efficiently to Cerberus’s requests. Case in point: when the private-equity firm wanted to examine the company’s risk practices, only United Rentals’s risk officer was drawn into the process, says Welch.