Why Dell must suffer in private

Third biggest PC maker is still a PC maker.

So Michael Dell and a private equity group have bought Dell and taken it private. It’s all Steve Jobs’ fault. If that turtleneck-wearing maverick hadn’t believed in tablet computers, people would still be buying PCs, running Microsoft Windows – and still be waiting the best part of a minute for the things to turn on. But Jobs did believe in the iPad, and so did the 15 million customers who bought the first generation.

Since then tablets from Apple, Samsung, Amazon, Acer and others have simply exploded. Analyst firm Gartner recently confirmed what we all knew already: that tablets are eating into PC sales. The firm said in the fourth quarter of last year, global PC shipments declined 4.9 per cent, while in EMEA shipments declined even faster - 9.6 per cent.

But that’s not the only problem for Dell. Its core PC business also faced very stiff competition from market leader HP and number two, the Chinese manufacturer Lenovo, which several years ago bought the rights to IBM’s ThinkPad brand. In the fourth quarter, HP retained its market lead but sales were flat year on year. Lenovo grew sales 8.2 per cent; Dell lost 2 per cent. Indeed among the top five vendors, only Lenovo saw any growth.

To be losing market share in a market that is itself in decline is bad news, very bad news. Competition from rivals, tablets and even smartphones has also brought price pressure in a market that already had relatively slim margins. The other problem is that while Dell did come up with some of its own inventions, it left most of the PC innovation to Microsoft and Intel – Dell’s biggest early innovation was in the brutal efficiency of its supply chain. These days, it turns out the likes of Lenovo and Acer can play that game too. Meanwhile Dell’s own tablets, such as the Streak, have largely failed to capture consumers’ imagination. Add it all up and in its latest quarter Dell saw profits slide 47 per cent.

Shareholders saw the cracks appearing and Dell’s stock started to slide. There’s serious concern that the issues are neither temporary nor easy to fix. Michael Dell has talked about the idea of taking Dell private for a few years now, and after several weeks that saw leaks that it was about to come to pass, yesterday the deal was announced.

In a $24.4 bn leveraged buyout, Michael Dell becomes the largest individual shareholder, with a 14 per cent stake. The other big investor is private equity firm Silver Lake Partners, but there’s also a $2 billion loan from Microsoft, which has an obvious interest in seeing Dell survive. Other investors include MSD Capital, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Barclays, Credit Suisse and RBC Capital Markets.

At least one analyst thinks there’s a flaw in the plan, because it needs shareholder approval. While the price being offered for the shares is a 25% premium on Dell's closing share price of $10.88 on January 11, just before the rumours of the buy-out began, it's still way off the $17.61 that the shares were trading for a year ago, and offers little premium over Dell's more recent stock price. "I think the key question here is will shareholders approve this deal, because there is practically no premium where the stock is trading," Sterne Agee analyst Shaw Wu said.
But assuming they do go for the deal, what next for Dell? Rival HP has already issued a statement saying the deal creates “uncertainty” around Dell, which is probably true. What is certain is that Dell is by no means out of the woods. Having see the writing on the wall it’s been in transition for some time now, trying to become less reliant on the PC side of the business by moving more into software and services, as well as higher-end computer technology like servers, networking and data storage equipment.

Dell has been on an acquisition spree to make it look more like an IBM, HP or Oracle. In 2009 it bought Perot systems for IT services; in 2010 Compellent for storage; in 2011 SecureWorks for security and Force10 for data centre networking. Last year it bought Wyse for thin clients, SonicWALL and Appsure for security and Quest for systems management. That’s fine and dandy, but having not previously been particularly acquisitive, it has some integration challenges to overcome first.

So what will Dell do differently, assuming shareholders approve its plan? According to CFO Brian Gladden, not a lot. He told Reuters that it will continue along the same path, but that, “Under a new private company structure, we will have time and flexibility to really pursue and realise the end-to-end solutions strategy. We will be able to pursue organic and inorganic investment and we won't have the scrutiny and limitations associated with operating as a public company."

But if Dell really wants to look like an HP, Oracle or IBM, it’s got a lot more acquisitions yet to do. That may be harder now that it can’t easily buy companies with its shares (although its backers do have deep pockets). Ultimately, it remains to be seen whether this deal marks the beginning of the end for Dell.

Apart from a lack of shareholder scrutiny, it’s not clear exactly what Dell gains here. If it really believes in its turnaround strategy, its stock would have recovered as its results improved. According to Gladden, “We are generally very, very encouraged by the future here." It’s that one word, "generally", that should leave everyone under no illusion that Dell still has some fundamental challenges to overcome.

Photograph: Getty Images

Jason Stamper is editor of Computer Business Review

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.