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

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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