by Rob Enderle

Meg Whitman’s 4-step guide to killing acquisitions

Apr 10, 20156 mins
IT LeadershipMergers and Acquisitions

Some executives just don’t learn from past mistakes. Acquisitions can be ugly if you simply repeat a process that has yet to work. Columnist Rob Enderle says HP’s Meg Whitman is the prime example.

bad acquisition2 thinkstock
Credit: Thinkstock

As we ramp up for RSA, it is interesting that one common cross vendor theme is coming up. HP’s ArcSight installed base has become the great SIEM [Security Information and Event Management] hunting ground. Meg Whitman has effectively killed yet another HP acquisition. Having been through some ugly acquisitions myself, I try to use every example of contrasting how to do these things right vs. how to do them very wrong. It seems that some executives either don’t want to do it right or they never really read the current definition of insanity “doing the same thing over and over expecting a different results.”  

Don’t get me wrong, before Whitman came on board HP was kind of legendary for killing acquisitions. VoodooPC and Palm’s destruction were only the latest of a long string of firms HP bought and then systematically killed, wiping out millions to billions of value in what appears to be four easy-to-follow steps. Despite HPs past success in this area, Meg Whitman is turning doing it into a science. There appears to be no one better at killing acquisitions today than HP.

So this week, rather than focus on the firms that do this right, let’s focus on that magical skillset HP has for doing this masterfully wrong using ArcSight as the example.

Step 1: Fire or separate the CEO

Typically, if you buy a company that is successful a great deal of that success comes from the executive team at the top and the inherent loyalty between the team members. In your effort to destroy the value you have acquired in the most efficient way, this is the best place to start. You can separate and nullify the top executives giving them largely meaningless jobs that have little to do with their skill set, or more effectively, just let them go.

This typically starts the bleeding of talent out of the company from the top down and sends a clear message that the acquiring company doesn’t care about the people. The smart employees (the ones who might save the company) see this happening early in the process and start refreshing their resumes and go looking for new jobs or to simply retire.

Step 2: Integrate

A successful company isn’t just about its leadership. It is successful because of its internal organization, its connection with its customers and its unique structure that allowed it to succeed when the majority of new firms failed. So blow that the hell up!  

What you do is you slam your organizational structure and rules into the acquired firms, change titles and spans of control, and place new people between the firm’s customers and products. This makes the company less successful, it alienates employees and customers and grinds R&D to a halt. You’ve effectively driven the firm into an iceberg by disrupting the senior staff. Now you can focus everyone else on rearranging the deck chairs so the firm has no chance of digging itself out of this mess.  

Step 3: Cut the crap out of the unit

You’ve cut off the head, you’ve disorganized the firm, so your next step is to start laying off people. Do this as randomly as possible so that you tank moral in the process, and anyone of value who was even thinking of riding this out is convinced that is a bad plan.  

This should remove any ability for the firm to function. Don’t do this justonce either. Layoffs are the gift that keeps on giving and they’ll kill a company faster than Justin Bieber can kill his image. This is like cutting off a chickens head, tying up its feet and then shooting it full of holes. You’ll probably have a hard time recognizing it anymore, but if you were ever concerned it could cross the road, it certainly isn’t going anyplace now.  

Step 4: Blame others

This is important because if folks get the idea you are at faul, they might replace you and fix this process. Don’t let them do that. Make it clear that the reason this acquisition is failing is because of the idiots running it (and you got rid of them in Step 1, so they won’t disagree with you).

Don’t let anyone conclude the reason the acquisition failed is because you systematically destroyed the unit. If you want to keep destroying company value it is critical the board never knows you are the one at fault — those fools might replace you and then what would you do for a hobby?

Splunk 3 Tier-3 (Huntsman)

Actually, there is nothing funny about destroying jobs. It is a horrid experience to have to live through and my heart goes out to those still at HP. Interestingly, there is a right way to do acquisitions developed at IBM by some folks that got fed up with how badly IBM used to do this and the process has since been largely adopted and refined at Dell and EMC.

But while HP is hardly alone at using methods that systematically destroy the acquired company, it is the poster child for doing the best, or worst as the case may be, job of it. ArcSight joins acquired firms like VoodooPC, Palm, Neoware and it will soon be joined by 3Par, which is only months behind ArcSight from what I understand of the changes in that acquired firm. (I met with some of the ex-employees from 3Par about a month ago.).

I’m not going to mention Autonomy because that was pretty much dead on arrival (though it made the list of the worst acquisitions in history as did PALM. HP is the only firm on this list twice and both within months of each other. Now that’s a skill!?!).

The two firms that seem to be benefitting from this latest collapse are 3-Tier (they have the Huntsman offering) and is most often selected to fix ArcSight implementations and Splunk, where the remaining ArcSight employees of any note ended up.  

And if you see HP moving to acquire a firm you work for or depend on, act as if it will soon be dead because when it comes to killing acquisitions, like James Bond, nobody does it better. I just wish (and I’ll bet a lot of ex-HP customers and employees are with me) that they’d pick something else to excel at.