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Companies advance myriad strategies for creating value with acquisitions—but only a handful are likely to do so.
There is no magic formula to make acquisitions successful. Like any other business process, they are not inherently good or bad, just as marketing and R&D aren’t. Each deal must have its own strategic logic. In our experience, acquirers in the most successful deals have specific, well-articulated value creation ideas going in. For less successful deals, the strategic rationales—such as pursuing international scale, filling portfolio gaps, or building a third leg of the portfolio—tend to be vague.
Empirical analysis of specific acquisition strategies offers limited insight, largely because of the wide variety of types and sizes of acquisitions and the lack of an objective way to classify them by strategy. What’s more, the stated strategy may not even be the real one: companies typically talk up all kinds of strategic benefits from acquisitions that are really entirely about cost cutting. In the absence of empirical research, our suggestions for strategies that create value reflect our acquisitions work with companies.
In our experience, the strategic rationale for an acquisition that creates value typically conforms to at least one of the following six archetypes: improving the performance of the target company, removing excess capacity from an industry, creating market access for products, acquiring skills or technologies more quickly or at lower cost than they could be built in-house, exploiting a business’s industry-specific scalability, and picking winners early and helping them develop their businesses.
An acquisition’s strategic rationale should be a specific articulation of one of these archetypes, not a vague concept like growth or strategic positioning, which may be important but must be translated into something more tangible. Furthermore, even if your acquisition is based on one of the archetypes below, it won’t create value if you overpay.
Improve the target company’s performance
Improving the performance of the target company is one of the most common value-creating acquisition strategies. Put simply, you buy a company and radically reduce costs to improve margins and cash flows. In some cases, the acquirer may also take steps to accelerate revenue growth.
Pursuing this strategy is what the best private-equity firms do. Among successful private-equity acquisitions in which a target company was bought, improved, and sold, with no additional acquisitions along the way, operating-profit margins increased by an average of about 2.5 percentage points more than those at peer companies during the same period.1This means that many of the transactions increased operating-profit margins even more.
Keep in mind that it is easier to improve the performance of a company with low margins and low returns on invested capital (ROIC) than that of a high-margin, high-ROIC company. Consider a target company with a 6 percent operating-profit margin. Reducing costs by three percentage points, to 91 percent of revenues, from 94 percent, increases the margin to 9 percent and could lead to a 50 percent increase in the company’s value. In contrast, if the operating-profit margin of a company is 30 percent, increasing its value by 50 percent requires increasing the margin to 45 percent. Costs would need to decline from 70 percent of revenues to 55 percent, a 21 percent reduction in the cost base. That might not be reasonable to expect.
Consolidate to remove excess capacity from industry
As industries mature, they typically develop excess capacity. In chemicals, for example, companies are constantly looking for ways to get more production out of their plants, even as new competitors, such as Saudi Arabia in petrochemicals, continue to enter the industry.
The combination of higher production from existing capacity and new capacity from recent entrants often generates more supply than demand. It is in no individual competitor’s interest to shut a plant, however. Companies often find it easier to shut plants across the larger combined entity resulting from an acquisition than to shut their least productive plants without one and end up with a smaller company.
Reducing excess in an industry can also extend to less tangible forms of capacity. Consolidation in the pharmaceutical industry, for example, has significantly reduced the capacity of the sales force as the product portfolios of merged companies change and they rethink how to interact with doctors. Pharmaceutical companies have also significantly reduced their R&D capacity as they found more productive ways to conduct research and pruned their portfolios of development projects.
While there is substantial value to be created from removing excess capacity, as in most M&A activity the bulk of the value often accrues to the seller’s shareholders, not the buyer’s. In addition, all the other competitors in the industry may benefit from the capacity reduction without having to take any action of their own (the free-rider problem).
Often, relatively small companies with innovative products have difficulty reaching the entire potential market for their products. Small pharmaceutical companies, for example, typically lack the large sales forces required to cultivate relationships with the many doctors they need to promote their products. Bigger pharmaceutical companies sometimes purchase these smaller companies and use their own large-scale sales forces to accelerate the sales of the smaller companies’ products.
IBM, for instance, has pursued this strategy in its software business. Between 2010 and 2013, IBM acquired 43 companies for an average of $350 million each. By pushing the products of these companies through IBM’s global sales force, IBM estimated that it was able to substantially accelerate the acquired companies’ revenues, sometimes by more than 40 percent in the first two years after each acquisition.2
In some cases, the target can also help accelerate the acquirer’s revenue growth. In Procter & Gamble’s acquisition of Gillette, the combined company benefited because P&G had stronger sales in some emerging markets, Gillette in others. Working together, they introduced their products into new markets much more quickly.
Get skills or technologies faster or at lower cost than they can be built
Many technology-based companies buy other companies that have the technologies they need to enhance their own products. They do this because they can acquire the technology more quickly than developing it themselves, avoid royalty payments on patented technologies, and keep the technology away from competitors.
For example, Apple bought Siri (the automated personal assistant) in 2010 to enhance its iPhones. More recently, in 2014, Apple purchased Novauris Technologies, a speech-recognition-technology company, to further enhance Siri’s capabilities. In 2014, Apple also purchased Beats Electronics, which had recently launched a music-streaming service. One reason for the acquisition was to quickly offer its customers a music-streaming service, as the market was moving away from Apple’s iTunes business model of purchasing and downloading music.
Cisco Systems, the network product and services company (with $49 billion in revenue in 2013), used acquisitions of key technologies to assemble a broad line of network-solution products during the frenzied Internet growth period. From 1993 to 2001, Cisco acquired 71 companies, at an average price of approximately $350 million. Cisco’s sales increased from $650 million in 1993 to $22 billion in 2001, with nearly 40 percent of its 2001 revenue coming directly from these acquisitions. By 2009, Cisco had more than $36 billion in revenues and a market cap of approximately $150 billion.
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March Goedhart is a senior expert in McKinsey’s Amsterdam office, Tim Koller is a partner in the New York office, and David Wessels, an alumnus of the New York office, is an adjunct professor of finance and director of executive education at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. This article, updated from the original, which was published in 2010, is excerpted from the sixth edition of Valuation: Measuring and Managing the Value of Companies, rhey co-authored (John Wiley & Sons, 2015).