'The Network Maverick' and the next big thing

Mergers and acquisitions in the network industry could be fodder for a reality TV show, with network executives as the judges.

One of my secret little indulgences is watching the reality TV show "The Apprentice." Seems to me, the network industry's merger-and-acquisition activity could be the basis for an "Apprentice"-like spin-off. Maybe I'd call it "The Network Maverick" because our industry is flush with unconventional vendor pairings led by flamboyant dealmakers. I'm envisioning a show in which each episode documents a transaction's progress, complete with backstabbing executive wars and rabid shareholder proxy fights all leading up to the "You're fired!" boardroom final scene. (Wouldn't you just love to see former HP CEO Carly Fiorina or ex-PeopleSoft CEO Craig Conway as guest stars?)

After the boardroom scene it would be time to pull on viewers' heartstrings. Pan to a black limo. Inside it, the lone, rejected ex-CEO would sit, head bent, as the car drives off to the newly paid-off, multimillion "golden parachute" villa in the hills. Not quite the same as watching disgraced CEOs leaving the job in handcuffs, but the fallout from corporate mergers can provide fascinating footage all the same.

"The Network Maverick" 2005 season undoubtedly would include many cliffhanger episodes, along the lines of juicy deals like SBC/AT&T, Verizon/Qwest/MCI and Microsoft/Groove Networks. Now that acquisitions are clearly back in favor, a good number of vendors may grow more interested in playing to their potential acquirers (other vendors) than to their potential customers. Another book-cooking theme might even crop up in some future "Network Maverick" season. So I'd set the show up to include a panel of network executives acting as "judges" on the deals, too - "American Idol"-style.

Judges wouldn't have voting rights over the deals in progress (those would be for board members and stockholders alone). But they could offer objective analysis on the potential merits and pitfalls of each deal and tell the audience when they thought the numbers seemed cooked. They could point out to the audience how mergers between midsize companies often indicate that a particular technology niche has moved past puberty and is officially mature and the only way to grow the business is to buy a competitor (Oracle/PeopleSoft) - or to partner with a somewhat unlikely mate so it can move into new markets (Symantec/Veritas Software). Judges also could articulate the perils of such business strategy pointing out that failures might take years to materialize (HP/Compaq).

The show's judges also would help keep the audience from becoming bedazzled by flashy figures, such as potential layoff numbers and revenue for the combined new company. Instead, they would dissect product promises - the most important offspring of any corporate marriage. They could analyze how the vendor intends to integrate technologies and - especially - how fast it expects to deliver these products.

Technology M&A activity 2002-2004
2002 1,919 $84 million
2003 1,455$90 million
2004 1,951$262 million
Source: 451 Group Technology M&A Database

"Network Maverick" episodes that follow the acquisitions of start-ups would indicate to the judges what the vendor thinks will be the Next Big Thing. Vendors aren't always right on this count, of course, but when one vendor plunks down a surprisingly large amount for a start-up, judges would see this as a potential sign of an infant disruptive technology.

"Network Maverick" viewers over time also might come to realize that the highest-profile, largest-valued deals might be the least of the customer's long-term concerns. Mergers among aging companies often indicate a niche so mature that it has become commoditized, with little chance for growth and unimagined low prices. Such deals, while climactic, aren't where the real ratings are. But they do help the industry enjoy the show.


M&A madness

Click here for more M&A charts and analysis, including deals by industry segment.


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