Private equity firms are gobbling up data centers

Private equity firms accounted for 80% of all data-center acquisitions in 2019. Is that a good thing?

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Merger and acquisition activity surrounding data-center facilities is starting to resemble the Oklahoma Land Rush, and private-equity firms are taking most of the action.

New research from Synergy Research Group saw more than 100 deals in 2019, a 50% growth over 2018, and private-equity companies accounted for 80% of them.

M&A activity broke the 100 transaction mark for the first time in 2019, and that comes despite a 45% decline in public company activity, such as the massive Digital Reality Trust purchase of Interxion. At the same time, the size of the deals dropped in 2019, with fewer worth $1 billion or more vs. 2018, and the average deal value fell 24% vs. 2018.

Since 2015, there have been approximately 350 data-center deals, both public and private, with a total value of $75 billion, according to Synergy. Over this period, private equity buyers have accounted for 57% of the deal volume. Deals were roughly a 50-50 split until 2018 when public company purchases began to trail off.

Anecdotally, I’ve heard one reason for the decline in big deals is there are no more big purchases to be had, at least in the US. DRT/Interxion is an exception, and Interxion is a foreign company. Other big deals, like Equinix purchasing Verizon’s data centers for $3.6 billion in 2017 or AT&T selling its data centers to private equity company Brookfield in 2019. There just isn’t much left to sell.

The question becomes is this necessarily a good thing? Private equity firms have something of a well-earned bad reputation for buying up companies, sucking all the profit out of them and discarding the empty husk.

But John Dinsdale, chief analyst for Synergy, said not to worry, that the private equity firms grabbing data centers are looking to grow them. “This is a heavily infrastructure-oriented business where what you can take out is pretty directly related to what you put in. A lot of these equity investors are looking to build something rather than quickly flipping the assets,” he said via e-mail.

He added “In these types of business there isn’t that much manpower, HQ or overhead there to be stripped out.” Which is true. Data centers are pretty low-staffed. It was a national news item several years ago that Apple’s $1 billion data center in rural North Carolina would only create 50 jobs. That’s true for most data centers.

At least one big player, Digital Realty Trust, was formed in 2004 after private-equity firm GI Partners bought out 21 data centers from a bankruptcy. DRT has grown to 214 centers in the U.S. and Europe.

So in this case, a private equity firm buying out your data center provider might prove to be a good thing.

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