Credit crunch ignites fire-sale acquisitions in the IT sector

A dozen or so years ago, Silicon Graphics (SGI) was the darling of the IT industry. A company poised on the cusp of the Internet revolution, it sold turbo-charged, indigo-tinted workstations and servers that made it the Apple of its day and took its market capitalisation to a peak of $7 billion in 1995. Its founder Jim Clark was off creating Netscape and its CEO, Ed McCracken, could be found dining one day with the moguls of Hollywood and the next with then-US Vice President Al Gore, advising on the Information Superhighway.

In March 2009, SGI’s fall from those dizzy heights came to a messy end, with little-known server vendor Rackable Systems announcing it was buying the company for the princely sum of $25 million.

As that suggests, the intervening years were not kind to SGI. The market for its proprietary workstations and servers – for long, the only commercial kit capable of delivering movie special effects (Jurassic Park was highest profile), digital video and complex 3D design – was rapidly gouged by the arrival of the powerful combination of Microsoft’s Windows NT operating system and Intel’s Pentium chip.

After years of decline, it was delisted from the New York Stock Exchange in 2006 when its stock sunk below the $1 minimum trading threshold for six months, and the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

SGI ditched its legacy architecture in favour of Intel-based systems after that episode and recapitalised, but the company was in danger of being expelled from its second equity home – this time on the NASDAQ exchange – when it decided to file for bankruptcy protection (once again) and to sell all of its assets to Rackable.

Rackable, a server and storage systems manufacturer that champions the green credentials of its racks, is itself not in the best of shape. That company’s revenues fell 65% year-on-year in its most recent quarter from $111.3 million to $38.8 million, with loses of $19.5 million. That brought the deficit for the whole financial year to $54.2 million.

Another big name whose year has been blighted by bankruptcy protection and buy-outs is BearingPoint, the management and technology consultancy spun out of professional services giant KPMG in 2001.

Buckling under the weight of $1 billion of debt, the company filed for Chapter 11 protection in February 2009. In March, it began to sell off its assets.

Deloitte, the professional services firm that has maintained a sizable IT consultancy practice, agreed to acquire almost all BearingPoint’s North American Public Services division for $350 million. In 2008, that very division earned revenues of $1.4 billion – four times the selling price – and a pointer to the kind of shocking multiples that once-esteemed but now-distressed companies are selling for.

Meanwhile, BearingPoint has signed a letter of intent to sell a substantial portion of its North American Commercial Services business to PricewaterhouseCoopers for $25 million. PwC Japan is also in advanced negotiations to acquire the company’s consulting practice there. And BearingPoint is in late-stage negotiations to sell the company’s European and Latin America practices to its local management teams.

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media (now Bonhill Group plc) from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The...

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