Friday, January 15, 2016

The Acquisition Trap

Shortly after coming to Stanford I realized my mistake. I should have hired an actor to go to work for me. My first day on the job, he would arrive and fill out the paperwork, meet the dean, and step into the classroom. He would be popular, of course; perhaps I would hire a comedian. I could teach him the material in private, and he could cartwheel into the classroom like Jackie Chan – or maybe sachet in like George Clooney. Meanwhile, I would hide in the library basement and write research articles. But, alas, I did not devise the scheme until it was too late. I had already reported for work, so my colleagues and students all know that I am no Brad Pitt – and ever since I have split my time between teaching and research.

The good news is that by doing things myself, I learned how. I’m still unlikely to be called by Angelina Jolie any time soon, but I’m a better teacher for having done this myself. That is how things go; call it the “learn or buy” decision. Need food? Go to the store. Need to finish a math assignment? Get to work. You could pay someone to do your math assignment, but then you’d not only be a liar, you would never learn your math. Paying for things is a way to avoid learning. Some people change the oil; some people pay Jiffylube.

Common sense, you say. But I work with companies all the time who don’t get this basic truth. Leadership wants their company to learn something, so they acquire another company that already knows how. But this purchase does not make their company learn; it just means they own another company that knows how to do things that they don’t. For their company to learn, they would have to do it themselves, and through that difficult process they might have learned. But paying someone else does not help you to know. In fact, since you can rely on the acquired unit, you can avoid having to learn.

For example, the American company eBay (the inventor of internet auction websites) decided to enter China a few years ago. They could have gone in themselves, and learned, and it would have been risky and difficult. So instead, they acquired China’s then-leader in that space, Eachnet. Earlier, Eachnet had learned (by doing) a lot about how internet auctions work in China – whether and for what you can charge fees, how to deal with the trust problem using escrow services, the costs and benefits of physical trading locations, how to do business with people who don’t have a credit card, and the list goes on. eBay’s leadership in Silicon Valley did not know any of this about China. After the acquisition, eBay’s leadership still did not know any of this. They just owned a company that knew. They fell into the acquisition trap.

You may think that “good execution” can get you out of the acquisition trap. You’re wrong. After the acquisition, you have a choice. You may choose to absorb the acquired company into your company, or you may choose to let it stand alone. If you absorb, business consultants will likely be involved; they call it “post-acquisition integration.” You can pay these consultants to tell you about “synergy.” But the research suggests these promises are often not fulfilled. (The results are mixed. It appears that acquisition increases the variance in performance. That means acquisition makes some firms much better off but others much worse off – and it is hard to know in advance which will be which.) In practice, “integration” is where the two companies are put together, some people lose their jobs, and many others end up in new jobs (that might not be right for them but they are glad to have the job at all). Typically the purchasing company dominates in this process, which means that the knowledge of the acquired company usually gets watered down or vanishes entirely.

Your other choice is to leave the acquired firm alone. One of my favorite CEOs, Matt Harris, once had to leave alone an acquired software development group in Israel because, to paraphrase that group’s leader, they “would kill for each other, but they did not care” about the acquiring company. Harris’ company needed their work, so he let them be and designed the development process to take advantage of the situation. This worked out fine because Harris was not interested in having the company learn from the acquisition. But if your goal is to learn, you won't get there by leaving the acquisition alone.

What about the successful acquisitions you've heard about? You may be thinking of an example or two now. Caution! We can always cherry-pick success stories afterwards. There are also many failed acquisitions, and that is why we need to learn from research that does not sample on success. (Sampling on success, we should play slot machines, too.) That said, we can all name companies that have a good track records on acquisition. Maybe you’re thinking of General Electric, or EON, or Cisco, or Cemex, or Newell-Rubbermaid, or name your favorite successful acquirer. Perhaps some firms know how to acquire better than others?

True enough, some companies seem able to acquire better than others, but think about why. Google absorbs innovative technology companies all the time; that is where many of their “innovations” come from. Cemex had a long run of successful acquisitions in the worldwide Cement business, as did Newell in branded consumer products. But these wins do not imply that acquisition for learning works. In fact, we know that the less the acquirer needs to learn, the better the acquisitions typically go. Good acquirers already know what they are doing; they may be getting many things from the company they buy, but they are probably not treating that company as their teacher.

There is no substitute for learning by doing. Perhaps you don’t really want to know how to change the oil, but if you do, get to work. And if you’re acquiring a company to learn what it knows, you are stepping into a trap.


For a sobering academic literature review, see this paper by King and his colleagues.