To expand a business, companies typically do two things: grow organically through an expansion of their customer base and market share, or make acquisitions, buying a related or complementary company for synergistic reasons.
During the 2008 financial crisis, with Wall Street in upheaval, many such synergistic mergers and acquisitions were made that resulted in the even-bigger-now Too Big To Fail banks. Examples include the merger of Chase Manhattan and JPMorgan (JPM) and the acquisitions of Merrill Lynch by Bank of America (BAC) and of Wachovia by Wells Fargo (WFC).
More recently, Facebook (FB) famously purchased mobile photo sharing app Instagram for $1 billion, allowing it, as Techcrunch notes, to get hold of a “built-in community of photographers and photo lovers, while simultaneously squashing a threat to its dominance in photo sharing.”
However, while the above acquisitions intuitively make a lot of sense, sometimes, companies make purchases that seem to be head scratchers, at least on the surface. The announcement earlier in the year that Delta Air Lines (DAL) acquired Trainer, a refinery formerly owned by Phillips 66 (PSX), immediately comes to mind. Why would an airline buy a refinery? Delta says the refinery will save it money since it now has a direct source for jet fuel, but many critics point out the company is far from achieving vertical integration with the deal.
Delta isn’t alone in making unusual acquisitions, of course. Here are some more buys and investments other public companies have made that have our eyebrows raised.
Wal-Mart Joins the Tech Fray
When we think Wal-Mart (WMT), we think cheap groceries, enormous hypermarkets and amazing Thanksgiving doorbusters. It turns out, however, that the retail giant is also a budding social media company. In 2011, Wal-Mart bought Web startups Kosmix, a search engine, and One Riot, a social media analytics solutions company. Then, earlier in January, it bought iOS development firm Small Society.
So, do these acquisitions mean Wal-Mart is prepping to take on tech titans Google (GOOG) or Facebook? Not quite. More likely, the company is well aware that e-commerce and shopping on smartphones are the next great evolutions in retailing, and it's simply acquiring the expertise and infrastructure needed to put itself at the forefront of the evolution. Wal-Mart’s tech front is called @WalmartLabs, which will be all “about building integrated experiences that leverage the store, the Web, and mobile, with social identity being the glue that binds the experience.”
eBay Buys (and then Sells) StumbleUpon
It made sense when eBay (EBAY) acquired Paypal, because many eBay users were already using it for their transactions. However, why would eBay want anything to do with a social Web discovery tool? That was the question on everyone’s minds when eBay bought StumbleUpon in 2007. Tech blog Switched noted that “sure, you could try to figure out a way to use a social website discovery tool to promote auctions,” but the venture ultimately was like fitting a square peg into a round hole.
StumbleUpon founders Garrett Camp and Geoff Smith eventually got that memo two years later, pooling a group of investors together to buy the company back from eBay, with Camp saying that "there were few long-term synergies between the two businesses." You don’t say.
Intel Invests in… Random Things
Since its founding in 1968, Intel (INTC) has become a brand synonymous with semiconductors and microprocessors, and it is certainly right up there with Apple (AAPL), Google or Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) as one of the most famous tech brands in the world. The company doesn’t make many acquisitions. One of those, however, was the massive $7.68 billion purchase of McAfee in 2010.
2010 was also the year Intel ostensibly went on a spending spree, because it also made three other more head-scratching and seemingly random purchases. Under its investment arm (Intel Capital), the company bought a stake in elderly care website Caring.com, real estate investment ratings provider SmartZip Analytics, virtualization infrastructure services provider Virtustream, educational gaming company Tabula Digita, and advertising technology company BlackArrow, among others.
Intel Capital president Arvind Sodhani was quick to explain that there was logic behind the investments, saying, “New ideas require an ecosystem to take root and grow to encourage the formation of new businesses and creation of new industries. These three investments, ranging from IT infrastructure to digital health and the consumer Internet, reflect the core emphasis Intel Capital places on cultivating the most promising areas of innovation to foster the development of the technologies of tomorrow.”
Nestle Battles Obesity With Jenny Craig
Nestle makes many products that we all love (and love to hate): KitKat, Smarties, and Häagen-Dazs and Dreyer’s ice cream. The one thing they have in common? Anti-obesity New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is probably not that big a fan. In an ingenious selling-both-the-poison-and-the-antidote way, the global nutrition giant acquired weight loss company Jenny Craig, famous for its celebrity endorsers like Kirstie Alley and Mariah Carey, in 2006.
Then-Nestle CEO Peter Brabeck-Letmathe said in a statement that Jenny Craig would help Nestle become “a nutrition, health and wellness company that sees weight management as a key competence.” Indeed, with one-third of US adults and 17% of its children obese, weight management is a sector with plenty of growth potential. Folks can choose to cut down on those KitKats, or get a consultation with Jenny Craig. Either way, Nestle wins.
Google Heads Into Wind Energy
It’s been quite some time since Google was thought of only as a search engine. We’ve all heard of the company’s Facebook social media rival, Google+, the Apple iOS rival Android, and even the still-in-development driverless car project. But did you know that Google has a stake in two wind farms in North Dakota built by NextEra Energy Resources, which it bought in 2010 for $38.8 million?
In fact, the Menlo Park-based company is going all-in on wind energy, having thrown an initial investment of $200 million into a $5 billion, 350 mile-long network of undersea transmission lines along the Atlantic seaboard that would connect giant offshore wind farms to the main electrical grid. In total, Google has invested at least $400 million in alternative energy projects.
Google has stated that its eventual goal is to achieve self-sustainability in energy use. Given that its data centers are power guzzlers, clearly clean energy is the only path towards that goal. It also makes financial sense for the company, as wind power can cost as low as $0.06 per kilowatt hour, depending on the location.
These are innovative, audacious moves that Google has made and we’re impressed by the company’s commitment to clean, renewable energy, but the further it diversifies, the more pervasive it seems to become. Remember, the company also paid an astounding $1.8 billion for a building in Manhattan that carries a major fiber optic cable line New York describes as "one of the most vital connection points to the world's telecommunications networks." We can’t help but wonder: Will we soon not be able to live our lives without Google?
Focus Media Gets Into the Food & Beverage Industry?
It’s apparent from the name of the company that Focus Media’s (FMCN) primary business involves, well, the media industry. Specifically, the Chinese firm operates an out-of-home advertising network consisting mainly of digital signage screens. It’s no wonder then that Focus Media’s late 2011 purchase of a ginseng plantation at the Russian and North Korean border raised many questions. Short-selling firm Muddy Waters pointed out the sketchiness of the deal, adding that Focus Media was “The Olympus of China”:
The most troubling aspect of this acquisition is that the selling shareholders, who had purchased the plantation only five months earlier from the founders, included at least one FMCN employee. Strangely, this company seems to have no operations; yet, most recently reported a net profit margin of 48.9% on $1.5 million in revenue. We therefore wonder what purpose the ginseng plantation entity serves, and whether there are ongoing improprieties associated with it.
The firm also noted that of the $1.6 billion spent on its previous 21 deals, Focus Media has written down $1.1 billion of it, and called for auditor Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu to investigate the transaction. For its part, Focus Media denied that there were improprieties in the transaction, saying that it was done to earn tax benefits.
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