Dell Inc. (NASDAQ: DELL) and Best Buy Co. Inc. (NYSE: BBY) are each in trouble as the business environments they helped to create become passe and investors wonder if either can regain any measure of relevance. In the face of those problems, each may be taken private by its founder and private equity interests. In the case of Dell, it is Michael Dell who will head a buyout. For Best Buy, it is Richard Schulze.
Investors have wondered about conflicts of interest and why two wealthy men would want to risk long shots on their ability to rebuild broken companies. Hubris seems the only logical explanation. If each man changed his industry for the better once, why shouldn’t he be able to do it again?
Several media outlets already have commented on the ways that anticipated private equity deals for the two companies are similar. Schulze and Dell have been savaged for not finding new strategies. The Internet has deeply wounded both. People often buy consumer electronics online. Amazon.com Inc. (NASDAQ: AMZN) has taken a bite out of each. It is hard to see how either company could reverse this.
Investors worry that Dell and Schulze could buy their companies inexpensively. Each man owns enough of his firm to influence the vote for a new ownership structure. The stock prices of both companies are very low, historically. That the founders did not use their wisdom to fix problems before a buyout implies that they can be fixed in the future to pay off the leverage that goes with most PE deals.
Quite simply, neither Dell nor Best Buy can be fixed, at least not more than temporarily. Best Buy could close underperforming stores — a one-time trick. But it has been unable to find success online, which will not change. Dell could shrink its PC business and rely more on consulting and software sales. It already has been crushed in those businesses by the likes of International Business Machines Corp. (NYSE: IBM) and Oracle Corp. (NASDAQ: ORCL). Why Dell would be able to build a real rivalry with those companies is difficult to tell.
Dell and Schulze no longer completely control their companies, and that may be the heart of the matter for both. Each has been burdened by pressure from public shareholders and boards of directors over quarterly earnings. But each of these will revert to related problems if PE firms and banks become major holders. The notion that a private company has more independence to pursue new strategies is false. Earnings are earnings, whether their purpose is to fund operations, pay dividends or fatten balance sheets.
If either company or both go private, Dell and Schulze must have the confidence to believe that the magic that they made once, they can make again. But each company has an ancient model now. Whatever Dell and Schulze think about their brilliance, it will not overcome the reality that neither company can be fixed and both are doomed.
Douglas A. McIntyre