IBM at $200 a Share

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The price of IBM (NYSE: IBM) shares rose above $200 for the first time ever. It is no more a milestone that Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) at $500 or when people reach age 65. The numbers are meaningless.

The reason for the run-up in IBM’s shares is what matters, as well as what it says about the firm’s transformation, which has taken a decade.

IBM has succeeded in a series of changes that rivals Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ), Dell (NASDAQ: DELL) and several smaller tech companies have not. It has turned itself into a tech conglomerate that has strength in equal parts among its software, services and hardware operations. How did IBM get to its current incarnation? The firm is good enough to say in its annual report:

The company has shifted its business mix, exiting certain segments while increasing its presence in higher-value areas such as services, software and integrated solutions. As part of this shift, the company has acquired over 120 companies since 2000, complementing and scaling its portfolio of products and offerings.

A look at IBM’s full-year 2011 shows how diversified and balanced the firm’s revenue streams have become. And it also shows how one or two divisions can offset weakness in the sales of others. IBM’s four major divisions include one that focuses on consulting for IT partners, one that supplies software, a hardware operation and an outsourcing business. Each had very different growth rates last year. In 2011, the software division carried much of the load, with a sales increase of 11% to $24.9 billion. The global business operations and systems division grew less than 6%. The balance of all divisions allowed IBM’s total revenue to rise 7.1% for all of last year to $106.9 billion.

The “load balancing” of the IBM divisions is the result of the actions the company has taken, as its says, since 2000. Several other tech giants have reached for similar transformations. None has succeeded.

Douglas A. McIntyre