There is no shortage of commentary on why mergers and acquisitions fail or do not live up to their projected potential. The percentage of failed or underachieving deals is astounding with some placing the failure rate over eighty percent.The reasons for this dismal outlook range from ill-advised strategic vision, misaligned expectations and poor execution to cultural clashes, fumbled integration, and (some would say) misguided management objectives.
Over the past decade I've observed another factor that contributes to these suboptimal results: poorly planned, constructed and executed transition services, especially in connection with divestitures and carve-outs. The two main factors contributing to deficient transition service arrangements fall into two general categories: (1) a flawed perspective on the importance of transition services; and (2) errant development and execution of the transition service regime.
Let's explore each of these factors both in terms of how they arise and how they can be avoided, focusing first on what I refer to as the flawed perspective.
I can sum up the misconception about the importance of transition services in two statements:
- These are short term arrangements of less importance: Since transition services are only temporary (and hopefully very short in duration), they really are of less importance. Our focus is really on the long term success of the business.
- They pretty much relate to the back-office (and we need to focus on our customers and revenue drivers): Transition services mostly involve back-office operations, which don't drive valuations or contribute to the bottom line. We need to focus on revenue growth and our customers.
While at first glance these statements seem reasonable, they in fact underlie a host of conceptual shortfalls that drive behaviors which, at best, dilute the effectiveness of the post-closing enterprise and, in the worst case, result in unmitigated risks that can result in lost business, reduced revenues, or unanticipated liabilities.
With regard to the "short term" mindset, while these services generally are in place on for an interim period, they serve as a bridge to the broader (and longer term) integration of enterprise operations (both back office and front line). The thought that "we can fix things later" after the closing dust settles is a misstep that can lead to day-one business continuity issues (like interruptions in employee access to key systems), inefficiencies, (like additional license costs for unaccounted for but needed software), and employee dissatisfaction that can tug at the cultural fabric of the company. Not surprisingly, issues of this nature can (and often do) impact the customer and potentially the bottom line. This leads to my second point.
That is, what happens when the run of the mill business operations you've come to take for granted don't work (or are degraded or interrupted)? Setting aside the consternation of your own people, in some cases this can have a direct impact on your customers and hence your revenues. In the heat of deal negotiations, these subjects are often relegated to the back burner as they are viewed as lower priorities and are not "sexy" in the minds of the deal team. In an interview I conducted a few years ago at a M&A executive forum (Argyle Executive Forum), the following exchange brought to light the hazards of this mindset:
In the context of overlooking the back-office (and the resulting inadvertent business interruptions), I posed a question along the following lines:
"...if all of a sudden we're having problems with the network and we can't email or data centers are having down time and someone in the field on the sales force can't get their tablet to record a sale, that's going to have a direct impact on business. Have you experienced that at all?"
The response was telling:
"We acquired a business in the U.S. and shame on us but we didn't put enough emphasis on the back office and it was certainly a learning process. On day one, the sales reps are going, 'Where are my reports?' And we ended up sending them paper copies until we got our act together. Shame on us, but I'm sure we're not alone. It was a detail that was overlooked, because it's not, as you said before, the 'sexy' part of the deal. But it gets real sexy when your customer says, 'You mean to tell me you didn't think about this?'"
The Right Perspective - The Value Imperative
Perhaps the best way to approach a transition services effort is to focus on what I'll call the value imperative for these services. From my perspective, the transitional aspects of a merger, acquisition, spin-off or divestiture must help achieve the following:
- Ensuring a Competitive Edge & Risk Avoidance - In the new economy (characterized by rapid change, innovation being seen more like "table stakes" than a differentiator, technology-driven efficiency gains, increasing cyber/security risks and globalized competition), the transition services must position the post-closing enterprise to be even more competitive while at the same time appropriately protecting against business continuity risk;
- Preserving Valuations - The transition services and related terms must at least preserve (and potentially enhance) valuations; and
- Exploiting the Mission - The transition service regime must enable each impacted enterprise to better exploit the target synergies that drove the transaction in the first place.
Put another way, whether market-driven, opportunistic or as part of a broader strategy, what management (and the shareholders) really care about is exploiting the intended synergies to drive value. If there are transition services, they should be aligned with these objectives.
In the second installment on this topic, I will focus on the perils of poor planning, inadequate diligence and incomplete execution in transition service arrangements, and how these perils can be avoided through a disciplined and efficient process leveraging the right terms, tools and templates.